Geek speak - Pressing the right buttons

10th October 2008 at 01:00
Moving your paper diary and contacts to an online system can save you time, Miles Berry explains

Apart from your markbook, what other tools do you use daily or weekly to stay organised and on top of things? I bet many of the things we need as teachers are pretty much the same as those for people working with clients and projects outside of education. The computerised Personal Information Management (PIM) tools they use as a matter of routine can make our lives easier too.

A computer-based address book is a great way of keeping track of the basic contact details of pupils and parents, without having to look numbers up on Schools Information Management System (Sims) every time you need to phone home. Most computerised contacts books provide the opportunity to add your own fields, which could easily be used for school houses, extracurricular activities etc.

The notes field might be a good way of keeping track of targets, parents' evening discussions and particular achievements.

Keeping on top of the myriad projects and tasks that occur day to day and term to term is a lot easier with the right tools: the to-do list in Outlook or iCal (for Mac users) is a good place to start. Even simple systems like these allow you to set deadlines for each task, as well as grouping tasks into categories. Productivity geeks have adopted David Allen's Getting Things Done system, which groups tasks by project and context: lots of commercial and open source packages allow you to manage tasks this way on your computer - I use OmniFocus (www.omnigroup.comapplicationsomnifocus) on the Mac.

The timetable governs the working week for most of us, and again computerised calendars allow you to keep track of this and all the other events and activities that school life entails. Setting up repeating weekly events to match the timetable is easy, and then lesson plans, resources, notes and evaluations can simply be added to each lesson. With a bit of finesse in the spreadsheet of your choice, rolling planning over from one year to the next is also possible.

There's nothing too radical in any of the above, replicating the back of the mark bookPost-it Noteschool diary system that works well for many of us. Moving all this on to the computer makes things that bit more efficient, but also opens some powerful integration. Linking tasks to contacts and events is straightforward, making it easy to keep in touch with others working on a project. iCal can automatically add contacts' birthdays into your calendar: pupils can find it a bit of a shock that you remembered. Bento, again for the Mac (, produces visually stunning personal databases with built-in integration with contacts and calendars.

All of this integrates, to a greater or lesser extent, with smartphones and PDAs, making quick access to this so much easier - a quick glance at the phone or palmtop immediately reminding you of the day's schedule and all those things that still need doing. Better still is the ability to add notes and tasks as they occur to you, even when the computer's not to hand. It can also be useful having parents' contact details there on the mobile when out on school trips.

Useful as this is from a personal perspective, the ability to share and collaborate with colleagues must be where the real benefits lie. Sims does a pretty good job of looking after all the contact details stuff for the whole school.

Traditional groupware packages such as Lotus Notes and MS Exchange are good at handling distributed tasks and finding meeting slots, and then there are serious project management tools such as MS Project, although these are not for the faint-hearted. Online, shared calendars are easy to set up using Google Calendar (, which can integrate with both Outlook and iCal to an extent. Shared calendars make collaborative lesson planning easy and, of course, the content can be shared with pupils as well as colleagues. Tom Hoffman's open source SchoolTool project ( is one approach to setting up calendars automatically from the school timetable, and again this integrates well with the other applications I've mentioned.

Lesson planning via the shared calendars can also be shared with school management, but it can be scary when tasks and appointments suddenly appear on your to-do list or diary if those further up the hierarchy are able to write things in, as well as read your calendar.

Miles Berry is headteacher at Alton Convent Prep School in Alton, Hampshire.

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