Hack Your Education – the launch of an uncommon guide to saving time, effort, and sanity with school, papers, research, and more

dinosaur-computer“Welcome to school – where the age of dinosaurs might be ahead of your technological expectations!”

That’s what I sometimes feel like sitting in class.  Well, folks, it’s time for things to change. Surely there’s a better way, right?  Just so happens there is… and that’s what HackYourEd is all about.  I want to help you “hack your education” to help you save time, effort, and money, so that you can focus on what matters: learning and content.

I refuse to date either Kate Turabian or the APA Manual, and since I’m entering a doctoral program (admittedly, for the second time), I’m determined to help my fellow sojourners join the 21st Century.

Mimicry is our goal.  We want it to “look just like” the sample paper your school gives you.  Identical output in every way.  It’s the input we’re changing, and that’s where we reap the most benefits.

To get us started, we’re going to look at a short list of programs & tools with thumbnail sketches – it’s my top five.  I’ll eventually identify more tools, and we’ll discuss quite a few others and why we’re not going to use them in upcoming weeks.  I’ll come back to each of these soon with some in depth posts on how to hack them and make them work better for us, but for now, this should get you started.  Note that most of these programs are either Open Source Software or their free versions are useful, which means they won’t cost you any money!

Top Five Tools to Use

Libreoffice_icon_mix1) Word Processor: LibreOffice – Think “free office suite.”  LibreOffice (LO) can do 99% of everything Microsoft Office (MSO) can do plus another 15% Microsoft only dreams about.  And let’s face it… Microsoft changes layout, buttons, and file format stuff more often than a white unicorn changes colors when flying through a rainbow.  It’s frustrating, to say the least.  A bonus is that LibreOffice will open and save .doc files (better than MSO in many cases) and it has some nifty features regarding formatting, better large file handling, one click export to PDF, and more.  I recommend the native file format (.odt) since it is an “open” format and not proprietary like .doc and .docx.  MSO will (finally) open .odt files, as well, even though it took some time for Microsoft to determine that opening a free, open standard format was a good idea. I have .odt files from 15 years ago that, when I open them today, still look the same.  Try that with a .doc file! (Good luck!) Relax, because if you can use MSO, you can use LO. LibreOffice is a fork of OpenOffice.org (OOo) – they are essentially the same, though LO continued development a few years back when OOo stalled.  OOo has recovered, but LO still has a few advantages, IMHO.  You risk nothing to download it and take it for a spin, so go for it!

2) Bibliographic Management: Zotero – If you’ve ever used RefWorks, EndNote, or ETurabian.com – welcome to your new best friend. Zotero is freedynamic biblio-manager (unlike many others that are either copy-paste static methods, or they cost money).  First, to enter books, use your web browser and gsticker,375x360.u1o to Google Books, Amazon, WorldCat, or any online database (e.g., EBSCO) and pull up your reference material.  Click the Zotero button to import all pertinent information (bonus: you’ll also get a backup, offline copy of any pdf articles you’re reading).  Boom! You’ve got it in your own database.  From within your word processor (LibreOffice or MS Word or OOo), just “insert” a Zotero citation.  Start typing the title and hit enter (you can specify page number here, suppress author, etc.).  WHAM! The footnote is automatically inserted.  When you reach the end, “Insert –> Bibliography” and BAM! You’re done. You read that right… it automatically inserts it ALL.  And if you ever correct something in the database, it can automatically update and correct every reference to that work.  Think on that for a bit. Stylesheets exist for everything from Turabian 8th to APA 6th to SBL 2nd and much, much more.

3) Note Taking: Evernote – Think “digital-filing-cabinet-and-admin-assistant-on-steroids.”  Use Evernote to “Remember Everything.”  This is the first apevernoteheaderp I install on any device, thereby syncing notes across my phone, tablet, pc, and the web.  I jot and tag notes on conversations, articles or books I’m working on, sermons and prayers, etc.  It has built in OCR (Optical Character Recognition) which means you can take a picture of text and later search, copy, paste, etc.  This is great for when you see a quote in a book or even on a projector screen presentation! Snap and go.  Business cards, receipts, people, things to remember, etc. – Evernote is your friend! The free version is awesome, but the $50/yr premium is unbelievably awesome and worth every penny to support development! NOTE: The link I’ve provided provides some extra kudos for both you and me.

4) File Security: Dropbox – There are two kinds of people in this world: a) those who backup, b) those who’ll wish they had!  Oh, and if your files are not in three locations (one of which is offsite and all of which are verified) they aren’t really backed up.  That said, Dropbox is really considered a syncing program Dropbox-Logo(and not a backup program). It uses the cloud and syncs files between all your devices.  Though not a “backup” program, the beautiful thing is that you can access earlier revisions of files, restore deleted files, share particular folders with others, annotate, and more!  Use it for all your critical files and never lose a paper again!  I love being able to pull things up on my phone when I have a quick question, too. I also use this in my publishing company to share files between dozens of authors and editors in 8 different countries. NOTE: The link I’ve provided gets you kudos – more free space!

5) Websites: These various websites will save you tons of time.  You likely already have databases to access through your school, but sometimes it’s easier to use a tool you know and love to speed up the initial search.

  • Google Scholar – If you have Google-fu (don’t worry, we’ll get you trained up on this if you don’t!), Google Scholar is one of the fastest ways to figoogle-scholar-logond articles related to what you’re searching.  You can search via author, title, subject, DOI, etc. and sometimes even access the article directly with no database login.  It’s a good way to comb through abstracts and get a feel for a topic before databasing specifics.


  • Google Books – I think the search giant is up to about 50 million scanned books (full content). In theory, you could read an entire book here, but the google-books-logobeauty is that you can easily pull up a direct range of pages from a reference or footnote in a paper you’re reading to see exactly what the original material contains (this is a goldmine for context).  Another feature is the ability to electronically search the hardcopy of many of the books sitting on your shelf.  You can usually access 10-15% of a book with no difficulty.  That said, log into another computer and access another 10-15%, etc.  To be fair, I don’t recommend abusing the system, but in a pinch, one could, say, accidentally forget a book at home they have to review, have a deadline, and read the entire thing to write said review while their spouse is driving down the road on the way to family vacation. Um, or so I’ve heard.


  • Amazon – Crazy, but true, Amazon isn’t just about buying books!  Don’t knock the “helpful” reviews people leave here, or my favorite – “people who amazonbought this also bought…” that shows up at the bottom.  Also, this is a great way to find your specific book by ISBN and “one-click import to Zotero.”  Oh, and as an author, I’m begging you… please leave reviews on books you buy.  They are more helpful than you know!


  • Online Writing Lab (OWL) – Faowl_logoster than a book to find examples of proper formatting, Purdue’s OWL also gives examples you might not find elsewhere.  Need a sample annotated bibliography? They’ve got you covered.  Need some obscure citation format for a reference you’ve only seen once? They’ve got you.


  • WorldCat.org – I’ll be honest: I normally only use WorldCat for Zotero imports when Amazon fails me!  That said, it allows you to find almost any book in WorldCat_Logo_V_Colorlibraries around the world!   You can enter your zip code to see if any are local, but if none are to be found, you can put in for an Interlibrary Loan (ILL).


  • Crossref.org – Another free search opticrossref-logo-150pxon with some easy filters. It’s also a straight up way to find articles via their DOI or find a DOI via it’s link. Helpful for synergizing together a bibliography.


That’s the short list!  Coming down the road, we’ll discuss other areas like books, mindmapping, outline management software, operating systems, and much, much more!

How about you? What tools do you find most useful?

Please let me know in the comments below!

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