posted 2012-03-07 19:03:35

Technically Correct

This week: a guide to the tech resources you need to know

Brandon Maister, Staff Writer

We’re early into another semester, and we’ve still got the energy that comes with the hopes and dreams of success. Whether this is your first or your third- to-last month in college, you want to do it right: learn some stuff, get good grades, various other things associated with the college life. Assuming that you want to learn something this semester, I have some technical tools to help you succeed.

First, and importantly, I need to point out that this is just a bunch of tools. Tools can be used well or poorly, an X-ACTO knife can be used to splice wires or clean tires, but if you do the latter you’re likely to hurt something-- so take all this with a grain of salt and think through how you want to work.

Shedding light where before there was ‘naught but Dark

The Internet is the greatest spreader of knowledge that the world has seen since Atlantis. And if you go to Wikipedia at the wrong moment you might be told that there is legitimate evidence that Atlantis exists-- but most of the time it’s as good a reference for academic subjects as Britannica or the World Book. Though miscreants prevent us from citing it, Wikipedia is a great resource when you’re starting a report on a new subject, and expert students know that the citations lists at the end of each article are a gold mine of quality references for any essay or report.

One of the nicer aspects of the free encyclopedia is that many of its references are free. However, for almost any discipline you can learn more from academic databases-- such as Lexis/Nexis for news articles and JSTOR for academic journals --than you can from the web. The Hunter College Libraries have a massive selection of databases (at http://library.hunter. cuny.edu/find/databases) of reference work that is searchable almost as easily as Google. This collection of databases is perhaps one of the greatest things about going to college - a personal subscription to all of them would easily cost more than a semester’s tuition. Heck, the OED alone is over $250 per year. It seems like students are often intimidated by the sound of “Academic Journals,” and indeed some articles can be far beyond the ken of undergrads. But most aren’t, and for every page covered in Greek symbols, confusing jargon, or Latin words there are hundreds in clear, readable English. (I recommend review articles in particular.)

Beating the Fogs of Confusion

Generally when I’m confused about something I want to see an alternative or more detailed explanation.

For alternative lectures Kahn Academy (www.khanacademy.org) has got a great reputation. The Academy is a collection of over 2,800 YouTube lectures that explain concepts in easy-to-grasp chunks- -usually between 3 and 15 minutes. They have videos covering a very wide range of subjects, mostly scientific subjects like Chemistry, Physics, and Math, but also details of the humanities, including a surprisingly large collection about Art History.

If you prefer longer-form interactions with ideas, MIT’s OpenCourseWare (ocw. mit.edu) has been at the forefront of free education for the masses since 2002. It has a huge number of courses available, although their content varies from “selected lecture notes” to full videos of every lecture, with notes, student notes, pictures and ancillary materials. Notes are by far the most common form lecture on the OCW site, so if you learn better by reading than by watching, you might want to check it out.

If you have very specific questions the StackExchange (stackexchange.com) family of sites is a collection of question- and-answer communities dedicated to specific topics. It is excellent in particular for advanced topics and questions, this is probably the most useful of the noted resources for seniors. These definitely lean heavily to computers, mathematics, and the sciences, but there are “Cooking” and “English Language and Usage” sites. Additionally, the network is new and growing and anybody can propose a new site, although the standards for new sites are high.

A craftsman needs tools

So, all that’s great, but what about actually getting things done? Well, you probably know about the various computer labs scattered around Hunter (in 1001 north, scattered around the library, the SRC in Thomas Hunter 205, near the writing center in Thomas Hunter 405) that have a variety of necessary software, but what if you want to get things done on your own computer (without spending any money)?

The most important thing is, of course, office software. You need something that can read and save in Microsoft Word format (to read syllabuses and email late papers), and unfortunately Word is $80-$500, depending on what kinds of discounts you can find. The free alternatives are good, though, and fall into two main camps: Google Docs (docs.google. com) and LibreOffice (libreoffice.org, formerly OpenOffice.org). Google Docs is just about the best way to collaborate with people in real time on a document, but the formatting options are limited compared to LibreOffice.

A last treat

One thing that is very useful for language learners, and a true advance in memorization that learners of all sorts should know about, is what’s known as “spaced repetition software.” This is flash- card software that uses sophisticated techniques to decide what cards it should show you, and when. The current best- of-breed SRS is Anki (ankisrs.net), which has programs for Windows, Mac, Linux, Android and iPhone, and allows you to sync your cards and progress across devices. Spaced repetition has been validated in numerous scientific studies since the ‘70s, if you’re learning anything that requires memorization (the fourth declension, names of paintings, and trigonometric substitution in integrals are all amenable) you owe it to yourself to try it out.