By Sean Foran | March 29, 2010
One of the great things about living on a college campus is how very digital it is. As you may or may not know, I’m a bit of a tech geek. I work for ITS, and program in my free time. So I thought I’d put together a quick rundown of a few of the tricks I’ve learned from my time on campus that make my life easier, and warn you of a few of the shortcomings.
Free Phone Service
That may be a little misleading and unethical, but I don’t care. I have free incoming calls from any phone anywhere, and can receive them almost anywhere on campus. My outgoing calls cost $0.01 a minute. Here’s how:
I use Google Voice, a free phone routing service by Google. Basically, it gives you a phone number from Google, and when that number is called, it can ring any number of phones that you specify. Handy if you want your house phone and cell phone to ring, for example, or if you have multiple cell phones or land lines.
By hooking Google Voice into Gizmo, a free Voice-Over-IP provider (recently acquired by Google), I can have a phone on my computer ring, too, when that number is called. And by downloading a $6 Gizmo app on my iPhone, I can answer those calls on my phone. So by using two Google services and paying $6, I just got free incoming phone calls from anywhere in the world while I’m on campus, and $0.01 outgoing calls. The best part is, if I’m off campus and not on a WiFi network, my phone rings normally and uses the AT&T voice network. Nobody has to worry about it when calling me, and no real hassle is added. If you use your phone a lot (guilty), then this can save you quite a bit of money.
Both these services are unavailable to the general public right now, but they should be released to everyone very soon, perhaps even by next semester.
Keeping Track of Your Schedule
I’m scatter-brained. I’ll be the first to admit it. I have no head for remembering times and dates and appointments and meetings and plans and classes and work. It’s just not in me to do it. Fortunately, I don’t have to.
Canisius has it set up so that when you enter the college, you get a Google account on the my.canisius.edu domain. This means you get GMail (your email@example.com), Google Calendar, and Google Docs. All three of these are useful in their own right, but we’ll focus on the Calendar for now. Google Calendar is really an amazing product- you can share calendars, and it syncs with every smartphone out there, so my iPhone, my boss’ Droid, and my other boss’ Blackberry all can access calendars without a problem. It also allows you to set text message and email reminders for your events. All of my life is stored in that calendar, and it saves my life to be able to check it. You can use your Canisius-provided Google Calendar here.
Keeping Your Schoolwork Simple
I’m an English major, an Education major, and a Spanish major. I write a lot. And as a tech geek, I end up wiping my hard drive on a frighteningly regular basis. But despite this, if I ever need to access a paper I wrote weeks ago (a professor didn’t receive it or lost it, or I need reference it, etc.) I can do so from any computer, anywhere in the world, in minutes. This is thanks to my Canisius-provided Google Docs account. It works exactly like Microsoft Office (and can actually import and export to .doc files) but lives on the Internet. And it’s there forever. I still have papers from my senior year in high school. And because it’s Google, there’s a very powerful search feature included. It works for everything from PowerPoint presentations to Excel spreadsheets to Word documents. You can share them with peers to collaborate on work, it auto-saves every few minutes to make sure you never lose work, and you have a full revision history to keep track of changes made and revert to them (like Wikipedia) if something gets deleted on accident.
Making Notes Useful and Complete
I’m a terrible note taker. Like, it’s not a skill I have at all. I rarely write anything down, preferring to just listen and retain that way. But in certain classes, I can’t use that method successfully. For example, in History this semester, I need to be writing down names, dates, places, and events. My friend Anthony is in that class, fortunately, so he and I decided to use the newest piece of Google technology, Google Wave, to take notes. Google Wave allows us to edit the same document, much like Google Docs, but in realtime. So as I type, he sees what I’m typing, and vice-versa. Without going too in-depth (I presented on this method for Digital Day) this allows us to take a comprehensive and organised set of notes. And by dividing up who’s responsible for what note areas, we can research for more information as the professor speaks, fleshing out our notes as class continues while still being confident that our notes are complete and we’re not missing anything.
I’ve taken pages and pages of notes, and they’re extremely helpful. Unfortunately, this product is still in a private beta, but it should be coming out soon. Hopefully, in the coming months and years, Canisius will add their own Wave servers, allowing you to do this with your Canisius login information. If you would like an invite to Wave, drop me a comment below (make sure to attach a valid email address, as that’s where I’ll send the invite!) and I’ll see what I can do.
Those are just a handful of the most useful tricks I’ve learned on campus, and I welcome you to share yours in the comments below. But there are a few drawbacks.
First, the omnipresent WiFi that powers my free phone service is very complex in its configuration, which disables a few things. For example, library sharing in iTunes is wonky, and won’t always work, even in the same room. I can’t use the Remote application on my iPhone to control my iTunes player from my phone. And most importantly, I can’t run a local server. As a programmer, I’d love to use the cheap Mac Mini I picked up as a development and test server, but because of how the WiFi is configured, I’m not able to.
Second, the Canisius-provided Google services don’t get access to their associated Labs. For most, this isn’t an issue. But I use GMail Labs to enable the features being tested by the GMail team currently on my private GMail account, and couldn’t live without them. They aren’t available on my Canisius GMail account.
Third, and finally, not everyone is on these systems. While it’s true that every student will have their Canisius Google account come Fall, the teachers and administration are not being switched over to this. This is for legal and technical reasons, dealing with how email is handled by the college and privacy laws detailing where student information can be stored. But it would be very nice to have your teacher on Google’s services, as well.
Despite all this, I’m really pleased with the technological state of the college. It makes my life so much easier to just trust the computers and let them handle the nitty-gritty aspects of my life. You’ll notice everything I touted in here was a Google service- that’s just because I’m a Google fanboy. You could almost certainly find similar (and other!) tricks to living on a digital campus using your preferred software/computer company, or even a mix of all of them. Whatever works best for your lifestyle. The omnipresent WiFi of a campus is really a game-changing feature, and it makes life on a campus unique. Take advantage of that.
Until next time.
– Mr. Charming