Hitting the keyboard

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McGill Reporter
January 10, 2008 - Volume 40 Number 09
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Hitting the books keyboard

Thirteen software and web tools to power up your academic life

Okay, we spent all of 2006 polishing our MySpace profiles and all of 2007 desperately Facebooking with "friends" we haven't seen since nursery school. Now, in the calm before the storm of the next big web thing (MyBook? SpaceFace?), let's take a deep breath and have a look at some free, or almost free resources that may actually boost our academic productivity in 2008.

WEB-BASED ACADEMIC TOOLS

Gradefix

A homework management system designed to overcome procrastination and help you organize your time and work. The basic account is free, while the premium service with unlimited tasks costs $5.00 per month.

mynoteIT

A note-taking tool for students that allows you to take notes directly in the web interface, or upload existing Word or OpenOffice documents, scanned images, handwritten notes and audio files into a searchable database. Also features an assignment calendar, a to-do list, a grade-tracker and add-ons for Facebook and cellphones.

Notecentric

An online note-taking application for Facebook. Its capabilities seem to be more limited than mynoteIT, but it has the advantage of operating through one of the best-known destinations on the web.

Notemesh

An ingenious free service that allows university students in the same class to create a definitive set of collaborative notes, almost like a mini-Wikipedia on a single subject.

EasyBib / Ottobib

EasyBib is an online tool which leads you through a series of simple steps to automatically generate nicely-formatted MLA or APA-style bibliographic entries for your research papers. The basic service is free, while the $7.99 a year "pro" service adds instant book and anthology citations and other extras. You can get some of that "instant" effect for free at competitor Ottobib, which uses your book's ISBN code to automatically generate MLA, APA or Chicago-style bibliographic entries. However, its results are sometimes spotty, so check them carefully.

Note: If you need more sophisticated bibliography software, EndNote, ProCite and Reference Manager are all available to students, faculty and staff for free at www.mcgill.ca/software.

Diigo

Not be confused with the similarly named (and far better known) Digg.com, Diigo is an online annotation and bookmarking service which allows you to bookmark websites and actually annotate them directly with a virtual highlighter or sticky notes. You can also work collaboratively and share your work with your partners.

WARNING: Web-based services are great, but Internet connections can go down and companies can go bankrupt, so always keep a personal backup of your important data.

WORD PROCESSORS AND OFFICE SUITES

OpenOffice.org

OpenOffice is a fully-loaded office suite that competes head-to-head with Microsoft Office and costs nearly 100 percent less, even with academic discounts. It features a Word-compatible word processor, an Excel-compatible spreadsheet, a PowerPoint-compatible presentation program, a database and several other applications, all for zero dollars down, and no easy payments, ever!

GoogleDocs / ZohoOffice / Buzzword

GoogleDocs, the online office suite from the web's best-known brand, is also free, and also includes a Microsoft-compatible word-processor, spreadsheet and presentation program. As a web-based application that runs inside your browser, GoogleDocs is not as fully functional as OpenOffice, but it's available on any computer connected to the net and has great collaboration features. Online competitor ZohoOffice may not be as well known as Google Docs (if anything in this space can be called "well-known") but it has an even wider set of free features, while Buzzword, a new and truly beautiful-looking entry from Adobe, bills itself as "the first real web-based word processor."

AUDIO SOFTWARE

Audacity

This sophisticated free application turns any computer into an audio recorder or a sound editing suite. Combine it with a good microphone or a telephone recorder jack (available from the Source) to record lectures, interviews or audio notes right onto your hard drive. If you're feeling even more ambitious, you can also easily learn how to edit your sound files. Don't forget to save your files regularly as you work.

SoundScriber

Developed over ten years ago by our colleagues at the University of Michigan, SoundScriber is the software equivalent of a transcription machine, what your grandfather might have called a Dictaphone. It's terrific for transcribing recorded lectures, interviews or other spoken word audio. It has easy keyboard shortcuts that allow you to rewind, fast forward, repeat, slow down and speed up the audio without taking your fingers off the keyboard, and it plays standard WAV and MP3 audio files. Note: SoundScriber's help files don't work under Windows XP or later versions, so refer to the sscriber.rtf document included in the download instead.

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