This guest article was submitted by Andreas Ødegård.
Technology in school is a topic that has really been getting a lot of attention in recent years. It started with laptops and general computer implementation and has now evolved into Amazon making a Kindle DX that is targeting students, with deals being made as we speak to make sure that textbooks will be available on the Kindle.
As a gadget maniac, I've been using technology to better my day-to-day life as a student for years now. You might say I was born a few years too early, as so far the technological breakthroughs in the educational system have come just as I've finished that part of my education. In high school for instance, I was in my senior year when they started providing juniors with laptops to be used actively as part of the educational process. Now that I'm attending Lillehammer University College (HiL, Norwegian abbreviation), it looks like by the time textbooks are digital, I'll already have graduated. I've always tried to adapt technology to serve my educational needs, though, even if the infrastructure wasn't there to support me.
Tech I've Had
15.4" Dell with Vista
Back when I started HiL almost two years ago, netbooks hadn't yet taken over the portable PC market and the only alternative to a full-sized laptop was a UMPC. With UMPCs costing upwards of $2000 in Norway at the time, I went with a 15.4" Dell laptop. The lecture halls at HiL are equipped with approximately 4 AC outlets for a class size of up to 150, so battery life was the deciding factor for me. As a result, the laptop I got was so heavy that I didn't really want to have it with me at all, but it was recommended to do so.
4.1" Nokia N800 with Maemo Linux
During the Christmas break, I found a deal on a Nokia N800 Internet Tablet and after a few hits and misses using USB keyboards in host mode, I got an iGo Stowaway Bluetooth keyboard to pair it with. This served as my main school "PC" for the remainder of that semester.
It was awesome in that I had a very usable device that had great battery life and was easy to carry around. I remember taking notes on it and also transferring files from my computer to read on it as a book. The biggest downside was the lack of decent office software: I couldn't use PowerPoint files provided by the school, I couldn't open Word documents, and I couldn't work on spreadsheets (which you end up doing a lot when studying economics). It was also a bit annoying at times that I had to use a stylus to navigate, especially when surfing.
8.9" Acer Aspire One with XP
When I started my second year, netbooks were finally starting to catch on and more and more people were getting them for school use. At the time, my desktop PC had just handed in its resignation and my Dell laptop was serving as my main computer as well as coming to school with me when the N800 simply wasn't enough to handle the day's task. I did a lot of overtime at work back then, which meant a bit of extra cash in my pocket, so after careful consideration I ended up getting an Acer Aspire One with a 6-cell battery. The Dell is now a permanent home PC and connected to so much equipment that a normal person's desktop PC is easier to move than this one.
When it comes to netbooks, they are indeed very student friendly. Cheap, portable, and with enough power to do the tasks you need. It does everything I need and then some, and with both the original 3-cell battery and the 6-cell, I have about 7+ hours of battery life with me. It does, however, require my to carry a bag (or in my case a backpack) and there are times that I really miss the N800. If I had the money, I'd probably get a decent UMPC instead. Netbooks are smaller than laptops, but still not small enough to be something to carry around without advance planning because you can't fit it in a pocket.
3.5" iPod Touch with Mobile OS X
Later last year, I got a first-generation iPod touch (now upgraded to a second-generation model). While editing or creating content on it is close to impossible, Apple did add support for office formats. As such, I've been able to put documents on it (e.g., Power Point presentations from the lectures) and carry them around with me. This has helped my mobility tremendously because I can now leave the netbook at home on days when it's enough to just have access to reading documents. A lot of people want a touch or an iPhone for entertainment use while at school, but take it from me – it can also be used for productivity.
iTunes U also helps in that department. For those who don't know, iTunes U is a service that allows schools, museums, etc. to publish lectures as either video or audio files. I recently contacted my school to ask about implementing iTunes U there, and the reply was that they are already working on it. A couple of days later the story was actually on the news, with HiL being one of three schools to pioneer the system in Norway. Even if your school doesn't publish anything itself, iTunes U gives you access to thousands of lectures from various universities and other institutions around the world and allows you to both get more info on your own subjects and also check out other fields you find interesting. If you do go to a school that publishes lectures on iTunes U, an iPod or iPhone becomes an even greater educational tool.
Tech I Wish I'd Had
As I said with the N800, the main issue I had with it was the lack of support for Office documents. As such, I've always wanted a UMPC that would give me something in between the Aspire One and the N800. The Viliv S5 would be great as such a device: its battery life and size puts it close to the N800, but it has all the bells and whistles of XP.
I especially like having something with a touchscreen at school since it's so much easier when doing math. It's also nice to be able to make annotations on documents, which I actually used to do with the N800 whenever I had a readable document. The obvious downside is the lack of a keyboard; and you need to have a real keyboard (not on-screen or slide out) to really do anything extensive. The iGo Bluetooth keyboard would do a good job with that, but back when I had the N800 I also briefly used a Logitech ultra flat keyboard modified with a short USB cable, a camera tripod, and a windshield mount (information here), which put together made a small, full-sized solid keyboard that was able to hold the full weight of the N800. I could even use the setup on my lap. Much more stable and easier to type on than the somewhat flimsy iGo.
If I was going to use a UMPC exclusively for school, I'd definitely go back and make another one of those. It more or less turns the UMPC into a full-fledged netbook with a full keyboard that includes a number pad.
For those that haven't seen these, electronic pens are basically pens that on top of functioning like a normal pen also lets you transfer what you've written to a computer. One example is the Zpen. A sensor that clips to the top of the paper and records the pen's placement makes everything possible. Not sure exactly how it works, but it does. Such a pen would of course be awesome for taking notes because you would then have a digital copy of all your notes afterward.
While a lot of people have complained that the new Amazon Kindle DX isn't good enough to replace textbooks, I'd have jumped for joy if I'd had access to one during the last few years. In the two years since I started HiL, my bookshelf has filled up to contain about 20 books that individually are big enough to be considered possible murder weapons if anyone was ever hurt around here. It's a real drag to carry them around and not the easiest to read at home either.
Just a few weeks ago I bent the spine of one of my books to make it stop closing by itself, and as a result several pages fell out. I spent an hour trying to stop the "bleeding" as more and more pages fell out while I was desperately trying to tape it together.
Say what you want about underlining and such on the Kindle DX; at least you don't have to fight just to make it stay open (and in one piece). I really hope the Kindle (or devices like it) is the future for textbooks, as the way things are today isn't very practical.
Schools often use their own software solutions for things like schedules and information, which can be extremely annoying for a gadget-loving student because many of these solutions have very poor compatibility with consumer devices.
One example of proprietary software is the email system our school uses. Instead of asking people if they have email accounts already, they instead make a new account and send all the info there, which has to be accessed through a rather buggy web portal that many schools use called Fronter. I have a Gmail account that lets me know immediately when I get mail on both my computers, an email client on my phone and on the iPod touch. Instead of sending me messages to that account, they send everything to the web email system on Fronter. There might be one email a week that they send, but to make up for it that one email is probably important. I'm left with having to manually check a close to inactive web-based email account for important messages instead of getting them with all my other mail.
Calendar bookmarking is also an issue for me. The school uses a system called TimeEdit to provide an updated schedule of lectures that can be accessed on the web. You choose your class code, how many weeks you want to display, and whether you want a graphical or text-based overview. Sounds good, right? Right, except for the fact that you cannot bookmark the thing because either the week range will expire or the whole thing will reset and you'll have to select every option from scratch. The solution to this for me was some help from people I know with PHP skills. The result was a self-hosted PHP file that sends me through to a TimeEdit generated site showing my class schedule for the next five weeks. PHP programming should not be mandatory to be able to bookmark your schedule!
Then there is calendar syncing, which is even more annoying. I use Google Calendar to keep track of things and considering TimeEdit has a link to export to iCal and vCal formats, all that I would technically need is another PHP code to keep the iCal link up to date as the weeks go by. Enter Robots.txt. This is a small text file that if put in the root of a server will stop search engines like Google from connecting to it, either to index the sites for searching or other things. In this case, it interfered with me syncing Google Calendar to TimeEdit. I thought that it would be easy to fix and sent an email to our school's system administrator at asking if he could remove Robots.txt because it was interfering with calendar syncing. His reply was that he didn't understand the question. The solution for me was to get a PHP script that when prompted saves the iCal file to my own server, then links to the saved file to allow Google to use it. From there, Nuevasync makes my Google Calendar into an exchange account my iPod touch can use. All in all, the process from school server to iPod is TimeEdit -> PHP script -> own server -> Google -> Nuevasync -> iPod. It works, but again it's not exactly something anyone can be expected to set up just to get the class schedule (or Google Calendar) on their portable device.
I could list other "creative" software implementations for another ten pages, but I think you get the idea. I don't understand why it's impossible for schools (or at least my school) to use systems that have at least a little bit of compatibility with the rest of the world. I guess they figure the students are so dumb that there's no need for compatibility with standard software solution like email and calendars.
Either way, one of the things I really wish I'd had over the last few years is good, non-proprietary software that doesn't require half a dozen PHP scripts to make it work with everyday gadgets.
Being a student means cash is always lacking, which makes choosing the right tech to go with the lifestyle that much harder. More than anything, being a student means that any choice you make will cause some issue someplace else.
A big device has the benefits of a keyboard and relative cheap price (compared to the specs you're getting), but it lacks portability. A small device like a MID or UMPC gives you great portability and in some cases great battery life, but there will be issues with usability. If you're a student and can only afford one device, I'd go with a netbook since it will give you the computer experience at your dorm room (if you have one) and be a decent portable device for school. I'd still prefer a UMPC with a USB keyboard for school only, but considering the price and the fact that you'd still need a PC at home, a netbook is a much better all round device for me. My all time least favorite school gadget is a full-sized laptop; you simply don't want to carry around that big of a device day in and day out.
Andreas Ødegård is currently finishing the second year of a three-year bachelor's degree in Economics and Administration at Lillehammer University College in Norway. He loves gadgets of all sorts and has been writing for Anything But iPod since January 2008, as well as updating his own blog.