There has been a fundamental shift in the way in which we work as academics. No longer are we tied to our desks, hard wired internet/intranet connections or dusty collections of texts and papers. It is now possible, and in some cases desirable and more productive, to work from home, from libraries, in the field, from coffee shops, anywhere that has a wireless internet connection – even bars… Much of the software technology that we use in our day to day lives however, is not compatible with this more light, flexible way of working. For this reason I have decided to embark on an experiment to see if I can undertake my daily duties using only online, free, cloud based software programmes. But is this practical on a day to day basis? can a busy academic really perform all of the duties expected of them using only free, online web programmes? This is what I hope to find out…
The Rationale for Change
I have never been a fan of desktop programmes such as Outlook, Word, Excel and the like. I find them slow, overcomplicated and vulnerable to crashes and lost data. Sometimes I would switch on my computer, click to start up my email programme, go and make a cup of coffee, and the program would still not have started up on my return. Many of the functions that are embedded into my word-processing and office software are redundant – I don’t need or want them. How many of us have suffered a crash or corruption of data – usually after we have written a good few hundred (or thousand) words and forgotten to press save…Increasingly these software technologies no longer adequately fit my workflow requirements. I need my software to be more agile, faster, more secure and resilient. I want to be able to access my data, to work and write on any device that I am using at the time – laptop, netbook, tablet, mobile phone etc.For these reasons I have decided to forgo all installed desktop software programmes (with the exception of a web browser) and move to lightweight, cloud based, browser focussed solutions.
There is increasingly a trend towards this method of working. The introduction of cloud based office programmes such as Google Docs, Zoho and Microsoft Office Web Apps now make it possible to create and edit documents without the need for installed software. File syncing services such as Dropbox, Box and Sugarsyncallow access to all files from any location and any device. Google’s Chromebook computers do not allow installed software – they simply come with a browser and a chunk of online storage. There are a number of guides and blog posts advocating the move to an online, cloud based software ecosystem, but is this practical on a day to day basis? Is this relevant to those working in an academic environment? Can a busy academic really perform all of the duties expected of them using only free, online web programmes?
The first step in this journey is to establish what tasks I need to undertake on a day to day basis. As I see it there are a number of things that I currently use desktop based software to achieve.
Prepare teaching material (presentations, papers, audio and video recordings etc)
Deliver teaching material (presenting in lecture theatres, seminar rooms etc)
Supervise graduate students (read and comment on drafts of work, supervise via email and video conferencing etc)
General admin work (file forms, email colleagues and students, process admissions etc)
Undertake research (currently much of my research is desk based social science type work)
Write and edit research papers (write, collaborate, draft and prepare for publication etc)
Any cloud based ecosystem that I use needs to be able to provide the ability for me to perform all of these tasks to at least the same level of functionality as my current system.
My Current System
Next I need to examine the system that I currently use. I moved from a primarily PC focussed ecosystem to a Mac based system in 2011 (the Macs were the product of a research grant) and now I don’t want to move back, however I still have a PC in the office and the main software I use is the same across both systems so my experiences should be common to all and much of the online, cloud based software is platform agnostic.
On the hardware front I regularly use:
2011 MAcbook Pro (for home use)
2011 Macbook Air (whilst out and about)
2010 Dell PC (In the office at work)
As you may expect one of the main issues I have faced over the years is keeping all of these devices in sync with one another. This is another motivation for transitioning to an online system. As for the main software installed across the computers, I mainly rely on:
Zotero (reference management software)
Dropbox (for file syncing)
Skype (for supervising overseas graduate students)
This is list is not exhaustive however – of course I also have a lot of other installed software packages which whist not essential for work, are used on a daily basis. The list includes iTunes and Spotify (for music), iMovie and Camtasia (for editing teaching videos), Picassa (for managing and editing photographs) plus a whole host of programmes I have installed once, and then never again used (different internet browsers, alternative reference managers, various ‘helper’ programmes to manage data syncing, games etc).
Under my new system, all of the above have got to go so I have un-installed all of these programmes and returned my computers to their base state (eek!)
So can I really perform my day to day job using only free, online, cloud based software systems?
In Part 2 of this series I will examine the available software solutions and decide which I will use. Then I will begin the process of moving my files and data to the cloud…