Simplenote — free, cross-platform note taking

Simplenote is a free note-taking tool that can be used on the web or natively on Windows, Mac, Linux, Android or iOS. (what else is there?)

Simplenote is one of the best, least-known free tools I’ve ever used. It is a mature product having been around since 2008. It was acquired by the good folks at Automattic who made the full version available to all without ads or cost. I don’t like exposing students to advertising, so this makes Simplenote great in education. Users do need an email address.

Remarkably, Automattic puts no limits on how many notes you can take. None!

Automattic has developed Simplenote for more platforms but has not succumbed to “bloatware.” For me, a note taking program must be fast and simple like a real notebook. (I’m not a fan of Evernote for that reason.)

Simplenote supports Markdown of which I’m a huge fan. Backup is beyond easy — just download a .zip file and read your notes with any text editor. Simplenote also has tagging, sorting, revision history, collaboration, publishing but not many more features.

Publishing is so easy! A couple of clicks and you get a shortened URL like to share with students or colleagues. It’s one of the easiest ways I know of to publish a simple web page. All for free!

I haven’t tried it but collaboration seems equally simple — just use their email address as a tag and it shows up on their account.

Too Simple?

Text Only

Simplenote is strictly text-based, so you can’t easily embed graphics or pictures from your phone. This is one of the useful features of “Keep” by Google, also a simple program. With Markdown, you can link to graphics but those have to be stored elsewhere online. A service like TinyPic makes this fairly easy but it is another step.

No Spell Check

This is probably another deal-breaker for some people, especially if you are using this as a tool to publish directly to the web.

Tool:  Simplenote
Description: A free, text-based note-taking program which synchronizes across all your computers and phones.
Usefulness: very Community Media – free, cloud publishing

Archive dot is now a great way to publish your eBooks.

You probably know as a repository for live music or their Wayback Machine. also has a community media section where you can upload your eBook. It is an easy, open way to publish your students’ ‘zines, eBooks or student newspaper. One of the best features is that it allows you to embed your document in your website without advertisements.

For most people, the simplest way is to upload a PDF/Acrobat file of their ebook. I prefer the Comic Book Archive format and that works as well.

The only downside I can think of is that has NSFW (or school) content. But, if your ebook is embedded on your own site, your students needn’t visit or even be aware that it exists.


Tool: Community Media

Description: repository for self-published eBook

License: Creative Commons

Alternatives: Google Drive, Scribd, others

Usefulness: very

openclipart – free clip art (yes, really free)

Open Clipart LogoThere are a lot of sites that offer “free clip art” but they are, in fact, a hassle to download. Some have viruses or spyware.

Openclipart ScreenshotOpenclipart is truly free… find a piece of clipart and download it. No registration, no watermarks, no royalties.

Openclipart has 50,000 images which may seem like a lot but you can not have enough clip art! As I browsed around this site, I sometimes didn’t always find what I wanted.

Even so, I suggest you bookmark openclipart and make it your first source for clipart.

Tools: openclipart
Description: free clip art
License: public domain
Alternatives: many others
Rating: very useful

RSS & Atom – the little engines that could

rss - logo RSS and Atom are ways to distribute your information into the digital world.  They are a file format (rather than software program) and are something like a simple word processing document.

You’ve probably noticed the little orange logo which sprung up all over the Internet without much fanfare.  You’ve probably never clicked on it, either. (RSS and Atom are almost the same thing and I will just call them both RSS.)

But don’t be fooled – this little tool works very well and can greatly simplify your professional communication.

The beauty of RSS is its simplicity –  it is basically a list of your documents, ready to be used by RSS readers, web browsers, embedded in web sites, read on phone apps, etc.

Just a little technical background:

RSS is commonly called “Real Simple Syndication”  and is yet another use of XML which has become the standard for most of the documents you use these days. (including what you are reading right now.) Atom is so similar to RSS that it usually makes no difference to the user.

You can think of XML as  the core content of a document to which specific styles are added later.  Because it’s the information without all the fonts, margins, colors, etc.   An XML file can be used on a wide variety of readers – from your big screen TV all the way down to your phone.

Using XML,  RSS takes your blog, podcasts, news releases, text messages, or similar and collects them into a simple list that can be used lots of different ways.

This solves the problem of everybody having a different kind of device.  RSS allows you to write in one place while allowing your audience to read it on the device of their choice.

RSS files can be inserted into many web sites and applications.

You need two tools to use RSS:  one to create the RSS fed and another to read it.   There are almost endless choices for both.    Many programs automatically create RSS feeds including WordPress, the software this blog uses.

I’ll review the two that I use most.  – easy way to create an RSS feed rss - bloggerlogo

Blogger is a Google blogging site which automatically generates an Atom feed from  your blog entry.   Conveniently,  Blogger lets you create blog entries from the web,  email, your phone and dedicated programs like Windows Live Writer.

My school district makes it hassle to update the library web site, so I  inserted  an RSS feed on the main pages and now I can update the library web site from   It is so much easier for me now!

rss - feed windFeedwind – add an RSS feed to your web site

Feedwind allows you to make a RSS “widget” to insert into you web page or blog.   You can customize the size and colors to match your blog.   You only need to be comfortable with pasting HTML code into your blog or web site.

Here is an RSS feed of this blog:

The above feed will update even as this page stays the same.

This is only the tip of the iceberg for what you can do with with this under-appreciated technology.

Tool: RSS and Atom
Description: a strategy for distributing information
License: effectively open source
Alternative: email, social networking
Rating: very useful

Make Beliefs Comix – easy digital story telling

mbc - logoDigital storytelling is harder than it seems but Make Beliefs Comix  makes it about as easy as possible.

The site provides you with a bunch of “clip art” characters and backgrounds and lets you add your own dialogue. It requires no sign-in and allows you to print your comic or email it to yourself.

mbc - comixThe site is oriented towards classroom use and provide teacher’s guides, lesson plans and ESL tools.

The best part is the instant gratification.  The students can quickly assemble a well-draw comic strip with an easy learning curve.  I could imagine this being the first stop in a longer lesson plan on visual story telling.

As a bonus, the site also offers a number of classroom printables by the same artist.

While the pre-defined tools may not allow for highly personal storytelling, it could be a very mbc - screen shotuseful tool for teaching the concept of storytelling through comics.

Tool: Make Beliefs Comix
Description: easy to use digital story telling tool
License: open-ethos
Alternative: many others
Rating: very useful


imgur — image hosting, no account needed

imjur - logoI use Flicker and Photobucket for most of my picture hosting but, sometimes, you just want to quickly upload a photo and link to it.   imgur is perfect for this.

imgur lets you upload photos from your computer or cross-load an image from another web site.  Best of all, there is no sign-in or cost.  I was delighted to see that imgur clearly keeps the copyright with the originator of the photo. Too many sites claim copyright to all their users’ data which is a deal-breaker for me.

imjur - screenshotimgur conveniently provides links to your file for many situations, including all the main social media sites, but I like that I can link directly to the photo, no hassles involved.

The only downside I’m aware of is that photos may be deleted if they go unviewed for more than six months.  For many of my uses, like email newsletters, this is no problem since the document is meant for a single use.

If you need to quickly upload a picture with no hassles or cost, imgur could be a highly useful service.

Tool: imgur
Description: free picture hosting site with no registration
License: open-ethos
Alternatives: Flickr, Picasa, Photobucket, other
Rating: very useful

Dinky page – free web pages, no account required

  SAD TO SAY, Dinky page is no longer running.

Dinky page proDinkypage - logovides you with a place to create web pages without registration or any personal information. The pages don’t expire and have very few restrictions.  And, Dinky page is completely free.

What’s the catch?  Ads, both on the top and the bottom of your page.  Worse, their is no guarantee that your will be suitable for a younger audience.

But, if your audience can tolerate ads, Dinky page is an excellent resource.

Dinkypage - main screenDinky page is very basic —  I could not get any plug-ins or “gadgets” to work properly even though the website says it can handle Javascript/Flash. But Dinky page provides most of the “Web 1.0” features you’ll need and probably more if you had the patience to get it to work.  You can create and link multiple pages to create a whole web site.  Graphics and photos will need to be hosted on Flikr, imjur or similar.

It has a “paste Word” button which seems like a very useful feature for Word users who understand that not everybody owns Word.

I can think of a couple of uses for Dinky page, the first being a place to host any anonymous web page.  If there are times where you don’t want to associate a site with either your personal or professional life, Dinky page provides that place. In this era where students constantly Google your name, that is a valuable service.

The second is as an HTML sandbox.  If you are teaching a course in basic web page authoring, it’s a time saver to have a site where the students don’t need to register or sign-in.

So, if you can tolerate advertisements, Dinky page could be very useful for you.

Tool: Dinky page
Description: a free (but ad-driven) web site hosting service that requires on account
License: open ethos
Alternative: Google sites, many others
Rating: very useful

TiddlyWiki – an easy, super-portable personal wiki.

I have been using TiddlyWiki since about 2006 and have yet to find an easier and more elegant way to create browser-based manuals, documentation, eBooks, etc.

If you have ever contributed to Wikipedia, then you have all the skills needed to use TiddlyWiki right away. You may need to refer to the manual for text-formatting codes but, beyond that, it’s almost completely intuitive. A cool feature about TiddlyWiki is that you can instantly create a hyperlink by SmashingAnyWordsTogether. (<- just like this)

It has very basic features – standard text formatting, tables and images. (Images work best if they are on an external web server, like Flickr.)

Navigation features are very strong: between hyperlinks, a side-bar menu and tags, it is very easy for your readers to surf around your document. As an experiment, I plugged the whole bible into TiddlyWiki and even that was not too big. I could navigate by book, chapter and verse quickly and efficiently.

Installation is as easy as downloading the file to your desktop and re-naming it.

This makes it highly portable, so you can pass it around on a thumb drive, email it, or keep it in DropBox or on an FTP or WebDav server.

For example, I’ve used TiddlyWiki for a college assignment, put it on a thumb drive, used it as a class presentation and then handed the thumb drive to the professor for grading. While other people struggled to get their presentations working, mine sailed through with no problems.

TiddlyWiki’s main weakness is that it is browser-based. (also its greatest strength!) This might be a problem on phones and some eBook readers which don’t handle web pages well. A second weakness is exporting documents. While it is easy to copy-and-paste a single TiddlyWiki page, it’s a nuisance exporting a long document with multiple pages (like the bible.)

Lastly, it is not truly collaborative like, let’s say, Google Docs. Realistically, only one person can be editing a document at a time. If you accidentally get two versions of the same document going, it will be a nuisance to reconcile it (the same problem as word processor documents).

But, if you want to create something like a school handbook or training manual, with lots of links and cross-references, it’s a great tool.

Tools:  TiddlyWiki
Description:  personal web page
Alternatives: many, including Google Sites,
License: BSD (free, open source)
Rating: highly useful.