Archive for July, 2011

Tools of the Trade: Paid Web Services

Earlier this month, I wrote about some of the free Web services I use in my professional role as a school psychologist.  I am grateful for services like Dropbox, Google Apps,, and countless others that provide services free of charge.  I also, however, bear in mind that one gets what one pays for, and in this era of “free” services, any of them could disappear overnight, with no obligation to any of their users.

Many Web startups operate under the freemium business model: provide basic services or functionality for free, then charge for more advanced features.  Dropbox, for example, provides the basic 2GB of storage & syncing for free (plus extra space granted via their referral program), but charges a monthly fee for users who require significantly more space (50GB or 100GB).

I’ve always been the frugal sort, so when I can take advantage of a service for free, I do.  There are instances, however, when I’ve decided that the value a service provides is worth paying for upgraded features or functionality.  Two such services I use are Evernote and Remember The Milk.


I’ve mentioned my love for Evernote enough times on various social media outlets (including this blog) that I’m sure I come off as a shill.  I won’t retread that ground here (see the previous link for my writeup on how I use Evernote as a school psychologist), except to say that it is the single most valuable technology tool I use in my job.

If you compare their free vs. premium features, you’ll see that Evernote offers quite a bit at the free level – 60MB monthly upload cap, SSL encryption, optical character recognition, Android/iOS apps).  The two key factors that convinced me to pay up ($5/month or $45/year; I pay by the year) are these:

  • File type synchronization: This was the number one consideration.  If I was just using Evernote for plain text notes and the occasional PDF, I could probably get by on the free plan.  In a given week, I’ll spend much of my computer time working in most of your standard office suite filetypes.  The free model only supports syncing of PDFs, audio, ink, and images, in addition to the standard Evernote plain text notes.
  • Offline access: I’m accessing Evernote from my Android phone and tablet more frequently, and having offline access to certain key notebooks is vital, both personally and professionally.  I can’t always guarantee I’ll have a strong cell signal or Wi-Fi access, but as long as I have one of those devices, I’ll have access to information.
As much of a capacity junkie as I am, I have found that I really don’t come anywhere close to hitting the 1GB monthly upload limit granted to premium users.  In fact, I never come anywhere near the 60MB mark, either.  Still, it’s nice to know I have that additional elbow room on my upload activity should I ever need it.

Remember The Milk

According to my records, I’ve been using Remember The Milk as an online to-do list longer than I’ve been blogging, longer than I’ve been on Twitter or Facebook, and certainly longer than I’ve been a school psychologist.  I’ve moved away and used other, similar services for short periods of time, but I always keep coming back to RTM, primarily due to the ease with which I can manage multiple lists and arrange items by due date or priority.  The layout on the screen is clean and white (I’m a big fan of that style, if you couldn’t tell from looking at my blog), and I can save searches for specific task types to “Smart Lists” (e.g., “Due Today”, “Due This Week”, “Urgent”).  These functionalities, however, are all available to all users, for free.

After several years as a non-paying customer, I decided last fall to pony up $25 for a year-long RTM Pro subscription.  I suppose the fact that the RTM Android app is only available to Pro customers was a factor in my decision, but as much as I like it, it’s not nearly as essential to my day-to-day functioning as Evernote.

At the risk of sounding sentimental, I like paying for these services because of the value they represent to me.  I feel like the benefit I gain from their use is worth paying $X per year, whether I have to or not.  Beyond that, though, my subscription fees are an investment in improving the services I use daily, and Evernote in particular has made major, major improvements and upgrades to both layout and functionality with just about every release in the last year or so – in other words, I see more of a tangible benefit in these releases than just bug fixes (not that those aren’t important, but they’re not terribly fun for end users).

I doubt I could afford to pay for every single free/freemium Web service I use, should they all decide to start charging.  At that point I’d have some serious decisions to make, but I can say that Evernote and RTM would still make the cut.  Whereas I would likely be able to find comparable free alternatives to some of the other services I use, I have yet to find competing services to top these two, free or paid.

Tools of the Trade: Free Web Services

When I made the jump from classroom teacher to school psychologist three years ago, many of the tech tools I use in my daily workflow changed according to my needs.  No longer did I need to have access to unit plans and materials for lessons, but I did need to focus more on scheduling my day and maintaining detailed case notes.

I’ve previously declared my love for Evernote as a tech tool for school psychologists, and I stand by that assertion today; it is the single most useful technology tool I’ve started using since taking on this role.  As I’ve already blogged about how I use Evernote, today I want to focus on a few other technology tools I use as a school psychologist that are totally free of charge (I’ll write about the stuff I pay for later this month).  These tools all have very slight, if any, learning curves, and they have made my organization and access to information practically ubiquitous.


Dropbox is a cloud storage & syncing service that gives users 2GB of space for free (click this link to sign up and you and I both get an extra 250MB of space free!).  Dropbox can be installed on as many computers as you wish, and once you connect your computers to the service, you can access any file stored in your Dropbox folder from that computer.  You can also access your files via the Web interface.

I like using Dropbox not only for the syncing capabilities (I can access any file I need from my work or home computers, plus there are apps for Android, iPhone, and iPad that allow access from those points as well), but for the backup feature.  Any file that might be accidentally deleted can be restored from the Dropbox website; furthermore, Dropbox maintains 30 days’ worth of versions of saved files, similar to Google Docs and wikis.  If you have documents you wish to share with a large group of people, Dropbox also allows users to share individual files or folders via the right-click menu on the desktop app (see how I used Dropbox to put my career’s worth of lesson plans online for public consumption).

Dropbox has received some negative press lately due to issues with its privacy policy, but their responses have satisfied me that my data are not at risk with them.  Still, better safe than sorry, and I sometimes use 7-Zip (another free utility) to zip and encrypt files that may contain sensitive information (there are also several third-party free & paid encryption options, such as BoxCryptor, SecretSync, and TrueCrypt).  Use a highly secure password generated by LastPass or another similar utility (I believe you can password protect Microsoft Office files right in Word, Excel, etc.), and your data are about as safe as they’re going to get, short of being printed out and kept in a fireproof safe.

Google Apps Suite

I have been a loyal Google Apps user since 2006, first of their Gmail/Google Calendar services, and later, of the entire mail/calendar/docs/etc. apps suite on my own personal domain.  So much digital ink has been spilled on the many strengths and weaknesses of these products that I won’t even try to sell you on them here (Google the reviews!), but again, the ubiquity of access (computer, phone, tablet) of Google Calendar has been fantastic.  It took me a little while to get used to the idea of creating new ‘calendars’ for different topics (e.g., ‘Counseling Appointments’, ‘IEP Meetings’, etc.), but I soon saw the value – each individual calendar acts as an overlay, so you can view or hide any calendar at any time.  If I know I have no IEP meetings in the near future, I hide that calendar.  I created a calendar called Absences to track my sick & personal days taken in a year; hiding all the other calendars for a few seconds allows me to glance through my year and see exactly when & why I’ve taken days.  When I’m done, the other calendars return with just a few clicks on the sidebar menu.

Although I’ve had a Google Voice number since before Google acquired GrandCentral, I didn’t have much use for it – I’ve had even less use for it since the advent of porting cell phone numbers and since we ditched our home landline almost 2 years ago.  What has been useful, at least in a work context, has been the ability to send text messages through the web interface.  With Google Voice, I can send text message reminders about appointments, meetings, etc., directly to parents & students without giving away my personal mobile phone number.  I’ve written before about the benefits of text messaging, and since then, further stories have broken about the beneficial role of SMS in increasing flu vaccine adoption and quitting smoking.  Although I only recently started using Google Voice at work, I’m looking forward to implementing it more frequently this coming year.

Text messages aren’t just good for appointment reminders, they’re great for communicating instantly with large groups of people.  If you coach a team or advise a club (as I did), you know that e-mail has gone the way of Betamax and the 8-track for many of today’s kids.  With Facebook being banned at many schools, I’ve found the best method for reaching groups of students directly – especially during or toward the end of the school day – has been via text message.  They don’t need to be in front of a computer to receive the message, and it goes directly to their phone, which is almost always within arm’s length (NB: I worked at a high school; YMMV if you work with younger students who don’t have cell phones).  I’ve found a new service called that facilitates this kind of communication. allows users to create channels, or “cells”,  to subscribe to, and settings can be tweaked to allow for group text messaging chat (moderated or unmoderated) or for one-way broadcast only (my choice).  One moderator can create several different cells, so you can send broadcasts to your entire team, the defensive line only, the junior varsity team only – whatever.’s model is opt-in rather than opt-out, so students would need to text the cell name to the main number (23559) in order to subscribe, and they can unsubscribe at any time.

This service is similar to TextMarks, with one major difference: it is totally free (which means no ads, either).  I’ve been in touch with some of the folks at previously with support questions, and they have told me that they are specifically interested in providing this service to educators for their professional use and that they are open to suggestions on the service from educators.  If texting students en masse isn’t in your immediate future, I imagine this could also be a convenient way to connect with parent/community groups or colleagues, as well.

In the coming weeks, I’ll also be writing about free desktop software I use in the course of my job, as well as the web services for which I gladly fork over money every year.  If you have a favorite free Web-based service, please let us know about it in the comments!