Student Organizers Add the Power of Facebook

Posted by Matthew Murphy on Thursday, September 6th, 2007. Filed under: eHub Features

With my graduate student wife and two younger siblings all focused on squeezing the last bit out of summer, I was almost hesitant to say that my latest topic was to be online student organizers, Notely and Stu.dicio.us. As it turns out, I was able to enlist the opinions of real live students, without which I would not have been able to finish this article. We set out to find which was the better student application. What we found is that there is really not a better or a worse, but a difference in how you approach studying that matters. Are you meticulous or free form? Are you introverted or extroverted? Do you take careful notes or do you just discuss things after class?

Organize Your Classes

We began by looking at how each application approaches your course schedule. Notely’s is definitely the more robust of the two. After clicking on the link for Courses, you come to your course list. When you add a course, it will ask you for the name, the professor’s name, and the start and end date. Once you’ve added courses, you can edit or delete them, or download a backup file in .xls format. There is even an RSS feed for your courses. (There is basically an RSS feed for everything in Notely. How useful this actually is, I’m not sure, but it’s one more way to get access to your stuff. What’s nice is that you can also download an .xls backup of nearly anything.)

One feature that I really like is that Notely, next to each course, has placed a link that takes you directly to your notes for that class. Nice touch! Notely also sports a separate Calendar function for one time events like tests, football games, or the toga party that senior girl invited you to which, surprisingly, no one else on campus seems to know anything about. Notely’s calendar also allows you to download a backup file or subscribe to it via RSS, with the addition of an add to iCal feature.

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Stu.dicio.us took a much simpler route. All of your Courses are added to your Schedule. And nothing can be added to your Schedule except Courses. But, hey, you’re a student, so the only thing you do is go to class, right? The interface, like the rest of the app, is super simple and takes all of two seconds to fill out. Stu.dicio.us is very interested in which school you attend. You don’t have to enter the same school for each course, which is good if you’re taking classes from two different schools, but Stu.dicio.us won’t let you leave the school-blank, um, blank. This leave a nice little opening for Facebook, which we’ll get to later.

Organize Your Class Notes

While I’m not terribly impressed by the Stu.dicio.us Schedule function, they’ve made up for it with their Notes function. It has more of a wiki feel about it than Notely’s more traditional word processor-style approach. Despite a sidebar, the Stu.dicio.us page feels open and uncluttered–good characteristics to have when you’re trying to focus on a lecture or think through an assignment. The formatting is quick to learn, exporting is easy, and if you use Google Gears, you can go at it in offline mode. The killer features here, however, are the text substitution tool and the auto-links. You can tell Stu.dicio.us that “rpt” means “report” and fills in the missing letters for the rest of your note. Or put curly braces around a word and you’ll automatically get a link to its Wikipedia article.

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The fact that it took me forever to work out the difference between Notely’s Notes function and Notebook function resulted in much grumbling. Notes are specific to a course, whereas your Notebook is more like a running journal. This means that your account has many notes, but only one notebook. That your Notes don’t actually go in your Notebook leads me to think that maybe it should be called something more along the lines of a journal or diary. Regardless of whether you happen to be adding a note or adding to your notebook, Notely has chosen a more traditional interface for these functions. The advanced WYSIWYG editor will be familiar to anyone who has used Google Docs & Spreadsheets, Zoho Writer, or any number of blogging platforms. The Insert Image option is rather advanced for most people’s needs, even serious students. I walked away impressed, but wondering if it will ever be used to its fullest. Both notes and notebook wield an equation editor, which I can see being very useful. In fact, it’s a nice little gem to have on hand even if you’re not a student!

Organize Your Homework

I have to say that my biggest complaint about Notely is the way different functions have been named. To me, the difference between a task and a to-do is somewhat less than obvious and I had to stare for minute until it made sense. It’s actually a two level system that GTD’ers will recognize. A to-do is actually a project, and tasks are single actions that, grouped together, make up projects. On the other hand, there’s just not a whole lot to say about the Stu.dicio.us to-do manager. To-do creation in Stu.dicio.us works exactly the same way as adding courses to your schedule. It’s such a simple process that it leaves you to wonder if you missed a step. Despite confusion caused by the its naming conventions, Notely definitely has the upper hand when it comes to personal productivity.

Organize Papers and Other Stuff

Both Stu.dicio.us and Notely allow you to upload files. The Stu.dicio.us blog boasts 1GB of storage space. Notely, on the other hand, simply follows a “fair use” policy. I’m assuming this policy will become more defined as their user base grows. According to Notely you can drag an uploaded html document to your notes and edit it, which I thought was pretty useful. Notely also offers a place to store hyperlinks, which Stu.dicio.us does not. Although, this seems like wasted real estate since social bookmarking services dominate this arena and offer better ways to collect and manage links. In place of links, Stu.dicio.us keeps track of your grades. You have to select a class before you can view or add a grade. Grades are organized by categories such as test, paper, etc. Stu.dicio.us works out a running GPA for each class. (You can tell from the screen capture that I test pretty well…) Good call! This is a really nice little addition!

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Share It With FaceBook

Now that we’ve discussed the useful stuff, let’s talk about Facebook. Both applications integrate Facebook sharing. The trouble is, it’s hard to tell exactly what and how much integration has been done, since it doesn’t seem to be documented. (If anyone is sharing either application through Facebook, please post comments!) From what I could tell without irritating my limited supply of Facebook friends, is that in Notely, you must grant permission before a Facebook friend can subscribe to your secrets, err, your notes, links, and so on. Stu.dicio.us seems to just put your stuff up there to see, as long as that person is one of your Facebook friends and is a Stu.dicio.us user. And remember how you can’t enter anything new in Stu.dicio.us unless it’s associated with a class or a school? That’s because you can search your friends’ notes by school.

It really seems like both apps are trying to pull heavily from the Facebook crowd. This makes a lot of sense, since the Facebook demographic matches their own so closely. I think that Stu.dicio.us has much more of a Facebook feel, even though I don’t really like the idea of my stuff just being up there for my friends. After all, are your Facebook friends really your friends, or are many just “friends”? Another thing that makes me uncomfortable about the Facebook integration in Stu.dicio.us is that I have logged in to the application once since I began testing. Just once. And I’ve been writing this article on and off for about a week now. I remember how often we used to use each others computers in college. If you were on someone else’s machine, and forgot to click the log out link, the next person at the keyboard would have full access to your notes, as well as access to your Facebook friends.

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You may have noticed that I didn’t talk about Notely’s Contacts function. I’m not ignoring it, but it seems redundant to me. I think it should be combined with the Friends function, or just not used. Notely also has a mobile site designed for the tiny screen. I really applaud this given the iPhone-driven surge in mobile browsing, but I think that SMS integration similar to Google Calendar might make the app more accessible to the cash-strapped student populous.

And The Winner

After all of this detailed analysis, it’s actually impossible to say which a better application. Personally, I’d use Notely more than Stu.dicio.us. I’m a GTD’er, so I’d hit the ground running when it came to task and to-do’s. I like the idea of just sharing with a few people who I am working on a small project with. I use massive amount of scratch paper, so the Notebook idea appeals. And it was the mobile access that won me over. My biggest frustration with web apps is that I’m never at my desk to use them! I would miss, however, Stu.dicio.us’s wiki-like notes function and it’s auto-completion feature. I like how quickly you can enter a new item in Stu.dicio.us. Tap-tap-click, and it’s done..The Grades feature, with it’s running GPA, is also hard to leave behind. That said, I have to take one final jab at Notely’s naming conventions. The names are too similar. For example, Notes and Notebook, should be, perhaps, Notes and Journal. I play with these applications professionally, and I was confused, so Bob only knows how many potential users have gotten confused and just left.

Each has to be evaluated based on it’s Facebook integration, as well. How do you use Facebook? How do you plan on sharing your scholarly stuff? Stu.dicio.us clearly is set up to feel like an extension of Facebook, whereas Notely seems to want to stand on it’s own as a web app, especially since there is a mobile version of the site. Notely seems to allow more control over what you share, as if the developer(s) had in mind more focused sharing like group assignments or small classes, whereas Stu.dicio.us simply lets everyone on your guest list in the door.

As I mentioned, you can’t just say which is the better app. The reason? Each application is suited for a different sort of user. I, with my preference for Notely, am very detail oriented. I derive joy from tracking and reporting on things. A person who is more free-flowing or less structured would most likely gravitate toward Stu.dicio.us, with it’s wiki-esque notes and super easy method of inputting or importing new stuff. Not to mention, not having to figure out what grade you’re getting at a given moment? Fabulous! Someone who falls on the Stu.dicio.us side of the fence may not feel like it’s important to add notes when they’re not at their desk. A GTD’er, on the other hand, needs a system that will work from anywhere they are, and would value Notely’s mobile access. Despite all of the functionality and features, it’s obvious that these applications are still in development. Both have pieces of their user interface that need to be, um, refined. (Like the obnoxious splash screen that comes up when you log into Stu.dicio.us advertising everything you can do now that you’re here. Please, add an option to turn that off!) Help documentation is extremely limited on either site. Development is a good place to be, however, in a sector that moves as fast as Web 2.0, and both Notely and Stu.dicio.us continue to become more coherent applications as they grow. I really applaud these two sites for putting a student-driven app out there, for taking advantage of the capabilities of the Facebook API, and just really digging for staying power where others have not.

  1. Siemen Paulsen on September 06, 2007 at 01:26 PM:
    In other words, they both suck. Todoist (http://todoist.com) ftw!
  2. Jake on September 16, 2007 at 02:25 PM:
    I really wish that Notely had grades.  In reality I wish that all of these student web apps had more of a goal/progession/completion element to them.  For college students I think it is important to get across progress and to help them feel more involved in their work and their quality.  Grades are real data that you can use to help you feel like you are moving along and maintaining quality.