Web 2.0 Backpack: Web Apps for Students

Earlier today, Richard took a look at the state of e-learning 2.0, which got me to thinking about how school might be different if I were in college today because of the influx of new Web 2.0 apps aimed and students. I went to a school that utilized a Virtual Learning Environment called WebCT (since absorbed by the Blackboard company), and it really wasn’t very fun to use. Note taking meant writing on paper, study groups meant face-to-face meetings, and if you were struggling through Shakespeare, your best bet was to turn to the library, not the Internet.

When I was in college most of the tools in this round up didn’t exist. It was truly the dark ages of education! Well, okay, it was a just a few years ago, but just in this decade, and especially in the last few years, a handful of tools to make school life easier have appeared. What follows is the set of web tools I would put in my backpack were I headed back to school tomorrow.

Office Replacements

There’s no software package I used more in college (or today, for that matter) than Microsoft Office. But who wants to plunk down $150 on office software? You’re in college, after all, and I’m sure you can think of better uses for your cash. 5 years ago the alternative was Sun’s OpenOffice.org suite, Corel’s Wordperfect (still not free), or a handful of even less developed offline tools. But now there are a large number of impressive web apps that can handle your academic needs. The cream of the crop are below.

  • Google Docs & Spreadsheets – One of the more developed online office tools, Google only offers a word processor and spreadsheet, though there have long been rumors of a presentation tool (and recent acquisitions by the company would suggest that they are likely true).
  • Zoho Office Suite – Zoho is one of the most complete online office suites, offering more tools than you’ll even find in Microsoft Office’s student and teacher version.
  • gOFFICE – No frills gOFFICE has a very familiar look and feel.
  • ThinkFree – ThinkFree can replace Word, Excel, and Powerpoint with its suite of online apps, and they offer downloadable versions of their software as well.
  • EditGrid – EditGrid only does spreadsheets, but does them very well.

Notetaking

More and more students are bringing laptops to class. Owning a laptop is a requirement for all first-year undergraduates at the University of Denver, for example. The proliferation of portable computers means that note taking doesn’t have to happen with a pad and pen. The following web apps will help you take and organize your notes.

Mind Mapping

Now you have your notes, you need to put them together. The following mind mapping/flow charting tools will help you get your thoughts in order so you can go from raw notes to polished dissertation.

Studying

So you’ve got your notes, and you have them all mapped out and organized, but you still need to fill in some blanks. There are a number of online study aids that exist to help you find the answers you need.

  • Wikipedia – Wikipedia should probably never be used for serious academic research, but it is a great “jumping off point.” I often use Wikipedia to get quick background info on unfamiliar subjects and point me in the right direction for more in depth study.
  • Yahoo! Answers – When searching the web fails, someone on Yahoo! Answers may be able to show you were to find the information you’re after.
  • AnswerU – AnswerU is like Yahoo! Answers for college, sadly not the most academic of sites, but you could certainly try your luck.
  • SparkNotes – SparkNotes are (mostly) free, online CliffsNotes for a large number of books. They also do test prep, mathematics, science and a number of other subjects. Of course they can’t really substitute for actually reading a book, but they can help you if you’re having trouble figuring out Emily Bronte. (And it turns out that many CliffsNotes are now online for free as well!)
  • Google News – Google News, especially with their new archive search, can be an invaluable research tool if you’re researching a recent historical or current event.
  • College-Cram.com – Free online study guides for science, math, language, and business topics.
  • Tutorlinker.com – When all else fails, hire a tutor.

Bookmarking

With all that online studying you need a way to keep track of what you’ve read. Online bookmarking tools are a great way to do just that.

Collaboration

Why study alone when you can get help from a friend? There is power in numbers.

  • Facebook – The quintessential college network can be used for more than just planning parties and dating. Facebook can be used to keep in touch with classmates, share and discuss notes, and create study groups.
  • Stikipad – A collaborative wiki service that you can use to keep track of group notes on a project.
  • Backpack – All your notes, lists, and ideas in one shared space.

Calendars

Juggling your class schedule, extra cirricular activities, study time, and social life can be a challenge. The calendar apps below might help.

Calculations

What college arsenal would be complete with out a calculator?

Other Tools

  • EasyBib – A tool to take the pain out creating a bibliography.
  • OttoBib – Enter the ISBN of a book, and automatically have your bibliography entry created in MLA, APA, Chicago, BibTeX, or Wikipedia style.
  • Zotero – A Firefox extension that lets you “collect, manage, and cite your research sources” from within your web browser.
  • Google – Google really is the killer research app. You can do simple math, currency conversion, get answers to questions (like “what’s the population of albania?” — it’s 3.6 million), search the text of books, look at satellite maps of the place your studying, and of course, search the web. Just check out all the stuff it does. (And all the stuff it might do in the future.)

Conclusion

While I don’t think there’s really a substitute for face-to-face learning, the online classroom continues to evolve in amazing ways. Students today have a host of web apps at their finger tips that can truly facilitate a better learning environment.

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