When I was a college student my primary work tool was the venerable Inspiron 4000 running Kubuntu. It was a few generations out of date when I got it, but I didn’t particularly care because it was a laptop I could use to browse the web in class. This was long before smart-phones became a thing mind you.
Even then I was on the hunt for technologies that would help me to digitize, organize and synchronize my class notes. Or to just be able to take notes in digital format. We were not quite there yet with technology. I kinda wish I was going to school now rather than back then when I think about all the technology that we have available now. My life as a student would have been so much better today as there exist tools now that have been built specifically to solve the exact problems I was constantly running into back then.
That’s what I want to talk about today – the things students have right now, that I didn’t have back then. If I was an undergrad, this would be my kit.
Hold on to your hats because I’m about to say something controversial: you probably don’t need to take a laptop to class. Granted, you should have a full fledged computer somewhere in your dorm for doing heavy duty things that may crop up during the semester. But for your day to day note taking and web browsing here is what you need:
Let me do this in list form – here is your hardware base:
- iPad compliant Stylus
- Bluetooth Keyboard
The last two items on the list are optional but recommended. Here is my line of reasoning: you don’t need a device with a hard drive for note taking. Laptops are great but compared to weight and portability and battery efficiency of an iPad they might as well by blocks of wood. A modern dual core laptop will usually give you probably 3-4 hours on a single charge. An iPad will give you more than twelve, and it weighs much less and takes less space in your book-bag than an average 3 ring binder.
Homeworks, Term Papers and Documents
First thing that everyone wants to know when I show them this, is “how do I Microsoft Word on an iPad”. You don’t because Microsoft Word is so 90’s it is not even funny anymore. Word is a relic of a bygone past and if you are telling students they need to use you are actually hurting them. You are inflicting psychological trauma on their innocent minds. So please, spare me.
But the root of the question is valid – how do you type papers on a ultra-thin mobile setup like this. The answer is Google Drive. Here is the beauty of this solution: it offers you the basic office suite functionality (word processing, spreadsheets, presentations), it hosts your documents in the clouds and it will sync them with any computer you register with the service. Not only that, but Google keeps revision history of all your documents so you can revert your changes at any time.
Here is a use case: you are sitting in cafeteria and you remember you have a paper due tomorrow. Whip out iPad and stand it up on the table using your smart-cover or whatever you use. Whip out your bluetooth keyboard and start writing. Need a break? Save, exit, throw gear in bag. When you get back to your dorm you can jump on your computer and just pick up where you left off. Need to print the paper? Well, chances are you might not have a printer in your room here is what you do: head to any computer lab on campus, log into Google, print.
Note how this setup removes the necessity to transfer and manage files across multiple computers. Everything is just there. All the other files – handouts, supplementary documents, etc can be dumped into Google Drive too. Added bonus is that any Document from Google Drive can be exported into Microsoft Word format if your professor decides to be annoying and insist you submit a .doc file.
The second cloud service I will recommend that you sign up for is Dropbox. It was actually the original, and so far the best cloud sync solution out there. I mentioned Google Drive first because it has the built in authoring tools. Dropbox is just for syncing files between computers and applications and it does that very well. Why can’t you just stick with Google Drive? Well, for the time being Dropbox and not Google is the defacto standard in cloud syncing. So all the software tools I mention below will let you save your crap to Dropbox, but not Google drive. That’s why you need both.
Note taking on a tablet is a little tricky. As far as I can tell, there is nothing out there that will beet pen and paper on speed and comfort. You will always be faster and more efficient scribbling on dead-tree pages than on your screen. That said, it does not mean your notes can’t be digitized. Enter the brilliant JotNot Pro which lets you scan and pre-process your hand written notes and save them as PDF documents directly to your Dropbox account.
This is where the iPhone comes in – because you won’t be taking pictures with your iPad. Why not? Because it makes you look like an absolute tool. Don’t do it – especially not where there are people to see it. Plus it is just easier to control a small phone and snap a dozen of quick pictures with this app than it is trying to maneuver an iPad over the notebook without it casting a star-destroyer sized shadow over the page.
Here is a protip: every evening JotNot all your notes from the day and Dropbox it. Give the files descriptive names that relate to their content and organize them in folders by course. Over time you will build up a digital library of notes that can be searched by date or by keywords contained in the file names. These notes can be easily shared with your classmates if for example they missed a class, or just never bothered to take their own notes.
Also, have you ever had that one jerk professor who keeps putting supplemental materials on library reserve instead of putting them online, forcing all the students in class to pay like $1 per page in quarters on the dilapidated xerox library machine? Well, you can just JotNot those things too, add them to your digital library and print from anywhere at your leisure.
If you do want to try the digital note taking route, the best app I have found is Penultimate. It is a very well designed app, and similarly to JotNot it lets you export your notes to Dropbox as PDF files.
Obviously you will need a stylus for this – they are cheep though. You can buy them for like $6 from Amazon. That’s not why this is less than optimal though. Here is the problem with digital note taking on multi-touch devices such as iPad: it’s not great. Note taking was actually better on the old-fashioned devices that required a special stylus to work. On the iPad, no matter what you do, your palm will interact with the app. Writing long-hand notes while holding your palm in the air is incredibly inconvenient and the designers of Penultimate know this and they even devised some sort of customizable “palm block” feature. You can pick whether you are left or right handed, and how you usually hold your pen and it works… About half the time.
So if you are serious about this, you will need to learn a nifty trick I picked up when I was leveling up my pencil and charcoal drawing skills: you use a barrier. To prevent smearing (or in your case unwanted input) you just place something under your palm. A piece of paper or a folded napkin is enough to block the skin galvanic response the touch-screens pick up on and eliminate interference letting you concentrate on working your stylus. It will take some practice to get up to speed writing like this.
Why not just type your notes? Well, if you are fast enough typist and your notes are going to be 90% words then yeah – that’s probably the ideal solution. It builds up searchable document base that is way better than document scans or vector graphics PDF dumps you get from the above. I was just going from my own experience – my course load was science heavy, and most of my notes required me to draw stuff. Diagrams, float charts, graphs, tables, etc.. But if your courses don’t do that then you can easily use Google Drive, or something like Plain Text app which atuo-saves your notes to DropBox.
What is your Student Toolkit? What apps and services you would recommend to a modern day college undergrad?