Apps for Academics in the Time of COVID-19

Using apps in our research process predates the pandemic; COVID-19 only accelerated the trend. The 2020/21 academic year is bound to be a strange one; in the University of St Andrews, where I am conducting my PhD studies, we are aiming for a hybrid form of teaching for the 2020 Martinmas (Fall) semester. Stuck in my field site in Hong Kong and tutoring remotely, I have been reflecting on all these digital tools I use in my research. In this post, I want to share my workflow when it comes to technology to spark some ideas for your transition to online teaching and learning. But first, there are some caveats to my recommendations:

  • I, an Apple user, am only offering my experience so that you can decide whether you want to explore more of the app, or similar apps in the market, to see whether it fits your workflow or not.
  • Apps change all the time, so depending on when you are reading this post, some apps might be obsolete, or their features may have changed.

Psst – if you have a specific topic you’re interested in, use the quick links to jump to Gillian’s recommendations!

  1. Management
  2. Data & References
  3. Planning
  4. Writing
  5. Remote Technology

Management Tools

A doctoral research is essentially managing a long-term, large-scale project with many moving parts, whether you have fieldwork, lab, or archival access. Taking project management seriously is an integral part of doctoral training. For those who wish to continue on in academia, it would only mean managing even larger scale projects in more senior positions.

Project Management

I have been using Trello since the beginning of my PhD as a project management tool to manage my thesis. It works like this: each project is a ‘board’, and you create ‘cards’, where each card represents each task you have to do. Then you put the cards in ‘lists’, where you can move them from one list to another to indicate which stage your ‘card’ is at, e.g., to do, doing, done.

I started using Trello because many academics use it and share their templates on how to manage everything from writing a thesis to journal paper submissions to planning course syllabi. I also wrote a template on how to manage your literature review process. Part of my workflow includes sharing my thesis board with my supervisor so that he can see where I am in my work and what I am currently working on, which facilitates our supervision meetings. Trello is available on all my digital devices and can link to iCal and Google Calendar. I use the free version, but you need to be online to access your boards.

Time Management

Since the start of my PhD, I have been using the time-tracking app, Timeular, mainly to keep track of how much time I spend on different tasks and what time in the day or in the week I perform best. This is available on all my devices, and recently it gained an offline function on MacOS to log entries and load them onto the Cloud once you are back online. It is a subscription-based app, but many other free apps have similar functions.

I also installed RescueTime on my MacBook to keep track of how much time I spend on different tasks, which it logs depending on the software and website usage. It takes some time to define what tasks are productive and what are not – for example, I usually listen to podcasts for topics related to my research, so I need to define podcasts as productive for the app. RescueTime can be linked to Pomodoro apps, a method of keeping the momentum going by strictly working 25 minutes and resting 5 minutes, adhering to a timer dedicated for this. RescueTime is a subscription-based app, but there are many free Pomodoro apps.

Data and References

In the dark ages, when my mom did her PhD, she hand-typed all her citations and manually changed them when she published her monograph. When she told me this, I looked at her in horror, since I cannot imagine how I would do any of this manually. Because the technology exists, auto-formatting is usually expected, so conforming to style guides is much more important. If you work on a research team, chances are they might wish to share their libraries on referencing managers, so having a grasp of these apps might become essential in the future.

References Database

One of the bigger problems of working remotely is not having library access. The Scottish Graduate School of Arts and Humanities (SGSAH) recently posted about digital resources when working from home. Research Gate and Academia.edu are available as iOS apps, though I would be cautious whether the materials have been peer-reviewed. An app called Researcher helps sieve out information by using different filters and tags. These three apps are free. Of course, Kindle and iBooks usually have e-books that are very cheap or free.

I am an aspiring theologian, so this overview would not be complete if I did not refer to divinity-specific apps. Accordance Bible, Logos Bible, and Faithlife are not only Bible apps, but also have lots of e-books available. They have free basic starter packages, and I would suggest playing around with the platform to see if you are comfortable with it before paying for anything. Accordance Bible offers group discounts. Logos Bible and Faithlife both offer free books of the month. The perks of working with online sources are that you can easily search for keywords, and they are portable, essential for someone like me who travels internationally often.

PDF Reader

Your smartphone can double as a scanner when you go to the archives by using Camscanner. The reason I chose to stick with Camscanner is because it has more functionalities than other similar apps: it can merge images and output in.jpg and.pdf, and its image rendering and optical character recognition (OCR) in English and Chinese are pretty decent. They also offer free premium functions for those with an education institution email. However, you should be aware of the fact that Camscanner is one of the 59 China-based apps that were recently banned by India, citing privacy and security concerns. Evernote (discussed later) also has document capture functions, but the image rendering functions are not quite the same.

Smallpdf is a handy app that can turn almost any document into pdf and vice versa. The OCR is also pretty good, and its abilities to compress, merge, and split a.pdf file are handy. It is free, but you can only process a limited number of .pdfs within a designated timeframe.

Once a source document is turned into a .pdf file, I usually annotate it using GoodNotes, since I can access it on all my digital devices and do some work on the go. GoodNotes can translate my handwritten notes into typed notes with a single click, which is handy for my workflow. It is a one-off paid app, but one price for all platforms, both MacOS and iOS.

Data Organisation

I started organising my data in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet and moved onto learning to use NVivo to manage my archival and field research data by uploading the .doc, .pdf, .mp3, and .jpg files, then sorting and coding these files to find meaningful connections for analysis. However, the analogue pen and highlighter are totally fine for this process, and qualitative data management apps do not replace critical thinking. Ultimately, the researcher (i.e., you) still has to do the hard work, though the apps allow some automation after you have thought through the process. While I do find NVivo quite challenging to learn since it can do so many different things, it may be a good skill to have since many research teams use NVivo. All qualitative data analysis packages offer student discounts, and your university might already be paying for it, so make sure you check before paying.

Referencing Manager

I use EndNote because the University of St Andrews offers support for it, and my supervisor also uses it so I can share my library with him for comments. It is also compatible with Microsoft Word, the platform I use for writing. Using the one-off paid app saves a lot of time when submitting a paper to different journals because all the references can be updated with a click, and EndNote also offers lots of online training. It also gives me a place to back up all my .pdf documents. My experience with using reference managers is that it takes a lot of time to set up since I have many non-English resources, so I cannot just download the .ris files or search for the entry on Library of Congress. Still, once it is ready and running, it saves a lot of time.

Pre-Writing

Like most people, I often have my best ideas in the shower or jogging outside and need some sort of way to record my thought stream before it disappears.

Notes and Journaling

I use Evernote to keep all my thesis drafts, field notes, and research diary, because I can access it from all my digital platforms and can type up a quick note when I am on the go to follow up on later. I can search my notes using keywords and can also save webpages as notes using their Chrome Extension. Having all my images, audio clips, videos, and other file types in one place is very helpful for sorting and searching during my write-up process. It has an archival function, so if I accidentally delete something I wrote and want to find it again, it will be there. I do use the subscription-based paid version because the free version is quite limited in its functions, but student discounts are available for the paid version.

Outlining

Some people think visually and draw all sorts of mind maps, but I am not one of those people. I think in a linear way, so OmniOutliner, a one-off paid app, works very well for me. I can plan my writing in several layers of headings, which can be collapsed so that I can take a bird’s eye view of the whole project or zoom into a specific section and break it down in further layers. I can also export this outline in .xls or .doc for comments and the actual writing part.

Writing and Editing

There are many tools for the writing and editing process, and I do use a fair few. Here are my suggestions:

Ambience

I am a social writer, so I need to have a sense of working with others to be able to concentrate. During the lockdown, I relied on a mix of coffee shop white noise, typing sounds, and scribbling sounds from Coffitivity, MyNoise, and Ambient-Mixer. These are all free apps and can operate without the internet. PhD Women Scotland also had a recent post on blocking out noises.

Writing Platform

For someone who likes to try different apps, it might be somewhat surprising that I use Microsoft Word rather than Scrivener to write my thesis. The main reasons are that most people I send my work to ask for a .doc file, and there are lots of extensions I use for grammar, editing, and reference management that are only available in Word.

Grammar Tools

Before submitting any piece of writing, I use a mix of Grammarly and ProWritingAid to check my grammar. These apps are available on all my digital devices as a standalone app, as well as Word and Chrome extensions. Both apps require the internet to function. ProWritingAid is significantly cheaper than Grammarly, but Grammarly’s interface is more user-friendly.

Editing Tools

I find PerfectIt, a Word extension, very helpful to check for consistency, especially in long documents, since it checks for consistent spelling, use of hyphens, use of acronyms, etc. It is a subscription-based paid app, though, and requires the internet to function. WordRake, another Word extension subscription-based paid app, is useful in my editing process since I tend to write long sentences, and WordRake helps identify filler words in my writing.

I also find the Text-to-Voice function in Microsoft Word and in the MacOS platform useful to proofread a piece of writing. Sometimes my eyes just glaze over obvious errors, but when it is read out loud, I can catch them better.

Remote Access

I have always been a fan of writing retreats and conferences. Having everything moved online has not stopped me from seeking out the social aspect of writing.

Remote Platforms

As a social writer who has been working remotely, I have been meeting with people to write using apps like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Skype, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat, and FaceTime. I do not really have a preference for any of these – I generally go with whatever other people prefer. One of the major concerns for most people is with security and stability, since there have been many new reports on Zoom’s security loopholes. I use the free version of all these, except for Microsoft Teams, which is paid for by the University of St Andrews. With paid subscriptions, you will have better access to support services, so that might be something you wish to consider.

Don’t have someone to work with? Join Focusmate’s PhD Community, where you can work together with other PhD students from around the world for 50 minutes at a time. You can access Focusmate on iOS devices using Jitsi.

Need a tool to schedule a time to write together? Use Doodle. I use the free version, and it seems to function very well. Between online writing meetups, I have several Slack groups to share resources and offer support. Slack is also a free app.

Collaboration and Presentation

Even before working remotely, I often used Google Doc and Padlet to collaborate on projects. This allows for real-time collaboration and is free.

As for presenting and teaching remotely, I know some people use Prezi instead of Microsoft PowerPoint. I find Prezi, a subscription-based paid app, only effective for presenting timelines or materials on several geographic locations using a map; otherwise, it can get a bit distracting zooming in and out. While I continue to use PowerPoint, I use Canva templates to spice up the design of the slides. Canva offers a year of free premium accounts for students via GitHub. Remember to check your university’s digital communications office website to make sure you are complying with university logo usage, colours, and typefaces. I also run the free Color Oracle app over all my presentations to make sure it is accessible for those with colour impairment.

Final Thoughts

  • Always ask for student or educator discounts before committing.
  • Check what apps your university subscribes to—you will get better support from your IT helpdesk for troubleshooting these apps, and your workflow will be more in-sync with your colleagues’ workflows.
  • Do not start using all the new apps at once; take the time to learn if it fits into your workflow.
  • Know when to quit. If you do not like an app, do not force it.
  • Analogue is good too. If at any point you find using digital tools too overwhelming, you might want to engage in a digital detox. Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism and Deep Work are great starting points.

What app is a must for your workflow? Let me know by commenting below or tweeting at me @agillianchu!


Today’s writer and app extraordinaire is Ann Gillian Chu. She graduated from the University of Edinburgh with MA (Honours) in English Language and is currently a PhD (Divinity) candidate at the University of St Andrews. Gillian researches how Christians conceptualise civic engagement in light of Hong Kong’s resistance movements. In the third year of her doctoral research, Gillian completed her fieldwork during the pandemic and is now writing up her research findings. You can follow her PhD life and research on her Facebook Fan Page and on Twitter.

One thought on “Apps for Academics in the Time of COVID-19

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s