Five years ago I wrote, what for some reason, was the first post for my blog that got any sort of attention. Basically it was a run down of the “Top Ten” software tools I use as an educator. At the time I was consistently asked by colleauges what computer “stuff” I used, so I decided to narrow it down to one post and include publish it. Indeed when I first started blogging I thought my entire website would be about tech tools and tips for academics. That roll is now fulfilled in a far better way by so many other sites that I hardly use this site for that anymore, or at least not directly.
But I did think the more than five year anniversary was worth revisiting and taking a look at how my media environment has changed. I actually think these sorts of posts can be pretty useful, as the how of our computer use is often obscured, despite the fact that it is so varied. In my classes I often like to have students talk about what programs, apps, techniques they use as a way to show a diversity of approaches.
The most substantial change I have made is moving away from Apple. Once an avid promoter of their products at this point I am so concerned about the computing environment they are building that it is worth my time to look for something else. I have moved from my main computer running Mac OS to one which runs Ubuntu. Indeed although I still have a Mac laptop I rarely use it for anything I can’t do on Ubuntu (http://www.ubuntu.com/), and am looking to purchase a new laptop soon, one I suspect will not be made by Apple (or if it is, Macbook Air?, I will use it to run Ubuntu). I no longer use an iPhone, which has been replaced by a Nexus S (which I tell people is so much more powerful than an iPhone). The only Apple product I consistently use, and find to be ridiculously useful (more on that later), is the iPad, but with the substantial number of impressive Android tablets coming out, I suspect it is only a matter of time until I migrate away from this product as well. There is a decided shift here to platform independent services, and services which offer greater control, even sometimes at the cost of ease of use.
As such this list has changed substantially. So here, in some sort of rough order is my list of essential pieces to my computing environment.
-SpiderOak I replaced Dropbox with SpiderOak because of security concerns. And haven’t looked back since. Sure SpiderOak is a tad more difficult to set up, but the fact that the files are encrypted on my end and thus SpiderOak has no access to my files makes it more than worth it. I still use Dropbox to share articles or readings with students and store some files, but SpiderOak is my main system. SpiderOak works across all my devices (phone, laptop, desktop, tablet).
-WordPress. Oddly this didn’t even make the list back in 2006, even though my blog was running of Wordpress. But now I use it for managing not only my blog, but my main site, and sites for the classes I am teaching (screw BlackBoard), as well as a separate one for my current research project. The ability to quickly roll out a good looking website, that is easy to update, and highly customizable is invaluable. I am always recommending to people that they build an online precense they control to display their scholarly work, and Wordpress is the easiest, and one of the most powerful ways to do this.
-iAnnotate PDF. First tablet app on the list. This one is ridiculously useful. I use it to read and mark up PDFs. I use this to both comment on student work (especially grad students and drafts of papers), and to read journal articles. This lets me “carry with me” all the papers I need to read in digital format and still mark them up as if they were paper. Seriously, probably half the time I use the iPad its with this app.
-Instapaper. Throughout the day, I come across various articles that I want to read, but don’t have the time to read right then. Instapaper lets me save these pages for reading later. I actually have a habit of carving out an hour or two to read thru everything I have saved. This also has the bonus effect of not being distracted by articles which may seem like a good idea at the time, but a couple of days later seem irrelevant or only interesting as a distraction. I also use IFTT so that by favoriting Tweets in any Twitter client I am using they automatically get saved to Instapaper. After iAnnotate, Instapaper is probably the app I used most. (Although you can access Instapaper on any computing device.)
-Astrid. I played around a lot (way too much perhaps) with various todo list organizers. But this is the one I settled on. Mainly it came down to interface and cross platform use, coupled with the ability to connect to other services I use. I am still trying to figure out a way to integrate a todo list with voice commands effectively. I might hook Astrid to Prodcteev just to accomplish this.
-WiTopia. This is a paid VPN service. When connecting to the net via an untrusted connection a VPN service is critical. Our University I am sure has one they provide, but I prefer to control my own. A serious advanatage of WiTopia is that I can pick from an elaborate range of locations enabling me to connect to the net with an IP from anyone of a number of countries and getting outside of the “American” centric net (not to mention for watching the BBC). Even on campus I will use the VPN if I want to hide my traffic for anyone of a number of reasons. WiTopia is safe, easy to install, and works across all my devices.
-AutoHotKey or TextExpander. These programs are ridiculously useful. I specify a series of characters and they are then instally replaced another. For example I type “aadd” anytime I want to add my mailing address to something and “aadd” is replaced by my full snail mail address. I use this for titles of books I have to type a lot, or code shortcuts: I never actually type “””.” You can also set up these programs to automatically drop in the most recently copied text, or insert today’s date etc.
-gedit. I used to use word processors or Scrivener to write. Now I just use a simple text editing program. Forget making the text look good, that’s for later. Now when I write I work it a very simple text only environment. On the Mac I had switched over to TextMate, on my home computer I use gedit. Seriously 80% of what I write starts off as basic text.
-A Good Hosting Service. The cloud and free services are one thing, but the ability to host your own site and control your own data etc., for me is crucial. Get your own hosting service for your website, set up your own email and stop counting on someone to do this for you. I prefer HostGator. But there are lots of good ones out there.