Firefox is my PLE

Sep 20, 2009

Miles Berry

firefoxMoving between Windows computers in my new office and teaching rooms, my Ubuntu netbook and my MacBook Pro, I find myself relying more and more on web-based tools, particularly google mail, calendar and docs. I also find myself valuing ever more highly Mozilla Firefox’s rich armoury of extensions, which are rapidly transforming the humble web-browser into my portable desktop and, in effect, my personal learning environment. Below are a few of the extensions I’ve discovered, but I’d be very interested to hear about extensions you use yourself, and any you use with pupils.


Zotero 2: I’ve tried many bibliography management tools in my time: I like the open source and Mac only BibDesk, which is a GUI for BibTEX and thus integrates particularly well with LATEX, and nothing comes close to the Mac only Sente for integrating notetaking into bibliography management, but I’ve been won over by the latest (beta) version of Zotero, a Firefox extension that does a great job of keeping track of a bibliographic database, with support for folders, reference scanning, automatic record creation and bibliography export in multiple formats on the fly, all from inside the browser. Zotero’s real strength comes through its use of the cloud to store the database, making it available via any connected computer, and any attached source files such as pdfs, as long as you’ve got access to a bit of connected storage, typically WebDAV, like Apple’s idisk. There are also tools for collaborative bibliographies, but I’ve not got started on those yet!

Diigo. With the browser profile in the cloud, the need for another portable bookmarking tool is largely removed, but the web 2.0 aspects of social bookmarking should not be discounted. Delicious has good firefox integration, but Diigo has a better social dimension, and also does nice highlighting and notes for webpages.

EverNote. I was a bit late coming to the EverNote party, but I’ve become something of a convert, thanks to its ultra smooth integration between iphone and browser – I like using this as a ‘save to read later’ tool; it’s also very useful for collecting together websnipets which might not need bookmarking or saving to Zotero’s bibliography database.

Googlepedia: I have classic google as my home page, having tried igoogle and popurls in the past, but finding the overhead just a bit sluggies and, I’ll admit, liking the simplicity of google’s original homepage. Googlepedia presents the most relevant wikipedia article alongside google’s search results for any search term – often just what one’s looking for, and also providing a human counterpart to the ice cold mathematics of PageRank.


Weave: The portable apps version of Firefox looks really impressive, but isn’t alas cross platform, and development appears to have ground to a hold on a USB Stick based cross platform. Anyhow, USB sticks really can’t survive as we head cloud-wards, can they? Thus, using a few computers fairly regularly, the problem of how to manage bookmarks, history, passwords and the like across them all – Weave to the rescue! Weave does an excellent job of storing all the really important bits of a firefox profile out there in the cloud, with fast, transparent and apparently secure syncing between local and cloud profiles as you browse. It’s also the nicest implementation of OpenID that I’ve seen, thanks to its tight integration into the browser. The ambition of the Weave project goes far beyond this sort of use, as ‘an open extensible framework for services integration.’

Adblock Plus, gets installed whenever I set up Firefox, no matter who for, and I wouldn’t browse without it. Whilst I know Safari can now do ad-filtering, and I guess this would be possible in Chrome, or even IE using proxys, this one feature alone makes Firefox the ideal browser for schools.

I have Greasemonkey installed too, but only really use it for filtering out ads (such as in gmail or google search results) that Adblock doesn’t reach.

I have Shorten URL for tweeting – you can set this up to use any one of the URL shortening services out there. [@andyjb points me in the direction of Awesome Highlighter, which not only shortens the URL but allows highlighting, although the URLs aren’t as short as for instance]

Web Developer’s installed too, but doesn’t get used very much these days – great for working with CSS and though.

On the Mac, I’ve installed the PDF display extension, which allows PDFs to be viewed in the browser, as on other platforms. Again, on the Mac, I have the full screen toolbar button, which is occasionally handy when presenting.

After reading about Doug Belshaw’s use of CoolIris to present about Open Source Schools, I dowloaded this, and have been seriously impressed by how great this is for browsing through a collection of images, either on the web or locally.

TwitterFox (now called echofon) was my favourite of the twitter extensions, although not a patch on the likes of tweetdeck. I’m trying out an early release of Snowl at the moment, which, although its lacking functionality as a Twitter client, is a decent aggregator and has much potential.

The last one worth mentioning would be Ubiquity, which has a fairly steep learning curve and is still kinda beta, but brings the benefits of a keyboard interface as seen in applications like Quicksilver and Google’s Quick Search Box to the browser, and makes possible some rather nice in-browser substitution and editing.

The ease with which Firefox can integrate web 2.0 tools for research and collaboration: eg Zotero, Diigo and Evernote, not to mention the near magical portability provided via Weave, make it a brilliant platform for the PLE – the need for institutions to provide web-based platforms which allow students (and staff) to integrate multiple online resources , including e-portfolios and VLEs, is elimenated when each learner can configure their browser to communicate quickly and easily with their network via all of their online services out there in the cloud.

The above is very much a personal selection, and that is, of course, the point – a personal learning environment does rather need to be personal – that extends to its architecture as well as its theme and content.

In school, I’d say a core set of Firefox extensions use would be Adblock, Googlepedia, Web Developer and perhaps Diigo – although I’m interested in the possibility of doing bookmark sharing inside the walled garden here. Suggesting Firefox for use in schools tends to throw up a couple of objections: – firstly that it’s harder to configure or install than IE – well, on Windows I guess that’s probably true, given that one comes bundled with the operating system, but Firefox.adm allows Firefox to be managed in Active Directory and FrontMotion have done a good job of providing an MSI installer for Windows, and will ; secondly, that you can’t force it to use a proxy server – actually, you can using mozilla.cfg or policies, but that misses the point: the proxy should be sitting transparently on the gateway machine so that all traffic is filtered, logged and cached, irrespective of whether the browser’s been set up properly or not.

One last trick, although Weave doesn’t (yet) pull down extensions from the cloud for you, the hassle of installing all these add-ons separately every time you setup a new profile on Firefox can be avoided by bundling the ones you’d like to use (or you recommend your pupils use) together as a collection. Another extension, collector makes the process of adding extension to a collection very straightforward. I’ve collected the above together at

I hope some find this of value, but I’d be very interested to hear about your favourite add-ons.