Stop wasting time, social work students. Go digital-only.

Essy Knopf social work go digital
Reading time: 6 minutes

When I started my undergraduate degree, virtual study platforms like Blackboard were very much in their infancy, and digital-only learning was still a fair way off. 

For example, tests were still paper and pen-based, and textbooks and course readers were only available in hard copy format.

Today that’s all changed. Most reading material is now accessible in PDF or eBook format, freeing us from the burden of toting around massive textbooks.

Going digital has brought other benefits. With the right adjustments, device-based reading can actually be a timesaver, thanks to the inbuilt highlighting and notetaking abilities.

If you are yet to purchase your textbooks and have a functional tablet or tablet, here are some reasons for going the digital-only route, plus tips for an optimal study experience.

Comfort vs convenience of digital-only study

If you, like me, grew up reading books the old-fashioned way, you may drag your heels when it comes to reading off a screen.

But course readings are increasingly being provided in PDF format, so going digital-only may be a natural conclusion.

Given the difficulty, expense, and environmental cost involved in printing these materials out, it might be worth exploring how to make screen-reading a more enjoyable experience.

But first, it’s important to understand some technicalities. e-Textbooks are usually made available in PDF, EPUB, or MOBI/AZW format (Amazon’s proprietary eBook file format).

Textbooks in AZW format sometimes have limits on the amount of content you can highlight and save as notes due to digital rights management (DRM).

These restrictions will vary from publisher to publisher. In recent years, many have recognized the importance of notetaking and relaxed DRM restrictions.

To save yourself hassle down the line, read each e-Textbook’s product description page before purchasing. Alternatively, contact your online bookstore’s customer service department for more information. 

1. Take notes with e-Textbooks

While not all eBook reading apps or devices offer notetaking abilities, most do. And this is one of the advantages of going digital-only.

If you’re using a computer, you can access EPUB or MOBI files with Calibre, a free eBook library manager. PDFs can be accessed using Adobe Reader

Supposing there are no DRM restrictions, these readers will allow you to select passages of text and copy them straight into a Word or Google document.

Should DRM prevent you from highlighting and recording your notes, you can always just manually type them out.

To do this, open two window panes on your computer—one for your eBook reader app, and one for your notes document—then transcribe any content you need directly into the latter.

For those using an Amazon Kindle, know that anything you highlight is automatically recorded to an internal document, which will then need to be accessed using this method.

2. Try text-to-speech

“But I don’t like to read things on the computer,” you say. Fair enough.

Give your eyes a break and have your content read aloud to you with Adobe Reader’s built-in Text-to-Speech feature

Alternatively, you can convert a text document into speech using free web-based services.

The resulting MP3 file can be played on your computer or transferred to your phone for easy listening while on the go.

3. Use dark mode

If you can’t stand text-to-speech, ease your eyestrain with dark mode.

Calibre will automatically match your current system setting, so turning the dark mode feature on can be as easy as flipping the related toggle in Windows or Mac.

In the case of Adobe Reader, you will need to tinker with the settings first in order to get dark mode working. 

To do this, go to “Edit”, followed by “Preferences”. A new window will appear. Under the “Categories” column, click “Accessibility”.

Under “Document Colors Options”, tick “Replace Document Colors”. Tick the “Custom Color:” box. Set “Page Background” to black, and “Document Text:” to white. 

Finally, tick the “Change the color of line art as well as text” box. And you’re done!

You can also enable dark mode in your browser using the free extension Dark Reader.

If you find dark mode disorienting, at least initially, know that it will ultimately add an extra level of comfort to your digital-only study experience.

4. Convert readings to PDF

Typically when lecturers provide URLs to readings hosted online (such as articles), I find it worthwhile to convert them to PDF format for easy reading/notetaking.

Several free services can assist with this. Note that in some cases, one service may break text formatting or produce excess white space. For this reason, some experimentation using all the services listed here may be required.

The first service is Print Friendly. To access it, paste your link into the main field, hit “Preview”, then “PDF” and “Download your PDF”.

The second is Simple Print. Paste your link into the main field, click “Create PDF”, and click the image that appears. 

A PDF will appear in your browser; all that needs to be done now is for you to right-click the page and hit “Save”. Note, you can also install this service as a Chrome browser plugin

Once you’ve installed the plugin, navigate to the webpage you want to convert, tap the Simple Print icon next to the address bar and let the plugin work its magic.

The final PDF conversion service is Mercury Reader, available as a Chrome plugin. The process is much the same as that involving the Simple Print plugin.

Essy Knopf digital-only social work school

5. Keep a master notes file

To manage all your school notes in a single Word doc would be unwieldy, and devoting a folder to multiple notes documents can also get messy.

OneNote, which is included in Office 365 and Office 2016 suite, is a note-taking program that can help you keep all your notes organized within a single document.

With OneNote, each sub-document is separated by individual tabs, which are searchable using the search bar (shortcut “CTRL + F”). 

Where one might spend minutes thumbing through a notebook in search of specific notes, with the OneNote app it’s never more than a few keystrokes away. This is one of the many benefits of a digital-only approach.

If you don’t happen to have the editions of Office mentioned above, know that you can still download the cloud-based version of OneNote free of cost

I would also recommend checking out Scrivener, which matches the functionality of OneNote—and then some.

Initially marketed as a tool for writers, Scrivener is simple to use but offers an insanely complex array of features. 

The app presents all content in a binder format, much like a file directory tree. Each document you create within a Scrivener project can be sorted into folders with unique icons.

All documents are organized and stored inside a single master archive file.

Like OneNote, all Scrivener content can be searched with a quick CTRL + F. The app also offers the ability to split your display between two documents, which helps for referring to notes when writing an essay.

You can also create multiple “snapshots” of each document, allowing you to roll back any changes in the event you want to revert to an earlier edit.

For anyone looking to create a “master document” or notes archive, Scrivener can go a long way to helping you efficiently organize your data.

If you’re curious to give it a spin, Scrivener can be run for free in trial mode for the first 30 days.

6. Back up your data

Computers crash and hard drives fail. This is the reality of digital-only work in the Information Age.

Thankfully there are measures you can take to avoid losing all your work, should a data-loss disaster strike.

A simple way of doing this is working exclusively in the cloud using a free service like Google Docs. The downside is that you will need a constant internet connection in order to work, although there is a way around this.

While it doesn’t appear likely that Google cloud servers will suffer a catastrophic failure any time soon, it’s best not to bank upon such a possibility never happening.

According to the 3-2-1 rule, we should regularly make and keep a total of three backups at all times. 

In my case, I use a modified version of this rule. Firstly, I make a physical backup of all my files on two different external hard drives.

Note that USB thumb drives can be unreliable so I would recommend avoiding them completely.

Secondly, I keep all essential working documents synced with free cloud-based backup services like Dropbox and Google Drive

For extra protection, I would recommend using both of these services at the same time.

Wrap up

If there’s one educational trend we can be certain of, it’s that classroom integration of digital technologies will only continue.

Whatever your feelings about this new norm, it’s still worth leveraging the unique strengths of digital mediums to your benefit.

The tips I’ve included here are a small sample drawn from my personal experience. If you’re interested in going digital-only, I recommend also checking out these tech-based study hacks.

You can read more social work-related posts here.

These 6 tech-based study hacks will transform your social work school experience

Essy Knopf Technology Hacks
Reading time: 5 minutes

As most attending social work school can attest, stress is the water we figuratively swim in every day.1

It is also a very normal part of being human. In moderation, stress can help us. But when sustained at high levels over long periods, it can devastate our wellbeing.

Strung out between study, placements, and what passes for our personal lives, it is very easy for us to experience the latter.

There are many strategies for minimizing stress, such as simplifying and automating tasks. This is where modern information technologies can assist.

Here are some suggestions as to how social work students can turn them to their advantage.

1. Give task tracking applications a spin

In my previous article, “11 ways not to crash and burn in social work school”, I stressed that prioritizing and calendarizing are key to being a functional social work student.

If you’re in an MSW program, it’s worth considering keeping a running record of all your to-dos with a list-making application.

Apps like Apple Notes and Google Keep save your data in the cloud and share them with all your registered devices, making accessing and updating them a cinch.

Using colors and labels will help you with organizing information into categories. Adding checkboxes allows you to tick off completed tasks one by one.

Here’s one workflow I recommend following when using Google Keep: first, assign two cards to each grad school course you’re currently taking. Title one “Readings” and the other “Assessments”.

Give each card a different color to visually distinguish them. Apply a label titled “Study” so you can easily sort them from cards with a different category. 

Finally, add checkboxes for every pending reading and assessment. Make sure to update each card from week to week.

While Google Keep technically doesn’t have a dedicated desktop app, third-party versions such as EasyNotes are available.

2. Try using a Pomodoro timer

Finding that you’re not taking enough study breaks, or alternatively taking too many

Most MSW candidates will likely fall into one of these two camps. Sitting at our desk, we enter a state of flow, only to emerge hours later, glassy-eyed and ravenous for a meal.

Alternatively, we may struggle and study in fits and starts, interrupted by many a text message and checking of our news and social media feeds. 

Whether you suffer from tunnel vision or procrastination, the Pomodoro technique may be able to help you find a happy medium.

This time management technique works by breaking time up into intervals: 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off. After four of these intervals, users take a longer break of 15 minutes. 

Pomodoro timer apps, available on both phones and the web, automate the process, prompting users at the end of each interval with a chime.

Some of the more advanced timers can even track your productivity.

Essy Knopf social work school study hacks

3. Take social work school group work to the next level

If you find Apple Notes or Google Keep too simple for your purposes, check out Trello, another free cross-platform service accessible on your phone and computer. 

Trello’s design is comparable to that with Google Keep, with cards organized under vertical columns. But as a tool for collaboration, the app really flexes its muscles.

Trello offers a visual representation of the status of all tasks and subtasks, which can be particularly helpful when working on complex school group assessments.

Multiple users can also access and edit the board at the same time, “tagging” and delegating tasks to each other, while setting reminders.

To familiarize yourself with the app, you can create a personal “board” and set a title e.g. “Course X”. Create titled columns for each school course and another called “Completed tasks”.

Under each column, add cards for individual assessment pieces and homework tasks. Tag cards with a color and assign definitions. Red for example can represent “To do”, orange “In progress”, and green “Complete”.

When completing each task, drag the associated card to the “Completed tasks” column. Or right-click it and hit the “Archive” option.

For brainstorming, virtual whiteboards like Google Jamboard can come in handy. And when working on shared papers, Google Docs can also be a godsend, thanks to the collaborative, real-time editing feature.

If you are organizing a meeting in-person or virtually, try using a Doodle poll to identify everyone’s availability.

4. Communicate and community-build online

If emails are too arduous, why not switch things up with a feature-rich instant messaging app like GroupMe?

WhatsApp alternatively provides a more secure service, with end-to-end encryption.

If you struggle to keep track of text messages with other social work school students, check out Slack, a phone and desktop app that offers persistent chat rooms organized by subjects. 

While this level of functionality may be too complex for the average group assignment, Slack can be especially useful for students looking to community build, share information and resources, and organize on campus. 

5. Lift your grammar game

If you’ve been relying exclusively on Microsoft Word or Google Docs’ spelling and grammar check, there’s a good chance you’re not catching every typo.

Don’t believe me? Install Grammarly, a free service that can be accessed as a browser extension, Microsoft Office plugin, or desktop app.

Grammarly stands head and shoulders above most apps’ standard spelling, grammar, and punctuation proofreading features. 

If you’re willing to shell out for the paid version, you’ll also get additional features such as guidance on writing with clarity and automatic plagiarism detection. 

6. Jazz up your social work school presentations

Lack the design finesse and can’t be bothered scouting the web for inspiration? 

Transform your lackluster Google Slides presentation in a pinch with one of the many free presentation templates available for download on Slidesgo.

Editing these snazzy predesigned slides is as simple as drag-and-drop and cut-and-paste. 

As a bonus, most templates include unique design elements at the end that can be adapted for any purpose. 

Wrap Up

You may be comfortable with your current social work study workflow. And yet it’s possible that there are some inefficiencies that are costing you time and effort.

Many of these can be addressed with a few tech tweaks such as the ones I suggested above.

But if you’re intimidated by the prospect of learning new systems, don’t worry—I completely get it.

My suggestion would be to start small. Try one of the hacks I’ve mentioned for a few days and see if you notice any improvements. 

Give yourself enough time to get familiar with the new method before making any final decision. Also, try to keep in mind why you’re making a change in the first place. What do you hope to gain? 

If eased workloads and relaxed time pressures sound like your cup of tea, then maybe the risks are ones well worth taking.

You can read more social work-related posts here.