OneDrive Updated with Drag & Drop and Files Support

John Voorhees, writing for MacStories:

Microsoft has released version 10.1 of its OneDrive app with support for drag and drop on the iPad and a new, cleaner design.

Drag and drop support allows users to move files and folders within the OneDrive app or drag files into and out of other apps. For example, users can drag photos from OneDrive into an email message to add as an attachment or drag attachments from messages into OneDrive. Users can also access their OneDrive files from Apple’s Files app.

Despite the advances the Files app has brought for dealing with multiple cloud services on iOS, the experience remains inconsistent. Dropbox offers probably the best integration so far, with Google’s half-hearted attempt lagging behind. For a long time, OneDrive looked like it wasn’t even trying, so it’s good to see them adding support for it in their latest update. For those in the Office 365 universe – which includes many teachers – I know that this will be a godsend. The Office apps on iOS also recently (and quietly) added drag & drop support, bringing them much closer to being full citizens of iOS 11.

Of course, the best integrated cloud service with the Files app is still iCloud Drive, part of the reason I consolidated most of my personal and work files there after iOS 11 came out. While I’ve been happy with my experience of going all in on iCloud Drive, I hope that iOS 12 and future updates bring more of an even playing field for cloud services on iOS.

Marking with Tally

Tally is a really nice little utility that I only recently discovered. It’s made by Agile Tortoise, the developer of the wonderful Drafts app.

The concept is extremely simple: when you open the app, all you see is a large zero in the centre of the screen. When you tap on the screen, the zero becomes a one; each time you tap again, the number increments by one.

All of the other controls are gesture based. Swiping down decrements the number by one; swiping up reveals controls where you can adjust display settings and reset the counter to zero. Left and right swipes open menus where you can manage multiple tallies and change other settings.

Recently I found a really great use for Tally: counting marks in tests. When I’ve finished marking a set of tests, I go through and count up the total number of marks for each student. Now you might think that, being a maths teacher, I would be pretty good at counting, but it’s surprisingly easy to get distracted and lose count, or get out by ten. Sometimes I need to stop and re-mark something as I’m counting, and again it’s easy to lose count.

With Tally, I just have my phone on the desk by my left hand, and a red pen in my right hand. As I flick through the pages, I just tap on my phone screen. I can double or triple tap for multiple mark questions, and I don’t even need to be looking at the screen while I’m doing it. Using Tally in this way allows to me concentrate on reading the student’s work and my own marking. I can stop and make corrections without worrying about losing count. Even if I don’t need to make any corrections, I find I am much quicker and more accurate at counting the marks in this way, and as an added bonus I feel like I’m a World War II Morse code operator as I tap tap tap away.

With some tests, it’s easier to count the number of marks lost, and Tally supports this too. Using the sidebar on the right of the main screen, you can change the number to which the the counter resets and whether it counts up or down. So for a test out of 75 marks, I set the reset value to 75, and make the counter count down instead of up.

I can imagine many other uses for Tally in the classroom. Keeping track of merits or other student awards would be an obvious one, although Tally wouldn’t scale if like me you teach multiple classes. I would love to see Tally implement multiple collections of tallies, so that I could have one for each class, but I could understand why the developer, Greg Pierce, might be reluctant to complicate what is a beautifully simple app. On the other hand, Drafts, one of my very favourite apps, manages to combine absolute simplicity with the possibility for amazing levels of complexity, so perhaps that’s something that could be achieved with Tally as well.

Tally is a free download on the App Store with a £1.99 in-app purchase to unlock unlimited tallies and dark mode.

Slack for Teacher Collaboration

Slack is a tool for teams that aims to simplify communication and collaboration. It’s marketed as a solution to many of the problems inherent in email, and as any teacher knows, school email is a problem very much in need of a solution!

Before I get into talking about how Slack can help teachers collaborate more effectively, it’s worth talking about why it’s necessary at all. What are the problems with email that need solving?

School Email

First and foremost, I think the major complaint most teachers have with school email is the sheer volume of it. I would argue, however, that it is not the volume of information that is the problem, but the lack of organisation and structure of that information. The nature of email is to be an undifferentiated mass of stuff, with messages which vary greatly in terms of their relevance, urgency, and importance. Almost all of the burden of filtering and sorting that deluge is placed upon the recipient, as you quickly come to realise when you leave your inbox unattended for too long.

I’ve recently started using some server-side email filtering rules to try to create a bit more order. I’ve set things up so that the emails which are directly relevant to me go straight to my inbox, whereas other emails are automatically sent to a folder, archived, or deleted. This has helped quite a bit, but it’s still very much my job to sort through everything.

Email also creates bad habits. I think a lot of people fall into the trap of using their email inbox as a de facto to do list. The model of the single inbox with a list of items which need to be dealt with encourages this, but for many reasons it’s a very bad idea. For one thing, it’s a to do list that other people can add things to whenever they want. To be productive you need to have control over setting your own priorities.

Email also falls done when it comes to collaboration. Long chains of messages organised around ad hoc subject lines is essentially a hack which has been grafted on top of an ancient protocol. Finding and searching through emails on a particular topic is difficult, as they will often be split across several different subject lines. If someone new becomes involved in a project and they were not one of the original recipients of the emails, someone needs to forward the whole messy and fragmented email chain to them.

Slack

Slack solves many of these problems. While it doesn’t necessarily reduce the volume of information, it does impose a structure on it. Within a Slack “workspace”, messages are organised into “channels”, signified by hashtags. You start with two channels: #general and #random for team-wide announcements and casual chat respectively, and you can then create other channels focussed around particular topics. Members of your team can choose which subset of channels is relevant to them, and can even adjust their notifications on a per-channel basis.

The channel structure is a far better solution for organising discussion around a particular topic than email subject lines. It places the burden primarily on the sender to decide where they should post their message, and for the recipient, all messages received are pre-sorted into topic areas. Senders can also fine-tune the relevance of their messages using mentions. By including the @username of one or more members of the team in their message, the sender can indicate in a more precise way exactly those people for whom it is relevant. On the recipient’s side, these messages are highlighted.

Another strength of Slack is the level of customisation of notifications that’s possible. By tweaking the settings, if you want, you can only receive a ping when you are specifically mentioned in a message. That way you can be getting on with work and only be notified when a message specifically requires your attention. You can even snooze all notifications to get some quiet time.

Slack also solves the problem of the inbox as a to do list. Slack has no inbox, so as the recipient you need to be proactive in deciding which messages require action. Email is essentially an opt-out system: you need to delete or archive messages which do not require action, leaving behind the ones that do. Slack, on the other hand, is an opt-in systems: as the conversation flows, you decide what you need to capture and act on. If it’s not relevant, you don’t need to do anything: you simply let the messages disappear up the timeline. In my experience, taking control in this way makes you a much less stressed and much more productive person. This may be an adjustment for those who are not used to having to have a separate place to capture things, but it leads to far healthier habits in the long run. You can do this within Slack in a basic way by starring messages, but my recommendation would be to get things that require action into a task management system that you trust and maintain.

Slack is also built from the ground up for collaboration. Sending messages, attaching files, and replying to other people is quick and easy. There‘s a lot less friction than with email, where decisions need to be made about recipients, subject lines, CCs, and BCCs. This reduction in friction might well increase the volume of messages being sent, but I would argue that this is for a good reason. Considerate users of email minimise the number of recipients and the number of messages because they know that, by sending it, they are giving everyone who receives it a task to do. This can actually have the effect of discouraging collaboration: you are reluctant to send a message unless is is genuinely important. With Slack on the other hand, there is little cost to others if your message is less relevant or less interesting to them.

Slack in School

In my school I’ve piloted the use of Slack within the Mathematics Department. Primarily we use it for sharing teaching resources. We have a channel for each of the year groups, so that teachers can join the channels for the classes they teach. Another really helpful use we’ve found is for discussion around marking tests. We are often doing these separately at home, and it’s good to be able to chat about the mark scheme and post photos of student answers that we are unsure how to mark.

One of the concerns other teachers have about using a tool like Slack for collaboration is that it’s just another place to check. That concern is legitimate: unless using two different tools offers significant advantages, it’s inconvenient to have to use them in parallel. However, in my experience, collaboration within a subject department is distinct enough from whole-school email that a division between the two isn’t disruptive, and as I’ve argued above, Slack is a significantly more powerful tool for effective collaboration.

While I think Slack works best in teams that work together day to day, it’s interesting to think about how it might work on a whole-school level, and whether it could completely replace email.1 There are big companies which use Slack, so it does scale to that level. At the high school level, it would need to be organised around subject departments, and since each subject would probably require multiple channels, there would probably have to be some oversight to ensure there was a consistent naming scheme for channels, among other things.

Alternatives to email are becoming widespread in the corporate and charity sector2, and it’s about time that schools started experimenting with some of these tools as well. Teaching is a profession where effective collaboration is not always a given, but in my experience sharing ideas and resources with other teachers is one of the most fulfilling parts of the job. On its own, Slack is not going to magically create a collaborative environment in a school, but it can certainly enhance what’s there. If you’re looking for a better tool for your school, why not give Slack a go?

  1. I would love a #lostproperty channel that I could completely ignore.
  2. My church is all in on Slack.