Tech Tips for New Students

Working cross-platform
Going cross-platform: same text accessed via various versions of MS Word and Dropbox in Surface Pro 4, iPad Mini (with Zagg slim book keyboard case), Toshiba Chromebook 2, and iPhone 6 Plus, in the front.

There are many useful practices and tools that can be recommended for new university students; many good study practices are pretty universal, but then there are also elements that relate to what one studies, where one studies – to the institutional or disciplinary frames of academic work. A student that works on a degree in theoretical physics, electronics engineering, organic chemistry, history of the Middle Ages, Japanese language or business administration, for example, all will probably have elements in their studies that are unique to their fields. I will here focus on some simple technicalities should be useful for many students in the humanities, social sciences or digital media studies related fields, as well as for those in our own, Internet and Game Studies degree program.

There are study practices that belong to the daily organisation of work, to the tools, the services and software that one will use, for example. My focus here is on the digital tools and technology that I have found useful – even essential – for today’s university studies, but that does not mean I would downplay the importance of non-digital, informal and more traditional ways of doing things. The ways of taking notes in lectures and seminars is one thing, for example. For many people the use of pen or pencil on paper is absolutely essential, and they are most effective when using their hands in drawing and writing physically to the paper. Also, rather than just participating in online discussion fora, having really good, traditional discussions in the campus café or bar with the fellow students are important in quite many ways. But taken that, there are also some other tools and environments that are worth considering.

It used to be that computers were boxy things that were used in university’s PC classes (apart from terminals, used to access the mainframes). Today, the information and communication technology landscape has greatly changed. Most students carry in their pockets smartphones that are much more capable devices than the mainframes of the past. Also, the operating systems do not matter as much as they did only a few years ago. It used to be a major choice whether one went and joined the camp of Windows (Microsoft-empowered PC computers), that of Apple Macintosh computers, those with Linux, or some other, more obscure camp. The capabilities and software available for each environment were different. Today, it is perfectly possible to access same tools, software or services with all major operating environments. Thus, there is more freedom of choice.

The basic functions most of us in academia probably need daily include reading, writing, communicating/collaborating, research, data collecting, scheduling and other work organisation tasks and use of the related tools. It is an interesting situation that most of these tasks can be achieved already with the mobile device many of us carry with us all the time. A smartphone of iOS or Android kind can be combined with an external Bluetooth keyboard and used for taking notes in the lectures, accessing online reading materials, for using cloud services and most other necessary tasks. In addition, smartphone is of course an effective tool for communication, with its apps for instant messaging, video or voice conferencing. The cameraphone capabilities can be used for taking visual notes, or for scanning one’s physical notes with their mindmaps, drawings and handwriting into digital format. The benefit of that kind of hybrid strategy is it allows taking advantage both of the supreme tactile qualities of physical pen and paper, while also allowing the organisation of scanned materials into digital folders, possibly even in full-text searchable format.

The best tools for this basic task of note taking and organisation are Evernote and MS OneNote. OneNote is the more fully featured one – and more complex – of these two, and allows one to create multiple notebooks, each with several different sections and pages that can include text, images, lists and many other kinds of items. Taking some time to learn how to use OneNote effectively to organise multiple materials is definitely worth it. There are also OneNote plugins for most internet browsers, allowing one to capture materials quickly while surfing various sites.

MS OneNote
MS OneNote, Microsoft tutorial materials.

Evernote is more simple and straightforward tool, and this is perhaps exactly why many prefer it. Saving and searching materials in Evernote is very quick, and it has excellent integration to mobile. OneNote is particularly strong if one invests to Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (or Surface Book), which have a Surface Pen that is a great note taking tool, and allows one to quickly capture materials from a browser window, writing on top of web pages, etc. On the other hand, if one is using an Apple iPhone, iPad or Android phone or tablet, Evernote has characteristics that shine there. On Samsung Note devices with “S Pen” one can take screenshots and make handwritten notes in mostly similar manner than one can do with the MS Surface Pen in the Microsoft environment.

In addition to the note solution, a cloud service is one of the bedrocks of today’s academic world. Some years ago it was perfectly possible to have software or hardware crash and realize that (backups missing), all that important work is now gone. Cloud services have their question marks regarding privacy and security, but for most users the benefits are overwhelming. A tool like Dropbox will silently work in the background and make sure that the most recent versions of all files are always backed up. A file that is in the cloud can also be shared with other users, and some services have expanded into real-time collaboration environments where multiple people can discuss and work together on shared documents. This is especially strong in Google Drive and Google Docs, which includes simplified versions of familiar office tools: text editor, spreadsheet, and presentation programs (cf. classic versions of Microsoft Office: Word, Excel, and PowerPoint; LibreOffice has similar, free, open-source versions). Microsoft cloud service, Office 365 is currently provided for our university’s students and staff as the default environment free of charge, and it includes the OneDrive storage service as well as Outlook email system, and access to both desktop as well as cloud-hosted versions of Office applications – Word Online, Excel Online, PowerPoint Online, and OneNote Online. Apple has their own iCloud system, with Mac office tools (Pages, Numbers, and Keynote) also can be operated in browser, as iCloud versions. All major productivity tools have also iOS and Android mobile app versions of their core functionalities available. It is also possible to save, for example, MS Office documents into the MS OneCloud, or into Dropbox – a seamless synchronization with multiple devices and operating systems is an excellent thing, as it makes possible to start writing on desktop computer, continue with a mobile device, and then finish things up with a laptop computer, for example.

Microsoft Windows, Apple OS X (Macintosh computers) and Linux have a longer history, but I recommend students also having a look at Google’s Chrome OS and Chromebook devices. They are generally cheaper, and provide reliable and very easy to maintain environment that can be used for perhaps 80 % or 90 % of the basic academic tasks. Chromebooks work really well with Google Drive and Google Docs, but principally any service that be accessed as a browser-based, cloud version also works in Chromebooks. It is possible, for example, to create documents in Word or PowerPoint Online, and save them into OneDrive or Dropbox so that they will sync with the other personal computers and mobile devices one might be using. There is a development project at Google to make it possible to run Android mobile applications in Chrome OS devices, which means that the next generation of Chromebooks (which will all most likely support touchscreens) will be even more attractive than today’s versions.

For planning, teamwork, task deadlines and calendar sharing, there are multiple tools available that range from MS Outlook to Google Calendar. I have found that sharing of calendars generally works easier with the Google system, while Outlook allows deeper integration into organisation’s personnel databases etc. It is really good idea to plan and break down all key course work into manageable parts and set milestones (interim deadlines) for them. This can be achieved with careful use of calendars, where one can mark down the hours that are required for personal, as well as teamwork, in addition to lectures, seminars and exercise classes your timetable might include. That way, not all crucial jobs are packed next to the end of term or period deadlines. I personally use a combination of several Google Calendars (the core one synced with the official UTA Outlook calendar) and Wunderlist to-do list app/service. There are also several dedicated project management tools (Asana, Trello, etc.), but mostly you can work the tasks with basic tools like Google Docs, Sheets (Word, Excel) and then break down the tasks and milestones into the calendar you share with your team. Communications are also essential, and apart from email, people today generally utilize Facebook (Messenger, Groups, Pages), Skype, WhatsApp, Google+/Hangouts, Twitter, Instagram and similar social media tools. One of the key skills in this area is to create multiple filter settings or more fine-grained sharing settings (possibly even different accounts and profiles) for professional and private purposes. The intermixing of personal, study related and various commercial dimensions is almost inevitable in these services, which is why some people try to avoid social media altogether. Wisely used, these services can be nevertheless immensely useful in many ways.

All those tools and services require accounts and login details that are easily rather unsafe, by e.g. our tendency to recycle same or very similar passwords. Please do not do that – there will inevitably be a hacking incident or some other issue with some of those services, and that will lead you into trouble in all the others, too. There are various rules-based ways of generating complex passwords for different services, and I recommend using two-factor authentication always when it is available. This is a system where typically a separate mobile app or text messages act as a backup security measure whenever the service is accessed from a new device or location. Life is also much easier using a password manager like LastPass or 1Password, where one only needs to remember the master password – the service will remember the other, complex and automatically generated passwords for you. In several contemporary systems, there are also face recognition (Windows 10 Hello), fingerprint authentication or iris recognition technologies that are designed to provide a further layer of protection at the hardware level. The operating systems are also getting better in protecting against computer viruses, even without a dedicated anti-virus software. There are multiple scams and social engineering hacks in the connected, online world that even the most sophisticated anti-virus tools cannot protect you against.

Finally, a reference database is an important part of any study project. While it is certainly possible to have a physical shoebox full of index cards, filled with quotes, notes and bibliographic details of journal articles, conference papers and book chapters, it is not the most efficient way of doing things. There are comprehensive reference database management services like RefWorks (supported by UTA) and EndNote that are good for this job. I personally like Zotero, which exists both as cloud/browser-based service in Zotero.org, but most importantly allows quick capture of full reference details through browser plugins, and then inserting references in all standard formats into course papers and thesis works, in simple copy-paste style. There can also be set up shared, topics based bibliographic databases, managed by teams in Zotero.org – an example is Zotero version of DigiPlay bibliography (created by Jason Rutter, and converted by Jesper Juul): https://www.zotero.org/groups/digiplay .

As a final note, regardless of the actual tools one uses, it is the systematic and innovative application of those that really sets excellent study practices apart. Even the most cutting edge tools do not automate the research and learning – this is something that needs to be done by yourself, and in your individual style. There are also other solutions, that have not been explored in this short note, that might suit your style. Scrivener, for example, is a more comprehensive “writing studio”, where one can collect snippets of research, order fragments and create structure in more flexible manner than is possible than in e.g. MS Word (even while its Outline View is too underused). The landscape of digital, physical, social and creative opportunities is all the time expanding and changing – if you have suggestions for additions to this topic, please feel free to make those below in the comments.

Author: frans

Professor of Information Studies and Interactive Media, esp. Digital Culture and Game Studies in the University of Tampere, Finland.

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