Learning tech tips

ComputerHomeDesk_Icon_150x2006 tips and tools that make your life easier—inside and outside the classroom

If you think typing your class notes into a word processor on your laptop means you’re making the most of learning technology, think again. Learning specialist Danica Rose says there are some great (and even free) tools that can help you go from transcribing a lecture to setting up a real learning system that works for you.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

1. Listen while you work: Read and Write Gold

It feels like you’ve been reading online journals for hours. You’re exhausted, and you’re still not finished. If only you could sit back and listen while someone else did the reading. Read and Write Gold is a text-to-speech software that will read for you. It uses non-robotic voices to read PDF documents aloud—you can choose your preferred voice, speed and accent (British is a student favourite, according to Danica).

It also includes a tool to highlight text while you’re listening, grammar checker, spell checker, dictionary and thesaurus, and more.

The best part? The university owns a site licence, so it’s free. Just use this link on myPortal.MacEwan.ca to download your copy for Windows. The Mac version isn’t available yet, but you can download a 30-day trial version at www.texthelp.com.

2. Multitaskers unite: Audio Notetaker

Audio Notetaker is a multitasker’s dream come true. Just imagine your screen split into three vertical sections. On the left, you can download and see your prof’s PowerPoint slides, in the middle you’ve got a panel to record your thoughts or to capture something written on the board, and on the right there’s a recorder you can use to record the lecture (just make sure you ask your prof for permission before you hit the record button). You can go back later and edit, colour code and organize the information in a way that is meaningful for you.

“Being able to record information-dense lectures and then listen to them again later is the best part,” says Deanna Rausch. “I’m an English student, so a lot of my lectures require me to be engaged, and I’ve always been torn between trying to get everything the prof is saying down—especially some of the little nuanced comments—and fully participating in the lecture. With Audio Notetaker, I can go back over the lecture again, pause it, take notes, look up annotations and process the lecture at my own pace.”

You can try Audio Notetaker free for 30 days (www.sonocent.com).

If you decide to purchase it, it’s around $275 for a full licence. (You can also purchase six- and twelve-month subscriptions.)

3. Smarter than your average pen: digital pens

This tool sounds like something from Star Trek, but it turns out that the future really is now. Imagine a pen that uses a tiny camera to capture everything you write digitally, records what’s being said aloud as you write on special pixelated paper, and then syncs the two together. That’s a digital pen.

“When I explain this tool to people, it sounds like magic—like it couldn’t actually exist,” says Danica.

But it does. And it’s the perfect tool for science and math courses where students are working with diagrams and formulas. Instead of choosing between listening to what the faculty member is saying about a diagram or carefully drawing your own version, you can draw with your digital pen, then tap on it anytime afterwards to hear what was recorded at the time you were drawing.

It’s also great if you’re the kind of student who prefers to handwrite your notes, or for when constantly seeking out the right number keys on your laptop makes no sense.

“I was really surprised how much I liked this tool,” says Avi Azaraov, a fourth-year journalism student, who uses Livescribe’s Smartpen. “I write slowly, so I think that’s why it worked so well for me. Being able to tap my notes at a certain point and hear exactly what the teacher said is really helpful.”

Digital pens start at about $100 and smart pen notebooks are about $15 for four.

4. Wading through a world of apps

We all love apps, but finding the right one to do the job you want can be time consuming and overwhelming. Take advantage of advice from other students by walking by the bulletin board outside of 7-199 in Building 7. It’s updated every few months with the latest and greatest suggestions from students about what has worked for them.

Danica’s current favourite? “Instagrok creates a mind map of internet searches based on a particular topic,” says Danica. “It can be particularly helpful for first-year students who may not have any idea of where to begin a library search.”

5. Don’t type it—say it

Ever considered speaking your paper instead of typing it? Cynthia Johnson, who is about to begin the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program this fall, has been using speech recognition software for the past two years and says that after a bit of practice, she actually finds it a lot faster to think out loud.

“It takes a bit of getting used to, and you do have to pay attention because the transcription isn’t always perfect, but it’s actually pretty easy to use and now I find it very helpful,” she says.

Cynthia uses Dragon Dictate, which is about $150.

6. Whichever tool you choose, don’t wait to get started

Technology can ultimately be a great time-saver, but initially it can feel like more of a time-grabber. Getting used to these tools takes practice, and the time to begin is now.

“It takes some practice to get used to a new tool, and you need to make sure to set some time aside to figure things out,” she says. “Mid-October is too late. Ideally, you want to have looked over the tool really well by the end of August and to be ready to start testing it during the first week of classes, when your faculty members are going over the outlines.”

What happens when the technology does its job? “We see a lot of students shedding tears of happiness—we really do,” says Danica, who works in Services to Students with Disabilities. “Most of these tools align with universal design for learning because they remove the barriers to learning and put students with disabilities in the same position as their peers, but they’re built on really well-theorized research that can help all learners.”

And if the tool you try doesn’t work for you? “Don’t stop trying—keep going until you find one that works. There are so many options out there that the possibilities are almost endless.”

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