Tag Archives: computers

Software! Software! Get your fresh software!

Lots of activity on the software front lately.

OmniFocus, the GTD app which I wrote about here, was released in version 1.0 today. I’ve been very satisfied with OmniFocus since settling on it for my GTD needs, especially since I managed to combine discounts to get it for under $20. I don’t know how many of those discounts are still available, but definitely the educational pricing is still there (though you have to look around for it at the Omni web site).

Bento, called the “missing database from iWork”, was released out of beta today as well. I’ve been demoing Bento for the last few days as a tracking system for students, and it’s very nice and visual. But I found the $49 price tag to be a little pricey, especially when the entire iWork ’08 suite is $79.

Sage, an open-source computer algebra system comparable to Matlab, has been gathering lots of buzz. With all my issues with Maple 10 not working under OS X Leopard, I’ve made learning Sage to be one of my January projects. I’ve got it downloaded and installed — which was no small feat, since there is no DMG package for OS X and it has to be built from source — but I haven’t had a chance to test drive it much. More later if I do.

Jott is not exactly software but rather a voice-to-text service that is really quite amazing. You call up a central phone number, address your voice message using voice commands, and then speak your message — and Jott converts it to text and sends it to the addressee as an email, SMS message, or both. You can also set Jott up to post to Google Calendar, Twitter, even blogging services (which unfortunately excludes WordPress.com). I used to want a digital voice recorder for capturing thoughts for my GTD inbox while not able to write things down or get to my laptop, but now I just call up Jott and have it send me an email. Brilliant — and free! (This has been around for a while, but I realized I hadn’t blogged about how enthused I was about it.)

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Filed under Software, Technology

An alternative to the college laptop initiative

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More and more colleges and universities these days are offering some kind of program where students who enroll get a computer to use while they are in college. Most of these programs involve giving out laptops, although an increasing number are giving out tablet PC’s. The idea is that students will be enticed to enroll because of the “free” computer offer, then use the computer along with the pre-loaded software throughout their college years, and then typically students get to keep the computer when they graduate. (That last being a nifty way for a college to get around the problem of what to do with outdated equipment.)

It seems like a good idea, but I wonder if giving away a computer upon matriculation is the best way to meet the technology needs of students. These programs focus on the device. Fine, but what if you want to use, or already do use, a computer other than the one the university is giving out? And what if your tastes in technology change, so that the shiny new Dell laptop you got as a freshman no longer cuts it after you discover Ubuntu Linux or OS X when you’re a sophomore? You’re locked in, and you’re less free, not more free.

Since devices come and go at an exponential pace, it seems more sensible for colleges to provide not a device to its students but a high-quality, even world-class infrastructure for computer usage and let the students handle the procurement of a computer on their own.

For example, here’s a package of perks that a college could provide to its students instead of a computer that would make their computer use potentially more productive:

  • Internet and intranet access that is fast (cutting-edge, Internet2 fast), has tons of bandwidth, is rarely if ever down for unscheduled reasons, and is accessible at all points on campus via a secure wireless network.
  • An extension of that wireless network to businesses and hangouts that are near but not on the campus itself, so that students could be on the network while working at that coffee shop just across the street from the math building. Use a whole bunch of Meraki Mini routers to make this cheap and simple.
  • A huge amount of network hard drive space, something like 500 GB per user. Something big enough to archive 4-5 years’ worth of college work in a variety of media formats.
  • Secure FTP/SSH access to that network hard drive that is usable from anywhere.
  • Personal web space on par with what you might spend $100 per month for if you bought it from a server farm in terms of the amount of storage and bandwidth provided. And like the commercial server spaces, that personal web space would be populated with the ability to host web sites and blogs, create subdomains, and create multiple POP and IMAP email accounts (in lieu of MS Exchange email, not in addition to).

And most importantly, offer the freedom to use this first-class campus network in whatever way the student wishes as long as it’s not illegal, doesn’t hog the campus’ resources unnecessarily, and fits within a small set of university guidelines for usage. This is not only doable but currently being done. One large university near here has the policy that they don’t monitor so much what you are doing with the campus network but rigorously monitor how much of the network you are using. Want to play WoW with a bunch of other people over the network? Fine, but you’d better plan on doing it at 2 AM when there’s not many people on the network trying to get actual work done, or else you’ll be locked out.

Then, having set up this network, the college would encourage faculty (through financial or other incentives) to use the campus network to provide the basic “texts” for their courses using free and existing online materials or by writing their own course notes, and getting away from expensive textbooks. If you could eliminate print textbooks for one student taking four classes each semester for a year, that would save the student in the neighborhood of $800, which the student could use to buy a decent laptop computer.

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Filed under Educational technology, Higher ed, Technology