The Tech I wish I had at Uni

The results for the end of secondary school exams (leaving certificate) come out in mid August in Ireland. It’s headline news with lots of articles dedicated to it, part of it is the lack of news in the month of August, part of it is therapy for the collective PTSD that everyone in Ireland has because of the leaving certificate. I recently had a nightmare that I was going into a German oral exam as part of my certification for language fluency here in Germany (easy), it turned out to be an Irish oral exam (horror). I sat my leaving certificate 10 years ago this year.

Who needs books anymore?

Leaving certificate is all about getting into further education. In Ireland like most developed countries, a secondary school certificate is of little value on its own any more. In Ireland almost 50% of my generation will attain a third level qualification, a large number of those will be at University. There are Irish universities that can compete with British Universities for a long history and looking like the set of Harry Potter, where I went wasn’t one of those.

The University of Limerick was only established in 1989. What it lacked in tradition it made up for in progressive attitudes to education. The University provided lots of support to help students make the transition to University. Something they have expanded since I’ve graduated. Ireland’s secondary school system and focus on rote learning for exams isn’t really conducive to making an informed decision about what or how to study at third level so drop outs and course changes are common. I was lucky, I was set on what I wanted to study having enjoyed history at school, developed an interest in politics and society and doing well academically in German, a BA in European Studies hit all those points.

The transition wasn’t the easiest, despite decent results in English, writing those first academic papers was difficult, I realised I couldn’t write a structured or logical argument to save my life, something that was fixed by my involvement in the debating club. I had no sense of organisation and lacked discipline when it came to reading any of the assigned course reading. There is truth in the phrase ‘youth is wasted on the young’, education too. But I might return to education, its so ridiculously cheap in Germany there is no reason not to consider another masters or a doctorate. If I do these are the things that I will be using to make academic life as easy as possible:

E-Reader

Maybe a tablet or laptop would suffice, maybe I am just not digital native enough, but staring at a laptop or tablet screen for long periods trying to read text heavy journal articles is tough. The e-ink screen of an actual E-Reader is much more satisfying and much more portable. The majority of course reading and the sources you will need for projects are available in digital format accessible through the university library website.

The main advantage of an E-Reader is portability, during the bus ride or a quite moment between lectures you can cover a few pages or an article. Good idea to have a notebook ready or cue cards, for every important article you should make a few bullet points, so when it comes to the end of term exam or project, much easier to refresh your memory. E-Readers also offer note taking functions, enabling you to add notes to specifics parts of texts, but I found them too clumsy and difficult to retrieve, so haven’t bothered using the function opting for pen & paper instead. I am someone who learns better when I write it myself anyway.

In addition to the ease of reading with an E-Reader, many of them are compatible with Pocket. Pocket is an article clipper, might not be necessary for everyone, but if you’re studying something that requires you to keep up to date on world events, Pocket is great. That said really every student should be reading industry relevant articles, actually being genuinely interested in your field will set you apart from about 90% of the students who are doing your course. Pocket will sync with your E-Reader giving you a list of articles that you can read in your own time. The whole thing has developed into a bit of a news cycle for me, I see the headlines on Feedly, if there are longer articles that I want to read later I save them to Pocket and if they’re something I might want to refer back to later, I save them to Evernote.

Evernote

Okay so many may have moved onto OneNote but as a private non premium user Evernote is still sufficient for me, maybe I will make the change one day as well. Evernote is a note taking app but it can do so much more. If you’re using a laptop to take notes in lectures you can store all you lecture notes here subdividing them in notebooks and stacks of notebooks. That’s the easy part what makes Evernote so great for students is the tagging system, use it extensively put every keyword you can think of as a tag. You can also upload files into a note, there’s even a drag and drop function and .pdf files will display in the note so you can read through them there if you want. You can store all the academic journal articles that you have in Evernote and with a proper system of notebooks and tags, they can quickly be retrieved.

Another great feature of Evernote is webclipper, an add-on available for all major web browsers. If you find articles anywhere online the webclipper will save the article to Evernote and you can add tags and assign to the proper notebook in the process.

If you’re using Evernote properly it really will become your central hub for keeping track of your research. There are more straightforward alternatives such as Dropbox which imitates a windows style file structure, but really for proper referencing Evernote is much better.

Wunderlist

There isn’t much to say about Wunderlist because its nice, simplistic and has all the to-do list features that a student could need.

The Rest

There’s loads of other stuff I use, but I think they’re kind of obvious, no student can be without a decent laptop today, I prefer a small portable ones and completed my masters using an Asus EEE netbook, that said I had access to a desktop computer when I needed it, but my first laptop was a large Dell and it was too heavy and bulky to take with my everywhere. The Asus EEE was vastly superior. Besides occasional use of programmes for managing large data sets, I didn’t really require a lot of power, so a netbook was more than sufficient.

Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Docs all pretty ubiquitous programmes, Google Calendar can sync with Wunderlist and Google Docs is great for group projects and pretty much an alternative to MS Office or Libre Office.

You will also have to consider a programme for syncing your .pdfs and ebooks to your e-reader. I use the typical Adobe Digital Editions but have also tried out Calibre. Calibre had a lot of advantages but because I use Evernote, I prefer the simplicity of ADE but Calibre has a lot more features like tagging that could be really useful.

LibreOffice is also sufficient for any student wanting to save money on buying Microsoft office, you need to be careful with file types though when transferring them, that said most professors requires papers to be submitted in .pdf format, so no real problem there.

On the social side there are so many options WhatsApp being the big one or Facebook Groups for you class or module so you can share notes and help each other. That said there is usually one or two students who can ruin the experience by freeloading.

Finally no student should be without an actual real life paper notebook. Not all notebooks are created equal though. I personally love the diaries from Muji, they’re simplistic, great month per page calendar at the front and each week has a whole grid paper page next to it as well as about 60 of them at the back. Grid paper is great for sketches, hand drawn charts, lists etc. I mostly use the month per page calendar for actually noting upcoming events and the week per page for retrospective notes on events of the day.

Now all these great programmes reduce the task of personal administration, they don’t eliminate it. You will have to take time to make sure the system is functioning, tidying up backlogs, moving things about, optimising the system. Besides the academic and organisational side, I have to say the usual get involved with clubs and societies etc. That said I am one of the students who might have got too involved and at times my studies suffered for it. But hey, live and learn.