Speeding up research and grading using Alfred 3

For the past year or so, I’ve been using the free version of the Alfred productivity software, and when Alfred 3 recently came out, I decided it was time to upgrade to the full version. I bought the Alfred Powerpack shortly before doing my first grading of the summer semester, and I decided that that was as good a time as any to make sure that I wasn’t going to regret my purchase. Well, Alfred didn’t disappoint, so I thought I ought to write some about what I’ve been trying.

Alfred is an application launcher and automation software for OSX that tries (in part) to reduce dependence on using a mouse in favor of doing more with the keyboard. In its free version, the emphasis is really just on that, being an application launcher, but even though OSX already comes bundled with one of those, Alfred seemed to make everything easier. Opening a program on my computer became as easy as hitting Cmd+Space, typing the first few letters of the program in question, and then hitting Enter. As long as my files and folders had distinctive names that I could remember, I could usually get to them via Alfred, too. Learning to hide and quit programs from the Alfred interface was a huge bonus as well—doing any of these by mouse only takes a couple of seconds, but in the aggregate, this saves you a lot of time over the course of a day (or at least, it certainly feels like it!).

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The real power of Alfred, though, comes with customization, and there’s plenty of that, even in the free version. Alfred makes it easy to search Google or Wikipedia: all that’s needed is to open Alfred, type the proper keyword (i.e., wiki for Wikipedia) and then type whatever search term you need. There are a few search engines “pre-baked” into the software, but if they don’t cover what you need, it’s very easy to set up your own custom searches. I spent the past two years teaching French at MSU’s Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, so I set up custom searches for the French versions of Wikipedia and the Wiktionary, which were great for looking up words and articles on the spot, either during my class preparation or even in the middle of a lesson. Setting up custom searches for Google Scholar and the MSU Library was also pretty easy, which made looking up an article or a book a matter of a couple of keystrokes.

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Buying the Alfred Powerpack opens up all sorts of new avenues for the aspiring lifehacker, though, and I put that to the test when grading this week. One of the key features that gets opened up with the Powerpack is workflows ways of stringing together actions and interfacing with programs using keywords and search terms. For one class that I teach, I open up (at least) three different tabs when grading: Two tabs are our course management software (since there are two assignments due every week) and one tab is our course message board (where both assignments can be found). It would be the peak of first-world problem to complain about the woes of needing to get three browser tabs set up before I can start grading, but it would make me happier if the exercise were shorter. Well, with Alfred, I can now hit Cmd+Space, type in “ccgrad,” and hit Enter to open up two tabs in one browser and one tab in another so that I can put them side-by-side (I haven’t yet figured out how to open the third tab in the same browser but a different browser window… fortunately, I have four browsers installed on my computer). If I need to get to a certain part of our course website to check an assignment description, another Alfred keyword will get me there… and I can even include an optional snippet to tell it what page on the website to go to.

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Another way that Alfred helps is actually new to Alfred 3: text expansion. I’ve been hearing about the power and benefits of text expansion from my favorite YouTube personalities and podcasts for a while now, but it’s not until I realized I could use it as part of Alfred that I decided to take the leap. Like many people, I use some of the same phrases over and over again when I’m grading, and it’s a bummer to type them out over and over again. So, now I have them assigned to short blurbs of text (that aren’t likely to come up when doing regular typing). Whenever I type “ccsig,” for example, Alfred automatically expands those five characters into the signature I use to sign off on course emails. Of course, most email clients allow you to attach one of several signatures, but most of my course emails come from our CMS, where I don’t (and maybe can’t) store these kinds of signatures.

I’m looking forward to continuing to explore Alfred and seeing how helpful it is for research, grading, and the other moving parts of grad school life!

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