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Study Tips: Let your browser make you study better

There are so many books and websites now all clamouring to offer advise on how to study more effectively.  The 'top dog' of study skills guides is Stella Cottrell's The Study Skills Handbook, which is a fantastically comprehensive compendium beautifully laid out and packed with resources, questionnaires and exercises which are genuinely helpful (and not just padding).

Of course one of the problems with any books on study skills is that print is a fairly static genre.  This does not make anything in a print text like Cottrell's irrelevant, but the reality is that most students (in fact, most of us anywhere) do most of their work now online: They read online, they research online, they write online, submit their work online and eventually check out their grades online before organising a post-submission party. Online.

I have already written about the potential value of using smartphones for study, but actually there is a piece of kit which we use far more intensively for study, and that many of us never even think about.  I am talking about the web browser.

I have spent quite a lot of time talking to students about web browsers over the last few years, and am surprised that still the majority of students are not clear about the different between a browser and an operating system - let alone the benefits and disadvantages of one browser over another.  I don't want to go into all the details about what an operating system is here (read my earlier blog if you want to see my explanation of this).  Right now it is enough to know that whatever computer you are using - whether it is a Windows machine, an Apple machine or Linux - that you need a specific program in order to browse the internet.
The vast majority of computers come with the Windows Internet Explorer browser pre-installed, and of the countless students I have spoken to on this issue a significant majority tend to simply use this without even realising there are alternative options.  Indeed, for many of those students the famous 'e' internet explorer logo (above) is simply the button you press for the internet.

As with so many things, the market dominant that Internet Explorer has enjoyed has largely meant that the program has not really needed to make an effort.  A review of browser performances over the last few years have consistently shown that Internet Explorer is the weakest of the leading browser developers: It is the slowest, the most cumbersome and the least flexible.  A Lifehacker report from Feb, 2012 showed that Internet Explorer came a distant third to its three main rivals, Chrome, Firefox and Opera:

  1. Chrome: 69%
  2. Firefox and Opera: 63.2%
  3. Internet Explorer: 48%

Each of these browers will effectively do the same job.  They are a means by which you can access websites, follow internet links, bookmark pages, and so on.  There are differences in terms of the interface which means that each one looks slightly different, but to be honest those differences are purely aesthetic and most people who use the internet regularly should have no problem adapting to a different browser. Internet Explorer is clearly the worst of them, so a decision about which is the best one to use will probably focus on the top three: Chrome, Firefox and Opera.

Now I know what I should really be doing is offering an objective appraisal of these four browsers in terms of what they can offer an enthusiastic student.  However, I'm not.  I am going to be gloriously biased and say what I think is the best, and try to persuade you to agree with me.

There are two reasons why I prefer Firefox.

1)  Firefox is good for you.  

Firefox is developed by the not-for-profit group Mozilla, and is dedicated to defending the freedom of information on the web.  It's mission is about inclusion and openness.  With the best will in the world, the same cannot be said for the others. Indeed, if one were to hazard a guess at the mission for Google, it might be something like 'we know where you live, and want to control every aspect of your lives'.

If the fact that Chrome slightly outperforms Firefox still bothers you (and you are feeling rather brave), then you can always follow some fairly simple 'tweaks' to make Firefox just as fast - if not faster.

2)  Firefox can be tailored expressly to suit the way you work.

Now we get to the nub.  So much learning today is done through the web browser that for many of us - with the exception of those moments when we are using a word processor to write our essays - almost out entire digital experience might well be channelled through the browser interface.

Firefox offers a huge array of 'add-ons', which are effectively additional functions which you can 'plug' into your browser.  These can be anything from an extension which blocks all the adverts in websites you visit, to a handy button which opens up your task lists or calendar, to an extension which enables you to post things on Facebook or Twitter with a simple tap of the right-hand button on the mouse.  In addition, you can tailor the look and feel of the browser to suit your mood - from the streamlined and minimal, to the bold and the colourful.

Installing addons is a simple business.  Simply go to the 'Tools' menu option at the top of the browser, and select 'Add-ons'.  Go to the 'search' bar and type in what you want the browser to do, and an arrange of possible add-ons will appear.  To install one, simply click the 'install' button!    You may need to re-start your browser afterwards, but otherwise it really is that simple!  If you want to see the whole process, the video below which shows you how to download Firefox and install the Zotero add-on.

Some fantastic add-ons which can help your studies

There are countless different options which you might want to try which could help you work and study better.  I cannot list them all here - and even the ones I am going to list are suggestions only.  The trick with maximising your work online is to try things out for a while, see if they are useful or not.  If not, then try something else!

1)  Integrated Calendar

Organisation is a key aspect of any project or learning process.  You need to keep a careful track of your deadlines and manage your tasks effectively.  If, like me, you make use of a free online email account like GMail, Hotmail or Yahoo, then your mail account will have an inbuilt calendar which you can use.  You may even have a 'task list' built in as well.  This is all very well if you have your mail open all day, but an integrated calendar add-on can mean that your calendar is linked directly to your browser.  I use the Integrated Google Calendar, which means that at the click of a button in my browser a pop-up window will show my calendar, and my tasks.  Reminders about events or tasks will show up as alarms as well.  This has been a very effective way of helping me manage my tasks sensibly and keeping me organised.  Of course there are other specialised options, like Todoist, which offer more specific task management functions - again, the trick is to find the one that works for you.

2)  Zotero

Ok.  Imagine this.  Imagine that when you are trawling through the internet looking for sources.  You find one you like.  At the click of a button you can save all the bibliographic details of that source - if it is an online journal, you can save the full text of the article as well.  Within your browser, you can organise your sources into different categories.  You can add notes for any of them and cross reference them.  When you come to write your essays, you can simply select all the relevant sources and generate a fully-formatted bibliography, using any reference style you choose from a list of hundreds.

Zotero is a quite wonderful reference management tool.  Not only does it help students and researchers organise their materials effectively and easily, it can actually show you how to use sources effectively if you are struggling to embed this vital aspect of study into your work.  To use Zotero you need to set up a free account, and once registered the Zotero Firefox add-on will be able to pick up most things you uncover on the internet with the click of a single button.  Magic.

3)  Delicious

Delicious is a social bookmarking add-on.  Most of you will know what it means to bookmark a website - to save the site somewhere so that you can refer back to it at some point.  Most of you, as well, will know how frustrating it is when you have saved an important website as a bookmark on one computer, and realise while working on another computer that it is not saved there.  Social bookmarking means that your saved websites are stored online, and can be accessed from anywhere with an internet connection.  The Delicious add-on for Firefox is a link to your Delicious social bookmarking account.  What it effectively means is that you can bookmark a website just as you would normally, but instead of that website being stored on the computer you are using it is automatically uploaded to your online account.

Delicious has become one of the first things I install on any new computer I am using.  It not only houses my everyday websites (email, library, College VLE, etc.), but I have categories of bookmarks in which a can store any useful website I find relating to the modules I teach or the research I am doing.  See below for a rather nice guide on how to get set up with Delicious:

4)  Simple Timer

For a while now I have been a convert to the Pomodoro focus technique.  This is quite a simply technique which involves working solidly for a set period of time (usually around 25 minutes) and then taking a 5 minute break from the computer.  The technique can work very well if followed with discipline, and a simple timer add-on in Firefox can provide just that.  Sitting unobtrusively in your add-on bar, or in your menu bar, a small timer can countdown by whatever amount of time you specify, and then sound an alarm when it is time for you to start or stop.  Very simple, but can be very effective too especially if, like me, you have a tendency to get distracted.

5)  Leechblock

And speaking of distractions... It is all very well having a timer ticking away in the background, but we all know how tempting it can be to surreptitiously switch over to Facebook, or the BBC Sport or some such nonsense.  Sometimes we need a little help to be disciplined, and Leechblock is an excellent add-on designed to provide it.  You can programme Leechblock with the websites which you know you tend to find distracting - even Google if you want.  You can then set Leechblock up to prevent you from accessing those websites in a variety of ways: You can block them for certain times during the day or the week; You can limit the amount of time you spend on those websites in a day or a week; Or you can simply block those websites for a set period of time (a 'lockdown'), which works particularly well in conjunction with a Pomodoro 25 minutes.

6)  Yoono:

Yoono is a social networking tool which enables you to maintain a constant track of social network updates and to post links or images from your browser quickly and easily.  You can add as many different social networks as you want, and can customise a page view to keep you updated with specific searches (i.e. a Twitter search for posts related to 'linguistics' or 'psychology').  Yoono will add a bar on the side of your browser window, which you can click to see status updates, or to update your own status.  There is an option to have pop-ups notify you of status updates or direct messages as well.  Yoono is a great tool to have your social networks running alongside your work, rather than instead of it.

There are so many different options for Firefox, that it really can be made to integrate into the way you want to work, and can help you work as well.  If you have not explored the potential of your browser as an aide to your studies, then it is really worth having a look!

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