Ten Tech Tools – A must-have for Higher Education

Every student and teacher in a University setting – be it science, engineering, medicine, business, law, architecture or music – must have mastery over some key tools that are “must have”. Here are the Top 10 tools (my pick!)

Higher education is all about Lectures, Laboratories and Library; together with the other three Life it makes up for the 4L’s of Learning. I have picked nine tools for the first three and one tool for Life!

  1. Learning Management System (LMS): LMS provides electronic support to the entire learning environment outside the classroom. This includes electronic delivery of slides and other lecture notes, reading materials and case studies; distribution and collection of home works, projects, assignments and examinations; feedback to students by way of corrected answer scripts and optionally online polls, surveys and feedback to teachers from students, typically, at the end of the term. Of the many LMS tools Moodle (Moodle.org) is the most widely used one across Institutes of higher learning in the world; it is free, open source, easy to customize, and, enjoys large base of developers / volunteers to help in customizing and bug-fixing. Blackboard (www.blackboard.com) is another widely used commercial LMS tool. LMS tools have been around for more than a decade.
  1. Massive Open Online Course (MOOC): MOOC represents a new trend in higher education. It is an effort to democratize higher education and take the best learning experience available in some of the best Institutions in the world (Stanford and MIT, for example), to any one in the world, using the power of the Internet. MOOC’s go beyond just the lecture materials and videos (MIT’s Open courseware or IIT’s NPTEL). MOOC provide lectures AND assessment. Coursera (www.coursera.org) started in 2012, is perhaps the best known among several MOOCs today. Pioneered by Professor Daphne Koller of Stanford University, Coursera has courses in Computer Science, Business, Engineering, Medicine and Social Sciences from 70 Universities including Stanford, Princeton and University of Michigan. Interestingly, Professor Daphne Koller is the first recipient of ACM Infosys Prize in 2007!
  1. Inspiring online talks: Teachers who inspire are small in number, but a very large number of students would naturally like to benefit from them. Making many inspiring talks available to everyone on this planet has been the motive behind many experiments including Khan Academy (www.Khanacademy.org), that makes more than 5,000 videos on many subjects accessible to school children. For University students, the best source of inspiring talks is undoubtedly the TED Talks (www.ted.com); these are 18-minute long, very high quality videos of inspiring talks from the world’s best known experts (Nobel Prize winners, outstanding professors from Ivy League Universities and other leading thinkers). As of today more than 1,500 TED talks are available for free viewing online and they have been watched more than one billion times!
  1. Studying together: Students everywhere, and more so in India, like to study together. It is one thing to communicate – talk on the phone, SMS, Chat, email and Facebook; but what is more important is to seriously collaborate and learn from each other. LMS helps to collaborate with the teacher; but a lot of learning happens when students collaborate with other students (seek clarifications, clear doubts, share common ideas, work on a project etc.,). With Internet being available everywhere (at least for University students) what can be better than to use the Net as a key collaborative platform. While there are general purpose tools (SharePoint from Microsoft or Acrobat from Adobe), OpenStudy (www.openstudy.com) is perhaps best suited for studying together with other students in Institutions outside of your own. You can ask questions, connect with other students across the globe and get help. Starting at Georgia Tech, OpenStudy has grown today and benefits 150,000 students in 180 countries! Interestingly, the co-founder of OpenStudy is Chennai-born Preetha Ram!
  1. Virtual Labs: In addition to lectures, lab experiments form a key component of learning. Much lab equipment is very expensive; they need technicians who can be expensive too. A number of attempts have been made in the past decade to make some of the Lab equipment available for students outside the laboratories (often only found in rich universities and research Labs). iLab from MIT (ilab.mit.edu) is the best known among such experiments currently underway at many Institutions, including some of the IIT’s and IIIT’s in India. Using sophisticated software to schedule and interface with a variety of equipment like spectrometer, signal analyzer, heat exchanger and robot, iLab makes costly sophisticated equipment available even to poor students in remote rural areas.
  1. Cloud storage: A key requirement of a learning environment in a university is to keep track of a variety of instructional materials (lecture notes, slides, exam copies, project presentation, Lab reports, field visit reports, photos, audio / video recordings of interviews etc.,). In today’s online world, you need a storage piece that is not tied to a specific piece of hardware (PC, Server, and Mainframe), software (Unix, Windows. Mac, iOS and Android), or even an organization (department, college, university). This is where cloud storage comes in handy. Though Google (Google Drive) and Microsoft (SkyDrive) offer their own versions of cloud storage, my favorite is Dropbox that is a free service that lets you store documents (reports, spreadsheets, databases, PDF files), photos, songs, audio / video recordings effortlessly across multiple devices. Create a “DropBox” folder on every device that you use and the files stored on this folder are available on every device; Dropbox magically “syncs” the content automatically when the devices are connected; in addition, you can access them from anywhere using a Web-browser.


  1. Scholarly search: As you go past the first couple of terms in any University, you soon realize the need for reading a lot of research papers on a daily basis; you also need to organize the papers you read /referenced and finally the papers you author. You need to organize bibliography too; there are specific ways in which specific journals expect the author to cite references, including web references, and formatting & re-formatting for submission across multiple journals can be a non-trivial task! Later, when you meet other colleagues in conferences or apply for jobs, you need a count of citations of your papers (a first-level indicator of the quality of the paper) as well as impact factor of the journals a first-level indicator of the quality of the journal) you publish or plan to publish. Though there are tools from IEEE and ACM to help you with some of these tasks, Google Scholar is perhaps the best tool for your scholarly search. As a source it indexes the full text of scholarly research (both free and paid sources) across many disciplines; unlike expensive options like Scopus (from Elsevier) or Web of Science (from Thomson),  that only rich universities can afford, Google Scholar is free. Interestingly, one of the two architects of Google Scholar is IIT-Kharagpur alumnus Anurag Acharya.
  1. Personal library of research articles: Todays students and faculty members in Universities have access to good Library that subscribes to hundreds of journals. As a growing researcher one starts building personal library of scholarly literature that includes “must read” papers. Till the year 2000 when many journals embraced the digital world, most Libraries of Universities (except those that were part of rich Universities) could not subscribe to scholarly research journals. Things have improved in the past decade, thanks to Consortium-based subscriptions like INDEST. Google Scholar type services provide good indexing and abstract services, but access to full text is still limited to Libraries. There are many attempts to create “personal library” of full-text papers including services from IEEE and ACM, but JSTOR (www.jstor.org) is my favorite particularly for those outside of Computer Science area. JSTOR – a not-for-profit organization – meets this demand; over the years, JSTOR has digitized and indexed a very large number of journal articles and makes the full text accessible to even Libraries with limited budget. Current issues of many paid journals too are available after a “moving wall” (a specified period after the journal is published)
  1. E-Book Reader: As the Gen Next moves to an all digital world, todays students and faculty members need access to scholarly search and personal library of research articles as well as full texts and technical reports (often embellished with multimedia, hyper-text references to Web-sites and even some Lab equipment (as in MIT iLab). In short, access to e-Book Reader is a must; the reading experience must be great, the collection must be rich, there must be a way to book mark, there must be a provision for resonantly large collection (dozens, if not hundreds of books) and the interface must be intuitive. While there are a large number of formats including open formats like ePub from IDPF (idpf.org), my favorite is Apple iBooks and Amazon Kindle. Apple iBooks is an application that is extremely good to read, annotate, share and search eBooks (from multiple publishing formats), though only available on Apple products (Mac, iPad, iPhone). Amazon Kindle is a hardware device as well as an application that can be used over multiple OS (Windows, Apple Mac and iOS); Amazon has launched an India-store as well. There are still several issues on the formats and the business models that are being fought in the courts, but as “a budding tomorrow’s professional”, you should start getting used to one or the other e-Book Reader.
  1. Data-based decision tools: Unlike the earlier nine tools, students and faculty members in Universities should start looking at ways of getting the facts right about many events, things and organizations around us. Search engines like Google and Bing give us pointers to data, but not often data itself; also the data is inaccurate, not from reliable source or dated; in fact the data is not good enough for any meaningful decision making. As tomorrow’s decision makers, it is important that University students cultivate a habit of data-based decisions. In this direction Wolfram Alpha, from the same people who gave us Mathematica is something that you all must watch. Wolfram Alpha calls itself “a computational knowledge engine”; it provides data about a town, an Institute, a country or about a phenomenon in a meaningful way using “curated” data and not mere pointers to websites that have information. Try “MIT”, “New Delhi”, “United Kingdom” and “Bangalore Weather” on Wolfram Alpha to get a feel for computation knowledge engine. It uses extensive computation and uses a very sophisticated knowledge engine. Such services will evolve over the years but it is high time you start getting used to such a service that goes beyond lecture, laboratory and library into a life skill!

All the best

Professor Sowmyanarayanan Sadagopan is the Director of IIIT-Bangalore. These are his personal views. He can be reached at s.sadagopan@gmail.com

(Appeared in EDU Magazine, October 2013)

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