"Studying in the Cloud", or how a PhD student uses the web to stay sane(ish)

I like studying. I enjoy reading what others think, searching out new ideas, combining knowledge into new forms, making intuitive leaps between disciplines - all of the sort of things which to my mind PhD students should be getting up up to. But I don't necessarily think I'm a very good student, and I'm sure teachers both past and present won't disagree. The aptitude I may have, but sometimes dedication (and deadlines for that matter) don't exactly come easy. With that in mind I need all the help I can get ...

Luckily when it comes to the web, and web 2.0 tools, I'm not exactly a novice. I created my first HTML page on May the 2nd, 1999 - I know the exact date because I still have the page - and ever since have been engaged in all sorts of web and new media projects, from the days when a multimedia CD-ROM was the very height of cool. Right now my day job actually requires me to be innovative with the web, so I'd like to share some of my expertise here, most specifically with the way I use web tools to help me as a research student.

Why do I use the Cloud? Because I never know where I'll be ...

I never took a conscious decision to use cloud based services - my first draft chapters were all word documents. But my life is pretty complex - I'm a part-time student, who also has two jobs, for which I have two separate offices in two different parts of the city where I work. Oh, and a home office. And three separate mobile devices I keep notes on. Honestly I just can't afford to rely on thumb drives or laptops to store everything - I just never know where I'm going to be. But it turns out it I don't need to know where I am - I can simply store everything I need in the cloud (aka hosted somewhere on the web). Then so long as I have a web connection I have access to everything I need.

This actually maps to the research I'm doing, which is on the use of Information & Communication Technologies in Education. In my own research I'm exploring the way in which virtual space seems to have a different set of rules to real space. I'm looking for concrete ways to harness this difference to our advantage, both as educators and as researchers, so that we can achieve things that would otherwise not be possible - like connecting to our work wherever we are, for example.

But ... is it safe? I'll lose it, I can't trust it, I'll have no back-up ...

It's an understandable reaction, to be afraid of cloud services. But you needn't be. Just think about it for one second - who manages your data right now? You? Your research support team? Your IT department? I use Google Docs for all my critical PhD work. You know who looks after my content? Google. One of the most successful, powerful and experienced companies on the planet, especially with things like data storage. Do you really think your data is safer than mine? Admittedly I do take a copy now and then and store it on my hard drive, and would advise you do to, but honestly, if Google goes belly up we'll all have something far more serious to worry about I reckon. Probably World War Three ...

OK, I'm interested, how do I do it?

I use various cloud based services, but the the main one for my writing, data collection and presentation is Google Docs. You can think of this as sort of an online version of the famous Office suite of productivity tools. You can keep all your writing, presentations and data in one place in Google Docs, and fully organised into folders. You can also means share work directly with colleagues and supervisors online, and collaborate and comment on work without having to meet up physically. Not that I'm against meeting up physically, in all honestly I still prefer a physical meeting, but sometimes it's just not practical.

There are other online choices, such as Adobe's Buzzword which is part of their excellent set of free tools available at http://www.acrobat.com, but for my research I prefer the integration of Google's offering so will only talk about their service for this post. In order to get started with Google Docs in particular you'll first need to set-up a Google Account.

I've put together this short video showing how I use Google Docs, and how you can use it to help you study. It includes the basics about creating and working on text documents, making presentations and using forms and spreadsheets to manage data.

Adobe Captivate demonstration of me using Google Docs
(takes a little time to load)

So that's my writing sorted - but what about all the reading?

If you know anything about research then you'll know you need to spend a fair bit of your time not only reading articles and books, but also managing what you find. Eventually you're going to have to produce that big list at the back of your thesis showing just how many articles you've waded through, and I've already heard horror stories of students who left it to the last month before submission. Personally I don't mind horror stories, but I don't particular want to be in one - and luckily the web can help here.

I use two web services to manage my reading, one for bibliographical storage (CiteULike) and one for keeping tracking on articles (Google Reader).

CiteULike - Online Bibliographical Store and Social Network

CiteULike is a web based bibliographical tool, that can automatically draw out an articles full bibliographical data from a webpage and a store it in a format whereby it can be represented in any one of a number of internationally accepted standards. With one click of a button on my web browser toolbar I can store an article in my own personal CiteULike library, give it some tags/keywords to categorise it, and even add some notes to describe it in more detail if I feel the need. Later on I can use the site to download the article reference, along with all my other article references for inclusion in my thesis in an acceptable format - referencing made easy!

The CiteULike Homepage

And that's not all. Because it's also a social site, with thousands of other people doing the same thing, I can keep an eye out for other interesting articles that other researchers have added, and CiteULike itself will constantly suggest related articles based on matches between what I've added and what others are adding - which means some of my literature work is actually done for me.

Google Reader - Online Subscription Service

Google Reader is just like any other RSS reader in many ways, but what with me being a Google fan (and therefore having  lot of my virtual life tied up in Google Spaces) in makes sense to use their own service - plus it has one or two tricks up it's sleeve as well.

The Google Reader Interface

In the early days of my research (only a few years ago now) very few of the mainstream academic journals had RSS feeds, even in my specialist field of ICT, but these days the situation is much better. You can add these RSS feeds to your Google Reader account, and that way whenever a new edition of the journal you're following is released you can read all the contents directly through Google Reader.

What's more because Google knows an awful lot about not only what you're doing but also what others are doing in the same field, it suggests articles that you might find useful as you use the service. There has been a fair bit of criticism lately of Google for using data it gleans from you for advertising purposes, but that overlooks the enormous benefit that can come from using it in terms of leveraging the enormous distributed cognition within it. Google may use the information it gathers to present you with adverts, but at its core what it tries to do (and generally succeeds in doing) is present you with something that may be of use to you. That way Google's happy, the advertisers are happy - and more importantly you're happy. Not exactly knowledge for nothing, but certainly knowledge for next to nothing.

Two other clever tricks - Google Alerts and Evernote

I have lots more things going on in the cloud, too many for this blog post really. Just the other day I actually sat down and mapped out just how the different parts of my life map into different web technologies, but that's probably a whole other blog post.

That said there are two other things from that chart that I think are worth sharing now - Google Alerts and Evernote.

Google Alerts is kind of like your own personal Google hound dog. You give it some keywords for things that you're looking for and it will keep searching and once every day for you (or continuously if you want it to) send results as it finds them. Instead of having to remember to manually search for items, you can sit back and let Google do if for you. This allows you to find all those nuggets of information that you'd otherwise miss, without having to spend hours and hours digging around the web for them out in the first place.

Evernote is an online note taking tool, and there are lots of those about - but the clever thing is that you can also install it on your phone. That way when you're out and about and a struck with a great idea you can simply use your phone - write it if you want, take a photo, or literally speak it into the Evernote program to create an audio note. Once you're done the software will upload the note into your own personal space on-line, and you can write it up later when you're back home.

And finally - staying sane

Well that's a quick overview for some of the web services I use to help me in my studies, I hope they may be of some use to you. There's just one more web service I'd recommend though, the comic strip "Piled Higher and Deeper".

I've leave the last words to Jorge Cham, creator of the fab "PhD" Comic strip ...

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham

P.S. And just one more thing - did I mention that everything on this page is free? Apparently you can have your cake and eat it, and lunch isn't nearly as expensive as you thought it was :-)

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