The best software, tools & services I used as a student (mostly free)


Productivity tools that can make student life more efficient and even more fun

 

I spend a lot of time in looking out for tools that could make my work smoother and more efficient. Many have now become a part of life. I have shared some of them in this article with indications of the price, ease of use and ways in which they can be used. While many are free, some come at a cost.  As a general rule, look for deals available for students before buying them.  You can find out if deals are available by using keywords such as education versionstudent version, student discount, etc. when you look for the product.

Enjoy.

Note taking & writing

Word Tricks E-book

The Microsoft Word Tips & Tricks E-book by MouseTrax.com is a great resource to learn how to use all the major features of MS Word.  Since this is the software on which we spend most time learning even small tricks can save a lot of time.  For example, a lot of students spend hours trying to format documents, when it could be done at a click if we use Styles.  Often we move to another part of a long document that we are writing and spend time wondering where we were before.  Pressing Shift+F5 can get us back there at a flash.  It is easy to design Macros for repetitive tasks, of which we do many.  There are many other little tricks that we could use and save a ton of time over the years, and the e-book can help us do so.

While you are there, do take a look at other tools that Mousetrax offers; some of them are really cool.

LaTex

Latex is a typesetting software, or a document preparation system.  In simple terms, it helps us prepare PDF documents with extremely professional layouts.  It is also useful for those who use mathematical equations extensively.  When I was nearly done with my first draft of my dissertation, I took a day to convert it from a docx format to Latex.  The output looked so good that I had the feeling of working towards a book for the first time when I saw it.  Since it is made for professional typesetting, Latex has all the tools for creating table of content, an index, glossary, and other components of a book.  It is a free tool, but it takes some time to get used to it.  I think it is time well spent for those who are involved in long writing projects.

Dragon Naturally Speaking

DNS is voice to text software that types out anything you speak.  It is a great resource for those who spend a lot of time writing or taking notes.  I often take notes in a voice recorder when I’m reading a book, so that writing out my notes does not slow me down.  Subsequently, I plug the files into my computer and get a transcribed by Dragon.  Similarly, ideas about my research often come while I’m walking or doing other things.  I quickly take my voice recorder and make brief notes.  I have also got into the habit of writing the first outline of long chapters using Dragon, which saves time and has a lot of other advantages.  I have written more extensively on this in a dedicated article, if you wish to read on.

Voice recorder

The voice recorder is an excellent note-taking device.  It takes a lot less time to speak out as notes, and so it is efficient when we are reading.  I found that I took notes on my concerns/doubts about what the authors are discussing when I spoke about it than write it down on paper.  Thus, my perspectives about the readings were richer when I went through my voice notes, than written notes.  Secondary, the portability of a voice recorder is fantastic, since they can quickly jot down the occasional thought about our research as and when it occurs.  I find that such thoughts come at unexpected times, when we’re walking or sitting idly on the bus, or preparing for a little nap.  Recording these notes with a voice recorder is quick, and is more apt for the rambling thought than doing it on paper.  Most phones come these days with a recorder that could be put to use.  But for sustained use, it may be useful to invest on one.  I have a short note about the voice recorder that I purchased here.

Google Notebook

Google notebook allows us to take brief notes.  Notes can be sorted into different notebooks, and each node can also be assigned headings and subheadings, and one can also attach labels/categories to our notes.  If we wish to copy pictures or text from some website, it automatically captures the date on which to took the note and also the URL of the web page.  The fact that we can search through a notes can be helpful when we have a large assortment of notes on a variety of topics.  Further, because it is accessible in any computer, it also allows us to take notes in different locations such as the library, grad bay or at home, and have them all in one place.

Notebooks can also be shared if the group is working on a project.  There is now an App through which we can access the notebook through a mobile phone.

Springpad

Springpad is a smart notebook app for android and iPhone with a web interface.  What is really smart about springpad is that it allows you to search for books, recipes, and other materials and it will add that as a note with all the details (e.g. the summary, author, etc. in a book).  It can also capture picture, voice notes and for that matter, notes in any form your phone can handle.

WordPress

Online presence is becoming more and more important today, and many of us search for efficient ways of having a website without developing extensive technical skills.  WordPress is a blogging software/platform that serves this purpose, and it is versatile enough for us to make it do extremely complex things when we wish to take that leap.  Some people tend to avoid it upon hearing the word “blog”.  The only difference between a blog and website is that the blog presents the content of your website in a chronological fashion, there is a website has a slightly different layout.  We can choose the homepage of the website to be a static page, and we will get a “website” instead of blog immediately.  With a little work, we can also remove the date, author, and other information on the articles, which may be useful in some cases.

WordPress is like the iPhone of the blogging world, since it has many plug-ins that function like apps in an iPhone.  These plug-ins allow us to add different kinds of functions to the website, and all of this is done with the click.  We can change the look, add maps, prevent spam, import bookmarks and do a variety of other things using plug-ins developed by others, mostly free of charge.

WordPress.com allows us to host a website at no cost, but if we’re willing to invest in getting some server space and a domain name, we can install the WordPress technology in our own space, so that we have greater flexibility.  The technology itself comes without cost, and extensive help is available online for those who wish to indulge in extending the site to contain more features.

Spinning the idea

For those of us who were engaged in long-term projects, it takes a lot of time and thinking for different ideas to fall in place.  As researchers, we strive a lot to relate disparate ideas coherently.  As students, we try to relate readings we read over the semester.  The following tools could be of help in this process.

Diagramming tools

Diagramming tools can help us to visualise ideas, and thus help us see how different parts fall in place.  There are many free tools available totally.  My favourite has been Freemind, a mind mapping tool.  C-Map Tools is another free software that gives visually pleasing output that could be shared in our papers and presentations.  More details about them can be found in this article.

Prezi

Prezi is a new online presentation tool that could also be used to organise ideas.  Prezi is like a huge and infinite whiteboard on which you could write anywhere you choose to.  You can mark large ideas in bigger font, and also relate certain sets of ideas by putting them in a frame.  I find this useful both when ideas are at a relatively new stage, and at a relatively advanced stage when we’re getting ready to present it to the world.

It can be used as an alternative to PowerPoint to for presentations.  It is aesthetically pleasing, and more importantly it can help the audience to connect the dots more easily than with PowerPoint.  Check it out once to understand what I mean.  We can also embed pictures and videos for the presentation, and it is easy for people who were listening to your presentation online to same screen as your face-to-face audience.  It is available free to anyone with space limitations, provided we are willing to make the presentation public.  For those in educational institutions, it is available with a much greater is space and that nearly full functionality, free of cost.

Ps. PowerPoint has a free add-on that can convert PPTs into a prezi like presentation format.

Presentations

Please see my discussion of Prezi above.

Office 2010

New features in office 2010 have made PowerPoint a much better presentation tool that it used to be.  Combined with some cool picture editing features, transition effects and ‘motion effects’ for animation, PPT now has a suite of tools with the typical ease of Microsoft technology for stunning presentations.

Gimp

Very often we need to do minor modifications of pictures before we share them for a presentation, or use them in a publication.  The Photoshop is too costly, while Microsoft products to deal with diagrams are childish (office 2010 is a good leap, but only for editing pictures within an office programme; not pictures in general).  The good free alternative is the Gimp, which is a free picture editing tool with a lot of advanced functions that would satisfy most of our diagramming needs.  It takes some effort on our part to learn the tool, and a lot of help is available online.

Organising

Google calendar

Google calendar was among the first to introduce multiple calendars that we could overlay on top of each other.  For example, we can maintain an entirely separate calendar for a personal use, one for classes, and one with events that will be automatically shared with our partners.  With the click, all the events can appear together in one calendar so that we can plan our day.  Public calendars can be synchronised with our calendar.  For example, a list of school holidays, the calendar of school events, etc can be automatically presented in your calendar as long as somebody has put it online already.  This makes planning a lot easier.

Google calendar can also be embedded in your website, and you can choose what details you wish to provide about each event.  For example, you could present the full details of a talk by making the evening public, or just announced that you’re busy at a particular time.  It is thus a great coordination tool as well.

Tungle me

Tungle.me is a great complement to Google calendar, or any calendar available online.  In case you are trying to arrange a number of meetings or generally make your meeting schedule available to those who wish to meet you, Tungle Me is great tool.  It automatically imports your calendar, asks you what time frame your available in (e.g. your office hours), the duration of meetings which are available for, and makes this information available for those with whom you trying to coordinate a meeting.  It can be a useful tool to schedule meetings with students during office hours and coordinate with busy people in general.  It can also be embedded in your website.


About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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