Useful tools

Five years ago, Dave Parry wrote a blog post titled “Tech Tools/Tips for the College Bound.” He offers some good advice there, and I encourage you to go read the post; though a few of the recommendations of particular tools are out of date, the advice itself remains as timely as ever.

In the same spirit, I’d like to suggest a few tools that you might find useful for managing your academic career here at Saint Mary’s:

  • A calendar. As Prof. Parry notes, this is essential. You’ll need a good way to keep track of your commitments, academic and otherwise, so that you can plan appropriately. Whether you choose a paper planner, the calendar that came with your computer, an application on your phone, or a web-based solution really doesn’t matter. Choose what works for you, based on the features (e.g., the ability to set reminders and alarms or to subscribe to other calendars) that you need. Many of you might end up choosing to use the Zimbra calendar, which is the online solution the College uses (and yes, you can subscribe to the course calendar in Zimbra; just create a new calendar, tick “Synchronize appointments from remote calendar,” and paste in the course calendar’s URL).
  • A task manager (a.k.a. a to-do list). You’ll want a way to keep track of the work you need to do, and when you need to do it (hint: break big tasks up into smaller ones). Again, there are plenty of options, some stand-alone, some that integrate with a calendar or email system. You might use Remember the Milk, GQueues, Things, Wunderlist, Google Tasks, or an application on your phone—but a traditional paper planner, a sheet of scrap paper, or a sticky note may work just as well for you. The key is to keep it up to date, and keep it somewhere where you’ll actually see it.
  • A note-taking system. Do pay attention to what Prof. Parry says about active listening as one of the points of note-taking. Of course, a good set of notes is also useful for studying for exams and as a resource for possible paper topics. Pen and paper will work just fine, as long as you have a clear system of organization and keep your notes someplace where you can actually find them (if you go this route, you might find the Cornell System helpful). If you want your notes to be searchable (and automatically backed up), you might keep your notes in Google Documents or take a look at Evernote.
  • An external hard drive. Speaking of backing up your work, it’s always a good idea to have a copy of your work saved somewhere other than on your computer’s hard drive. Both OS X (Time Machine) and Windows (Backup and Restore) provide backup systems that you can set up and then forget about, and both will keep earlier versions of your files, so if you accidentally overwrite an older file with a newer one, you won’t lose all your work. Just remember to attach the external drive to your computer on a regular basis! (Ubuntu has a built-in backup solution in Ubuntu One; users of other Linux distributions might consider Simple Backup.)
  • A cloud-based backup and/or sync system. When it comes to backups, redundancy is a good thing.[1. Seriously. The first three rules of computing are: (1) If it’s important, back it up. (2) See rule #3. (3.) See rule #1. Having more than one backup system—including one that keeps your most important files backed up in a different location from where you usually work on them—reduces the likelihood that you’ll lose vital work.] Dropbox and Spideroak are among the most commonly used cloud services for backing up your files (and, if you wish, syncing them between computers).[2. There are some differences between the two services, and there have been some concerns with Dropbox’s security. Dropbox is very easy to set up; Spideroak is a bit more complicated, but also more secure.] Both will keep older versions of your files in addition to backing them up.

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