Technology, part one

Smartphone Technology

Smartphone Technology

I expect that most successful post-graduate students will know this already, but in order to get ahead in higher education, the key mantra is to work smarter, not harder. If your uni is anything like mine, then you will get long bibliographies of books you should be reading and you look at it and wonder how the hell you’re meant to keep up with this lot. The answer, of course, is that you aren’t. They’re meant as a guide as to what’s out there. Most of them will identify what they regard as a key text, but otherwise, its up to you to direct your learning.

But as with so much else, time is precious. For the normal student, that’s the case – but for the deaf student, time is a resource that is forever running out. Smartphones are game-changing devices, quite literally. For the deaf student, they have immense capacity to provide assistance – not directly, but indirectly in terms of saving precious, precious time. I intend to devote this blog entry to some of the apps that I find helpful and use myself.

One thing I’m not going to do is to recommend a specific smartphone. I use an android: some of the apps that I recommend may not be available on i-phones or windows phones; but they may have apps that won’t work on androids. Please take that caveat seriously – If you like the sound of an app that I describe here, look for it on your app store through your phone, that way you can be sure that you’re not getting something that will break your phone! I’ve tried to group apps so that you can see the use of the app – even if the specific app I mention isn’t available, there may well be one similar for your phone – its worth looking.

The second thing I’m not going to do is to make recommendations for apps for social lives at uni. This is for a couple of reasons. 1) I firmly believe most of you are more than able to do this for yourselves anyway! 2) I’m a mature student so what I deem useful for my social life almost certainly will not be the same as for a 21 year old. 🙂

Finally, some of the apps I mention may be apps that you have to pay for. I’ve tried to say where this is the case but I’m not infallible – do check before hitting that ‘install’ button.

Communication

First up: the obvious. I survived my first year at uni as an undergraduate without a smartphone and I was always terrified I was going to miss out on something while I was running around and away from my laptop at home. I did everything via email: the uni had a copy of my mobile number for texting, but that was for emergencies. Email was the way that the Uni did everything anyway, and I was more than happy to fit in with that. Smartphones are very very able to handle email – and more importantly – multiple email accounts. As you might imagine, Deafstudent has its own email account, and that comes through to my phone. I actually have three email accounts on my phone. My uni email, my own personal email under my real name, and the deafstudent email. I use three different email apps for it, but there are apps out there that will handle multiple email accounts. As an android phone, I set up the android email as my uni email, the gmail app as my real name – as this is what my phone is linked to, and I use the type mail app for my deafstudent account. There are plenty of other email app clients out there though.

In addition, my uni uses blackboard heavily. This is a learning management system by which modules are organised, material is made available, and assignments are submitted. Many universities use it – if yours doesn’t, it may use something like Moodle, which is very similar – there may be others. Having access to this on the go is useful too – to check details of classes, to find out when assignments are returned, that sort of thing, and Blackboard themselves do an app. My university actually has their own app through which I can access Blackboard, the library etc., so I don’t use the blackboard app directly but it may be useful for those whose universities don’t do apps. It may well be worth checking on your app store whether your uni does an app for it’s students.

Documents

If your uni is anything like mine, then your notetaker may well email you notes after your lecture or seminar. You may actually want to check that immediately cos the lecturer mentioned some really important person or their book and you want to get it out of the library. So the ability to at least read documents that have been emailed to you on the go is an important one. There are plenty of ‘office’ apps out there. I use Office Suite and Polaris Office, but hey, go investigate and choose your own. Definitely download a couple, though, so that you have an alternative if your primary one can’t handle a document.

Another app that is of immense use to handle documents is a PDF reader. Some office apps may be able to handle them, and if you have the kindle app, that can sometimes handle them too. I use ezPDF reader, which is a paid app (but not too expensive – £2.54 at the time of writing – and there is a free trial version available if you want to give it a go) as this app will allow you to annotate your PDFs. This comes in very useful if you’re on the go a lot and you want to read through the article you just downloaded from the library, and make notes directly on it – or highlight the text, that sort of thing, then print out your annotated version when you get home.

One thing that may make the movement of your documents far easier, as well as providing a backup for your files, is cloud computing. The idea here is that you keep your documents out there in the internet, rather than at home where your files are only accessible through your laptop, and, as a result, vulnerable. Personally, I prefer to keep them on my laptop but I DO keep backups of everything on a cloud. Some universities give each student a bit of their own area on the university computers, accessible from any computer on campus. This can be really good if you do a lot of work on campus (i.e. if you don’t have your own laptop). While I have some files there, most of the time I use dropbox, as it facilitates movement between my smartphone, tablet, laptop and desktop. If you want to use dropbox as a backup, you can install dropbox sync, which automatically backs up whatever file is directories that you specify onto dropbox, and then onto your phone/tablet. Be wary of this though, if you specify your university directory, as I did, then by your third year your phone will be screaming at you because its overloaded with data. Use wisely! There are almost certainly other versions of things like this out there – find what works for you.

Finally, in managing the movement of documents and finding them on your phone to work with them, some sort of File Management app is always a good idea. There are lots of versions out there – just type “File Manager” into your app store.

Research

Library Research is something every university student has to do, in varying amounts, and there are apps out there that can really help with this. One of the best I’ve found is CamScanner. This is a paid app, but as with other paid apps, there is a free version, although I can’t find it, probably because I have the paid version already. There are a number of other apps from the same stable that are worth looking at, but they all work on the same principle: of taking a photograph of a page and turning it into a scanned image. It will allow you to do this for multiple pages… and then turn it into a PDF. There are other apps that do similar things – it may be worth shopping around.

Once you work with this you can quickly see the strength of it for scanning articles that aren’t in digital form, or for scanning sections of books. You can even use it to scan paperwork so that you can email it to people like SFE when they need documentation for your DSA. These days I rarely do any proper work in the library for very long: I do my research at home as to what books/articles I need, write them into a small notebook with the library reference number and its location, then go around and collect the books/articles. I scan the articles with Camscanner, books I assess – if I think I’m going to need the entire book, then I borrow it, but if its just a chapter, then I scan it. With this technique I can be in and out of the library with all my research in just a few hours, and then work from the comfort of my home.

This technique DOES require you to have self-discipline: it is far too easy to find other things to do (such as blogging!) once you get home. But it does have the potential to save huge amounts of time, especially if you keep files. I find even now as a postgraduate that I will need an article or a book chapter that I first read in my second year, and I will go and find my scanned copy to re-read it, rather than getting it out of the library. It also means that you can turn otherwise wasted time, such as bus or train journeys, to good use – as you can read a book or article you scanned earlier, and maybe even annotate it in ezPDF ready to be printed out when you get home.

Several caveats to all this:
1) Copyright. Obviously, you’re taking a copy, just like if you’re doing a photocopy. Unlike a photocopy, digital copies have more potential to be given to more people, particularly if they are placed on the internet. Doing this can get you into a great deal of trouble. Be careful with who you give copies to!
2) Any successful student will tell you that half the battle is organisation. Most students learn quickly to write article or book references across the top of any printed or photocopied documents that they take, so that they’re not scrabbling to find that reference that they just KNOW exists the night before an essay is due in and the library is closed… !! Obviously with Camscanner this is more problematic. The way I have found around this is to always photocopy the front page and then whatever else you need to give you your reference. With a book, that would be the title page, then the page behind it, with all the bibliographical details such as when it was printed, where, what edition it is, etc. I find it useful, sometimes, to also scan the index page, particularly if it is an edited book as you may vaguely remember a chapter in that book and want to check it out. Also do not forget to scan the appropriate footnotes pages for the bits that you’ve scanned. With edited books, these footnotes are often at the end of the chapter, or as a proper footnote on each page. Some books do them as endnotes at the end of the book. For an article, this may be the front page of the article that shows the edition number, year, issue number, etc. Make sure, too, that your scanned copy shows the page numbers!

Another useful app is something called Ref Me. This allows you to scan the barcode on a book, or to put in the ISBN Number (which is found on the reverse of every title page for every book) and it will use the internet to find the details of your book. You set up an account with Ref Me, which you can then use via their website on your laptop/desktop browser, and you can copy bibliographic details into your bibliography or references for your essay. Very cool. Make sure its set to reflect your institution’s referencing requirements, and away you go! It works well with other bibliographic software as well like EndNote too.

In terms of ebooks, downloading the Kindle may be worth it. Personally, I use the kindle to read fiction, for when I want a break, and rarely use it for reading study books. I find it difficult to move back and forth using a kindle and prefer hard copy, unless I’m using a PDF version that I can annotate. There are exceptions however. Sometimes the ebook is just cheaper (and not available in the library), so you stump up and get it.

Finally, if your University library allows you to borrow e-books then its a great way of accessing the library from the comfort of home (or those times when you’re working at 2am the night before your essay is due…!). Different publishers specify different readers. I’ve even found that one publisher, who published a series of books in e-format, specified a different e-reader for each one! Highly annoying, that. Unfortunately Digital Rights Management (DRM), which is what stops you from keeping a copy for free, and just borrowing it for the time period specified, is difficult to get around – for a good reason. It’s worth keeping an eye on the proliferation of e-readers, noting which ones you like, and if you find ones you don’t like, delete them after you’ve read your book.

Notes

Most students have to take notes of some kind. Whether that’s notes in a lecture, or just taking notes from a book, or revision notes – even if you have a notetaker, you’ll almost certainly have to do the last two. I’ve not yet found anything to beat the humble paper and pen but if you’re technologically minded, then there are lots of note apps out there that can create beautiful notes for you. One I like to use is JotterPad, which is free to use and very minimalistic. Most files are saved locally, but it does allow you to save files on dropbox. The files save as a .txt, so you would have to open them in a wordprocessing program and make them look nice on your desktop/laptop before printing. But for notes on the go, its not bad. In Note, which comes from the same stable as CamScanner is one I found during the writing of this article and I have to admit, it looks quite good. The concern I have with that is that you spend so long beautifying your notes that you don’t get any work done! The one thing it does seem to do which JotterPad doesn’t, is to save your notes as PDFs, so you can save it on dropbox and then print it. However, if you go with In Note, you’re stuck with doing your notes on your phone until they’re complete, whereas with JotterPad, it is possible – in theory at least – to work on a document at uni on your phone via dropbox – then come home and download the file from dropbox to your laptop and continue working on it there. What that really comes down to is your particular style of working. There are other note apps out there – searching will find them – but me? I stick to pen and paper. 🙂

Organisation

As I’ve said before, most successful students will find that their success is due, in part, to their control of organisation. This goes from organisation of papers, through to their diaries, task management, and so on. There are lots and lots of apps out there to help with some of these. There are many diary apps. I particularly like the ones that are based on Google’s diary – I myself use Business Calendar, which is a paid app (there are free ones around). Yes, you have to give up some privacy (i.e. Google gets to see everything you put in there), but the key strength of it is that the info is kept on your Google account, not your phone, so it’s very movable, for example, if you lose your phone or it breaks, or even if you upgrade. Ditto with Contacts. Gone are the days when you need to redo everything everytime you upgrade (thankfully!).

There are also tons of task-manager apps out there, some of which link into your diary so you can schedule tasks for yourself. Particularly useful if you have a lot of assignments due in a specific period. My partner swears by Wunderlist, which comes in various (free/paid) versions depending on your specific requirements. The strength of Wunderlist is that it can supposedly (it has hiccups occasionally) works across devices, like Ref Me, you have an account with Wunderlist which you can use on your laptop, phone, tablet, desktop, etc. You can also share lists within Wunderlist with other people who have Wunderlist – very useful for group working. There is a Wunderlist for Education, although I fail to see how its different to the usual Wunderlist. There are other task managers out there. I quite like Todoist, which, like Wunderlist, has different paid subscription levels according to your requirements, and is accessible across your devices.

As with taking notes, though, I prefer good old pen and paper. I buy a ring-bound book, open it up so that there are two blank pages available, on the left, I note all the to-dos for Uni for that week, on the right, I note all the to-dos for non-Uni stuff for the week. Following week I turn the page and start a new section. In between I fold the book back on itself, so uni stuff is on top, non uni on bottom – all I have to do is turn it over to access the other side. Combined with different coloured pens its a system that works well. I do combine this with recording the dates of assignments and classes in my phone diary, so the two systems work together. If I have a lot of things to do at Uni one day, I may sometimes record that list in Todoist, or scribble it on a postitnote and stick it inside the phone cover. If I have a lot to do at home in one day, I sometimes scribble a daily to do list on a reporters notebook. Its a system I’ve honed over the last 5 years and it works for me: I’ve often been complimented on my organisational abilities. It helps that I also have an office of my own at home, which I know many students won’t have – as a mature student, having my own home (not my parent’s) gives me stability that really helps with my studies. I have a filing cabinet that I put all my research notes into, for example, and rarely throw anything away.

Divider03What apps do you find useful? What working methods do you have for organisation? It’s important to share – because by learning from each other, we grow stronger, and I’m a firm believer in the importance of technology – making it work for us, and helping us to work SMARTER, rather than harder. Feel free to leave a comment or email me on deafstudentuk at gmail dot com. Thanks!

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