Computer Tools for University Students

A lot has changed in the five years I’ve attended university. When I started in 2006, a few students took notes on their laptops in class (myself included), while many took notes on good ’ol pen and paper. In my math classes I was never without my pencil, binder, and graphing paper. I used Windows XP for most everything and only dabbled in Ubuntu. When a student owned an Apple Computer, it was more of a status symbol (unless they were in CompSci; in which case they just got ripped on by their peers). Now I can’t walk into a lecture without immersing myself in a sea of laptop logos. Apple computers are no longer an alternate lifestyle, they are a status symbol, and students know less about how to use these machines than ever before.

I’ve also noticed that my fellow students were using any piece of software they can get their hands on. Piracy is rampant in the halls of the dorms. Being more computer savvy than most, I’ve decided to give a tutorial of open-source tools for university students. The page you are presently reading is the third iteration of this pursuit. I’m adding and adjusting things all the time, it just takes a bit of effort to clean up and publish these findings (notwithstanding that my site has been floating around in DNS-limbo for the last few months). I used to have this list separated by operating system, but so many applications now either work across operating systems or are web-based that I just separated them by App vs Web.

So, without further ado, I present my 2011 list of university software tools:


  • Zotero: Zotero is a Firefox plugin designed for managing bibliographic citations from around the web. It integrates quite nicely into the Firefox browser; adding a citation is as easy as clicking on the address-bar.

  • Mendeley: A new addition to this list, Mendeley is a research collaboration tool catered to group projects. I’m currently running two different research projects from Mendeley, and it’s ease-of-use has definitely kept my colleagues on the ball. For example, the group page display emulates Facebook’s wall. This allows group-members to do anything from share quick tid-bits to establish their research progress. In addition, Mendeley also acts as a ebook-organizer: an essential feature for keeping track of the many PDFs proffessors send to their students. Mendeley also has easy, distributed note-taking capabilities.

  • Calibre: Another new addition to the list, Calibre is an ebook-manager capable of format version and newpaper downloads. This is an essential program for ebook reader (such as the Nook, iPad, or Kindle) owners.

  • Open Office: A full office suite capable of most everything that Microsoft Office can do, but free. Some people prefer the new Microsoft Office ribbon, but I prefer the price of Open Office (free).

  • Dropbox: Not exactly the newest addition, but definitely the app that’s come the furthest. Dropbox allows one to sync a folder across multiple computers and mobile devices. It also allows you to share a folder to your friends or colleagues for file-collaboration.

Software Suites

Software suites typically contain a host of software packaged in a readily sharable and usable format. The packages listed below contain some of the software listed above.

  • Software for Starving Students: A whole suite of various open-source software, for Mac and Windows (all of the Linux versions are available through distribution package management and are not included). This software includes everything from Inkscape (a vector image program) to clamwin antivir (free antivirus).

  • Portable Apps: My favourite software suite of all time, portable apps lets you run a wide variety of open-source applications from your thumbdrive. This is great for circumventing outdated school software installations and maintaining privacy.


  • Google Docs: An online office suite by Google. Google Docs is great for any remote collaboration on research papers. A technique I’ve discovered is sharing folders with your colleagues and setting up a page to be used as the index of the project, then link all “ToDo”s to their own documents.

  • Google Scholar: To stand on the shoulders of giants is to peer at the frontiers of progress. With Google Scholar, one is able to do very fast academic research on almost any criteria. If you have a proxy set up, downloading articles becomes a breeze.

This list is by no means comprehensive, and I expect that I’ll be adding more and more programs as time goes on. The ones listed, however, should be a solid start for your next academic endeavour.

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