Recommended Apps for Higher Education

From Gerald R. Lucas
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Since you have your device for class, you need to have apps to run on it. Here, I suggest a few apps to make your device more efficient for education. Many of these suggestions have a Humanities bias because that's my field, so do some research to find out what particular apps your discipline uses to hack education. If you know of an app that should be on this list, tweet me and let me know how you use social media in your teaching and learning.

When considering an application for the college classroom, I weigh certain criteria.

Is it accessible? That is, can the service it provides be accessed no matter what device or platform is used? It's important that students using an Android phone and those using a MacBook both use the service is similar ways, especially if evaluation is involved. Another part of accessibility is actually using the app. If it is difficult to use either conceptually or through poor design, I have to pass. For example, do features actually add the apps usability or make it more difficult? HackEdu has no time or energy to waste on bloatware.

Is information stored easily? Can it be shared conveniently between devices? This usually means that it makes use of some sort of cloud service, like Apple's iCloud or the indispensable Dropbox.

Is the app free or inexpensive? I like the philosophy behind open-source software, but there are many strong proprietary tools out there, too. The days of high-priced professional apps are waning - no longer do students need to purchase Microsoft Office when elegant, cheaper, and better alternatives are available. That said, sometimes the the proprietary route is the best one to take.

Is the output collaborative? What students do in the app is also important. If the output must be submitted for others to see or use, is it possible outside the app? For example, will the Word alternative be able to save a PDF or DOC? Odd proprietary files will not do.

Writing

Since my discipline is English, much of the content I create is text-heavy, so I begin recommended apps with writing.

Blogging

You cannot beat Medium for the sheer joy of writing. Its interface is clean and elegant and invites writing. In a true HackEdu spirit, Medium is a community of writers that share the platform and contribute their ideas to various collections based on subject matter. Comments and responses are more like marginalia and they can be attributed to specific portions of a post. In many ways, Medium might be the best platform for HackEdu writing. Medium even supports personal domain names and even has apps for your mobile devices.

Similar to Medium is Svbtle. It, too, has a clean, minimal interface and supports a community of writers, but while it has no collections, it does allow users to further personalize their blog with a domain name. Svbtle also uses a simple markup language in a separate composition interface is not as easy to use as Medium's. It's main reading interface is fairly austere and uses a smaller, sans-serif font, making its design a bit too minimal for some. Still, Svbtle is an excellent blogging platform and well worth a look.

Some old-school blogging platforms we might consider for HackEdu are Tumblr and Wordpress.

Wordpress is also a solid blogging platform with a strong support community, but it's getting a bit tired. Also, since it's so popular, it's often targeted by crackers. Don't get me wrong: I like Wordpress, and the development community is doing great things with it. But, even with those great things, Wordpress feels downright geriatric compared to Medium's slick interface and ease-of-use. Finally, keep you eye on Ghost, too.

Microblogging

Tumblr is a good choice for multimodal content, though their composition interface could use an overhaul. Tumblr has been around a while and can be a bit too chaotic for some. However, since it is a mature platform, users probably don't need to worry if Tumblr will be around tomorrow. Tumblr also offers the ability for group blogs - a great way to support your personal learning network.

Twitter has seen a rise in popularity recently and much more will be said about this microblogging platform in subsequent chapters. Twitter is great for building community, engaging students, and ditching email. Anyone who's anyone has a Twitter account. At least for now.

Word Processing

Word processors, like the venerable granddaddy of them all Microsoft Word, just seem to be passé. If we really stop to think about what we need to do with a word processor - i.e. write - then most of the "features" of Word actually get in the way of accomplishing our main goal. Sometimes you might need some of these "features," but often you can stick with a simple application.

For word processors, Quip leads the pack: it's simple, app- & web-based, and provides support for collaboration. It seems to borrow design cues from Medium, so it's easy to use and elegant. Quip has recently made some upgrades to its platform and may be going to a pay-to-use model for extensive use of collaborative features.

Another great, minimalist choice for word processing is iA Writer. It's a distraction-free word processor available for several platforms, but it's not WYSIWYG, instead using simple markup like Svbtle does for blogging. iA Writer works on my Mac and my iPad and has been my word processor of choice for a while now.

Google Drive contains a very capable word processor, but it feels like using Word. In a pinch, it works well and gives users the ability to collaborate and store files in the cloud.

Need more functionality and some desktop publishing features? Apple's Pages can't be beat for its ease-of-use and its lovely documents, though it does have a learning curve and borders on bloaty.

Miscellaneous

Need a bit of guidance making your prose as Hemingway-like - lean, minimal, and agile - as possible? Try the web-based Hemingway App. Just paste your text into this minimal application, and it helps you trim the fat by highlighting hard-to-read sentences, adverbs, complex words, and passive voice. This application is especially good if most of your writing is for a screen.

Just need to take some notes, store an idea, clip a web page, or brainstorm with your network? Try Evernote for your computer and mobile device. Its app syncs to the cloud, so you have the same information on all of your devices. It stores all types of content and allows users to categorize and tag that content in notebooks.

Finally, I want to mention Adobe Acrobat. It's a pricy program by today's standards, and its user experience in downright neolithic. However, since PDF is a proprietary document format owned by Adobe, the best way to create more than just a simple PDF is to use Acrobat. It works well with my scanner to bring documents from print culture into the digital: providing OCR, links, and other features that seem to still be necessary as we transition to the digital.

Reading

When we're not producing texts, we often want to read them. These apps allow us to hack our text consumption.

Readmill used my go-to EPUB and PDF reader, but it development has ceased. No other reading application has filled the gap left by Readmill. It was available for iOS and Android and brought reading into the world of the social network. It not only allowed users to annotate texts, but it also encourage them to share and comment on those annotations - a great resource for the classroom. I used this app daily. I wish someone would make a replacement, do you hear me, Dropbox? Goodreads is probably the next best surrogate.

My current EPUB reader is Marvin. It's very capable and customizable, allowing users to add titles from various cloud services to their library. It has several themes and lets users adjust settings like line height, font, and background color.

For PDFs, I use GoodReader. While the design is a bit engineer-like, it is an excellent and versatile PDF viewer: allowing for annotations, syncing with several cloud services, and a customizable filesystem.

If you would like to read long articles or essays from the web on your tablet, try Pocket. This application allows users to save text, video, and pretty much anything you find online. Use it for reading those long essays for class whenever you find time to sit back with your tablet.

There's nothing better for your RSS feeds on a tablet than Flipboard. Keep up with your favorite bloggers, educators, and web sites. If you want something more basic, but still slick, try Reeder or Feedly.

Sharing & Storing

The following apps concern the storing and sharing of ideas. Like the apps above, they privilege the cloud as a means of making content available across platforms and devices. The network really has been an integral part of our digital world for a while now, and not only is it convenient, but can provide a crucial backup strategy for your digital life.

The first cloud app that deserves mention in this section is Dropbox. In my experience, Dropbox is the best cloud storage application currently available; it just works. Not only does it include two gigabytes of free storage for whatever is most important, it backs up those files to their server, making them available on any device running Dropbox, from your laptop to your smartphone. This app has saved my butt numerous times, and it's the first one I install on every new device. It also extends other applications into the cloud and allows users to share files and folders with collaborators who also use Dropbox.

Similarly, Apple's iCloud is an excellent way to share content between devices if you use Apple products. Like Dropbox, it just works, synchronizing files from various apps in the cloud. Also, Box, has made inroads into the cloud storage market, but their offering still lacks the simplicity of Dropbox. Still, it's worth having free storage in the cloud. I use Box for archival purposes.

Google Drive is another app in the Googleverse that gives users several gigabytes of free storage, the ability to share content, and even edit certain content within Google Apps. If you have a Google Account, it's easy to enable Google Drive. One caveat: Google Drive's desktop application for my Mac often has problems syncing - sometimes requiring a reinstall of the application which then requires the application to re-download all of the synced content. I expect more from Google.

Email

When I first heard about email, I was an undergrad in Florida in the early nineties. The idea was so cool to me, that I became one of the first undergrads at my university to be granted an email account. Well, that was over two decades ago, and email is showing its age.

While many apps try to give email a facelift with new interfaces and features, it still falls victim to spammers, phishers, crackers, and everyone else who wants to intrude into your day. While it used to be a convenience, email has become an annoyance. Like when your parents start using something, it just loses its cool. Email lost its cool a long time ago.

That said, email is still a necessary part of our lives, so we want the apps that will make it as painless as possible.

Gmail seems to be the least offensive email platform going. It looks fantastic on the iOS and Android. Do you need another good reason to use Gmail: spam. Not only does Gmail have good spam filters, but it's also pretty ubiquitous, so you can be confident your email will get through. Use Gmail; it'll save you headaches later.

Here, I'll mention CloudApp and Infinit as great complements to email. Both provide a convenient place to put stuff that you want to share, and it eliminates email attachments. Just drag the file to the desktop icon, and it copies a URL to your clipboard which you can then share via email. Easy and convenient, and the best part is that you're not clogging up your colleagues' inboxes with attachments. The free accounts have limits, but for most users they are usually not an issue.

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What did I miss? What are you favorite apps for the classroom? Let me know on Twitter.

Note

  1. Originally published on June 22, 2016.