Using DEVONthink for Course Management

DEVONthink is an extremely powerful and adaptable database program that has significant potential for qualitative researches across the humanities. It’s ability to store and connect discrete bits of information, from the quickly jotted idea to pdfs of articles, books, dissertations (many of which can now be downloaded directly from UMI), and the like, is in my experience unparalleled in either the Mac or Microsoft worlds. Your mileage may vary, but that has been my experience. Last Fall I wrote a series of posts documenting what was then my digital workflow, and which utilized DEVONthink Pro Office 1.5. Those posts are all linked to here.

As many of you may now, since those posts were originally written, Devon Technologies has been putting the long-awaited DT2.0 through extensive public beta testing. And, while it is a beta release, I have found DT2.0 to be very completely stable, only lacking the planned implementation of a few features.

One of the cool things about DT2.0 is the ability to have open more than one database at a time– and indeed this feature has substantially changed some of the ways I use the application. One of those changes is to construct leaner and meaner databases, rather than singularities of gigantic proportion. Articles I am writing get individual databases now, as well as book projects I’m working on. And so too individual courses. I used to keep a giant database of every course I’ve ever taught– but the ponderous nature of this database limited its utility for day-to-day use running individual courses. Now, with the ability to easily move entries back and forth between databases, to search across databases and the like, DT2.0 has emerged as my leading contender for the instructor side of course management.

This semester I am using blogs and netvibes as the primary student interfaces for my courses. Additionally, I am requiring all but my survey course to do much of their work for the semester on their own blogs. This can pose a potentially chaotic situation for grading, and for accessing student work. It is simple to use an RSS reader like NetNewsWire or Google Reader to aggregate that work. But, I like to keep student work separate from the flow of information that comes my way on a daily basis– keep it segregated in a manner that encourages me to concentrate when I interact with it, and easily archive it for later consideration.  From the student perspective, this is less of a consideration- and they can access their fellow students’ work through feeds on the course portal or blog.

What does this have to do with DT2.0? Well, it now includes a built-in RSS reader function, and has become the home for aggregating my students’ work. This is excellent, because I now have one single place that I can put lecture notes, pdfs of assigned readings, my own notes on those assignments (usually taken with Skim or Preview, though the people at DT are implementing pdf markup in the next beta release or too), grades in the form of either DT sheet or excel/numbers spreadsheet, etc. Because the new DT database structure enables the user to work in their favorite Quicklook-enabled program, and streamline this process through the use of user-defined templates, it is possible to work in most any application you prefer for the various tasks of running a course, and keep them together in DT2.0. So, what then does this look like? It looks a bit like this:

history360screenmain

I have folders for the blog feeds, each week’s readings, assignments, and for grades. I also have webarchives and links to the course websites, including the syllabus and schedule of readings, as well as live pages. DT has a built-in webkit browser, and if one doesn’t like reading blog posts in RSS format, you can read the full web page in DT. Whenever I come across information that is pertinent to one of my class, I save the file (as pdf, or webarchive, or whatever) in the global DT inbox and move it to the appropriate classes. Here are a few more screenshots– with the blog and week by week folders expanded:

RSS Feeds of Student Blogs

RSS Feeds of Student Blogs

and,

Weekly Readings and Lectures

Weekly Readings and Lectures

A few final comments on why I find managing courses in this manner so helpful for my productivity: 1. In a given semester, if I am re-teaching a course I’ve taught before, I have everything I need in one place to reproduce and tweak it. Often, I will simply add a new top-level folder for the new semester’s course, and then use replicants to add material I’m re-using, or simply add new stuff. 2. I commute between two sides of the country, relatively speaking, on an almost weekly basis, and DT2.0 gives me a readily accessible and powerful interface for working on my classes on the plane.

On that last point, I should note that I use DT2.0 for my courses in conjunction with Dropbox. Dropbox allows me to keep my course materials current across three different Macs in two different states. The one caveat to this is it it extremely important to make sure you close your DT databases on any given computer when you’re done using them. Failure to do this can cause corruption and confusion problems to the databases if you try to open them simultaneously on multiple computers. Dropbox, fortunately, keeps copies of erased or changed files, and you can go back in history if needed.

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Associate Professor of Early Latin America Department of History University of Tennessee-Knoxville

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4 comments on “Using DEVONthink for Course Management
  1. Alexandra says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I’ve had DevonThink for a while but only started using it more intensely this past year. I’ve started a database for teaching, where I put all course files, notes, comments on students’ papers, etc. I have been playing with the idea of having students blog and the rss feed would certainly make this much easier on the instructor’s point of view.

    At the moment, I’m using a wiki as a course webpage and to keep in touch with students.

    Thanks again for sharing your workflow…

    Alexandra

  2. Ed Morrison says:

    I share Alexandra’s gratefulness that you’re sharing these insights. I have a massive D. T. database, but now that the platform has moved to version 2.0, I can see how using smaller databases can simplify the workflow. Your articles have been very helpful, and they are saving me a lot of time. Thank you.

  3. Just wanted to add my voice to the chorus of thanks for your posts on DTPO for teaching and research, which certainly helped convince me recently to use this software to store and organize hundreds of digitized research and teaching files.

    I’d love to hear more about how you use Dropbox to syncronize the database(s) in DTPO across multiple computers. Devon is at work on incorporating this (see ) but I’d like to get started immediately. What about syncing your preferences, and all the meta-data that DTPO applies to your files?

    ~Michael

  4. ctb says:

    Hi Michael– thanks for the comment. My approach to using Dropbox and DT together has essentially moved to indexing my files instead of importing them into DT, and storing the file tree in Dropbox. I still get the strength of DT’s search capacities, but without the danger of corrupting a database (which I did) by storing it in DT. I was really careful about it, too. So, on each machine I keep a DT database that searches a folder synced by Dropbox. I’ve also switched to doing most of my work in a simple text editor. There’s a bit more on my current practices here, and a bit more to come soon.

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Chad Black

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I, your humble contributor, am Chad Black. You can also find me on the web here.
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