Completing your university work on time, collaborating with many people, and dealing with cost and other requirements of various software systems is a hassle, which I hope that you can eliminate using some of these tools. I’ve used these and I’d like recommend that people try them out. Following is a brief description of some Office Productivity, Time and Project Management, Mindmapping, Reference Management, Note Taking, and Transcription applications. I’ve included a link to access or download them (all cost-free).
Office Productivity Suites (e.g. word processors, presentation applications, and spreadsheets)
Don’t want to pay for Microsoft Office? Using a computer that doesn’t support it? Here are two good alternatives.
A free office application suite that includes advanced features. LibreOffice is an alternative to, and compatible with Microsoft Office. You can download it and install it on your computer to use forever at no charge. It uses the Open Document Format standard as its native file format but can also import or export documents to Microsoft formats such as .docx (sometimes these aren’t 100% perfect though). It supports change tracking so you can edit documents with other people and see each others work/notes. You can use LibreOffice on GNU/Linux, Microsoft, or Mac desktops. It also works nicely with reference management tools (more on this later) to make inserting citations and bibliographies simple.
Get it here http://www.libreoffice.org
Google Docs is a basic office suite that costs $0. Google’s service is very useful for collaborating on assignments in a team. People can work on the same document at the same time without saving many versions and getting confused about which is the most recent. It supports change-tracking, version roll-back, and also lets you chat (by text or by video) while working on a document together. It does not install on your computer but instead runs inside of your Web browser (best to use a modern browser such as recent versions of Firefox or Chrome). It doesn’t have as many features as LibreOffice or Microsoft Office but it can export or import from either one.
Access it here https://www.google.ca/docs/about/
Time & Project Management
Organize your work and time!
Trello is a super simple, task organization and management tool. It’s a free Web-based service that you can use by yourself or in collaboration with others. It’s great for organizing and remembering what you need to do to finish projects or assignments, especially when working with other people. Trello provides a phone/tablet app. It works by setting up lists and then you insert items into each list. They do not necessarily have to be tasks and you can also create checklists within the items. It has a pleasing aesthetic when you drag items between lists and allows you to do more advanced things like insert attachments from your Google Drive account. It’s simple to set date deadlines/reminders in each item too. There are many great ways to use Trello (not just for managing tasks). One technique that I’m a fan of is to make four lists and prioritize work based on their importance and urgency.
- Important/not urgent
- Not important/urgent
- Not Important/not urgent
There is a good explanation of that Eisenhower Matrix technique on Trello’s blog.
If you have a more involved project that you’re working on and need to break it into formal parts, ProjectLibre is a no-cost open source application that allows you make Gantt charts and manage projects. It is similar to Microsoft Project.
Download it here http://www.projectlibre.org/
If you want to use a project management tool like ProjectLibre but want to do it online through your Web browser, try Zoho. It’s similar to Google Docs, you can use it as an online office application suite but unlike Google, it also offers a project management tool. It is free to use for one project.
Access it here https://www.zoho.com/projects/
Mindmapping is a technique for organizing your ideas. It lets you easily group and branch ideas in a visual representation. These tools can be put to use for many different purposes. For example, if you’re brainstorming ideas to develop a research question, you could start with your central idea on the mindmap. Then, as you question different aspects of your idea, you can branch out and brainstorm key concepts about each of these ideas. That way, you can see where your interests fall and use your map to put together a good research question. This article shows another interesting use.
The following two tools are available for free and have various online components. They can produce files that are compatible with each tool. Try them out and see which interface you prefer. Explore both of the web sites for instructions and good examples of ways to use mindmapping tools.
Xmind is a cost-free mindmapping tool. However, for a fee, they offer upgrades that enable you to get more functionality out of the tool, such as exporting to more file formats.
Download it here http://www.xmind.net/download/
FreeMind is a free mindmapping tool with a great deal of functionality. Its interface may appear a little dated but it works well.
Download it here http://freemind.sourceforge.net
Reference Management, Bibliography, and Research Management
Reference management tools enable you to capture bibliographic information on the documents you find while doing research. USE THESE TOOLS! They make it so much easier to cite your references while you’re writing papers and they will produce beautiful, automatic bibliographies for you in the style of your choice. Each of these tools have plusses and minuses. It’s best to read about how they work, compare the functionality they offer, and try them out to see how they fit your comfort zone and research workflow. The tools listed below all support collaborating on group assignments or projects by letting you share your references, documents, and comment on them.
Zotero is a free and open source, reference and document management application with many features. It includes LibreOffice and Microsoft Office plugins, and offers Web browser integration. It has a stand-alone desktop application in addition to its web-based interface. This is useful especially if you are working in a space without internet connectivity or do not want to rely on the application provider to be able to access your references. The tool can help you find bibliographic data. Zotero offers free space to store your documents and will also synchronize these with your desktop.
Download it here https://www.zotero.org
Mendeley is a no-cost desktop tool. Like Zotero, it provides Web-based access as well. It includes plugins for LibreOffice and Microsoft Office. Mendeley has some interesting features to help you find missing bibliographic data or files and also provides free document storage. You can pay for additional storage (like Zotero).
Download it here https://www.mendeley.com
RefWorks is a web-based reference management application. If you want to work purely within your web browser and not install a desktop application, this is a good option. Like the other tools, RefWorks offers storage space for your documents and has a plugin for Microsoft Word. A new version of RefWorks will also integrate with Google Docs.
Concordia students should follow this link to create a free RefWorks account.
Hierarchical Note Taking
How do you keep track of your notes and ideas from lectures? From the documents you read? On the papers you’re writing? A hierarchical note-taking tool can be useful to these ends. These tools are simple writing applications (not full-blown word processors) but they let you easily organize your notes into categories and subcategories. Each tool has its own interesting features on top of the essential purpose. ZIM for example, lets you create links between your notes by writing words in CamelCase (like a wiki).
This is a free desktop tool that uses similar concepts to a wiki and has more advanced features.
Download it here http://zim-wiki.org/
This is an easy-to-use, free desktop tool. It also offers more advanced features.
Download it here http://www.giuspen.com/cherrytree/
If you’ve recorded someone, for example you conducted a bunch of semi-structured interviews for a research project, then you’ve probably struggled to transcribe your audio recording to text. There are some applications that make this a bit easier by giving you controls over the playback speed and start/stop of the recording while you type.
TranscriberAG is a feature-filled, free and open source tool that you can use on most desktop platforms.
Download it here http://transag.sourceforge.net/
This application is available only for Windows and Mac OSes. You can download a basic version at no charge and pay for an upgrade if you want its more advanced features.
Download it here http://www.nch.com.au/scribe/
Finally, I thought I’d include oTranscribe even though I’ve never tried it because unlike the other two, it is a web-based application. If you don’t want to install anything on your computer, this very basic app might be just enough to do the job.
Access it here http://otranscribe.com/
This list of applications is by no means intended to be comprehensive. There are a lot of other excellent tools that you can use for these purposes. I hope however, that the easy availability and utility of the ones I’ve listed will be helpful.