Free, easy software solutions for students

Technology can be a double-edged sword, and no one knows that more than college students. Only a decade ago laptops and computers were large, clunky and prohibitively expensive for many college students. Now they are a indispensable tool for nearly any class they will find themselves in during their academic career.

For many, laptops might as well be called “Facebook machines” or “ESPN reading modules” and, as such, here are a few free applications and tools students can use to not only get the best performance out of their computers, but to use them (gasp!) productively.

*Open Office*

Open Office is a free application that mimics the look and feel of Microsoft Office. The program is a form of “open source” software, meaning that the application was created by groups of amateurs and professionals who modified and designed the program by sharing it and testing it.

The result of their hard work is a simple-but-functional facsimile of the familiar Microsoft Word program, but there is a surprising amount of depth to its functionality. You can save documents in a wide variety of formats, and it can open .doc files without a hitch. It also makes spreadsheets. Yes, it may not have the glossy Microsoft sheen on everything, and I’ve found that minor errors can arise when opening docx files, but any student can benefit from not having to shell out hard earned cash for the MS Office Suite.

*Scheedule.com*

Yes, this isn’t software, but that can’t deter me from pointing you towards this incredibly helpful website. Scheedule.com presents a simple and intuitive way to search, sort, and register for classes. All you have to do is input the name of a course (ENGL 101, for example) which will then be presented as a colored block on what looks like a simple week planner.

As you add courses, you can try out different combinations of sections or labs to find the class schedule that is just right for you. Registration using the regular U of I system can turn into a confusing whirlwind of course numbers and abbreviations, and the simple visual organization of the website can shorten the ordeal considerably.

*Skype/Google Voice*

Skype has been around for a while, but for the initiated, it is a text/audio/video chatting application which allows you to connect to anyone else with the program, for free! I’ve found this program to have a much stabler instant messenger system than Facebook.

For those who really want to live in a post-phone world, check out Google Voice. If you have a Gmail account (and you all should), you can click on the phone icon right on the instant messenger sidebar. From there, you can enter any phone number, and call it for free. Just don’t use it to prank call anyone, you’re supposed to be a grown-up now.

*Wolfram Alpha*

Another website, and for those with mathematical inclinations, a must-have. Wolfram Alpha (created by Champaign-based company Wolfram Research) is a monumentally flexible “answer engine,” with the ability to solve complex equations and even give you explanation for how those answers were reached.

For those who foresee advanced math classes in their future, Wolfram Alpha can provide a much needed plan B for when problem sets and textbook examples won’t do. I’m not advocating cheating here, but as a resource for those puzzling through calculus, statistics or other difficult subjects, this website is amazing. It even can provide historical data, and other info on a broad list of subjects. Regardless of major, there is something of interest here for everyone.