People who went to university a generation or two ago would probably no longer recognise the place.

Lecture schedules are up on websites; the facts you need are on Wikipedia; and the right format for your dissertation can be spat out automatically by your word processing programme. PCs, smartphones and the internet have made life much easier for students.

And now, thanks to a host of new programmes and apps, it is about to get easier still, sometimes without costing a cent.

Whether the curriculum is natural science or philosophy, some programmes are required for everyone. There is no avoiding an Office suite, for example: not just because of the word processing, but because of the presentation software.

“It’s pretty much normal in every field that you have to present your ideas before the larger public,” says Nicolas Apostolopoulos, director of the Centre for Digital Systems at Berlin’s Free University. If the fee-based version from Microsoft isn’t what you want, consider freeware versions from OpenOffice or LibreOffice.

IT consultant Markus Stenzel has made available a package of vital applications for students on his website. It includes the Office packets already mentioned, along with programmes for photo editing; creating file cards and mind-maps; and a virus scanner. Since its all freeware, the products on Stenzel’s website don’t cost a thing.

“Generally, you don’t need commercial software for studying,” says Stenzel.

But, depending on the course of studies, some students might require still more programmes. Economics students cannot do without some kind of spreadsheet programme, while architectural students need something that can draft 3D models. Maths and sciences students can’t get by without LaTeX, which helps create texts that integrate formulae and graphics.

Students are advised to wait to figure out, which applications they need until they are at university.

“I’d recommend checking with a lecturer or fellow students,” says Stenzel. Many specialty programmes are only necessary for advanced classes or once a master’s curriculum has been started.

But it’s not enough to just own the programmes: Students need to be able to use them properly. Students also need to learn how to surf the internet properly, says Apostolopoulos.

“A student today needs to know how he can publish his texts and his findings online — for example, with blogs or a wiki.” There are also the right and wrong ways to research. It’s more than just entering a search phrase into Google, he notes. People who need a little help here can usually find special classes on the topic at most university libraries at the start of each semester.

Most of today’s students don’t limit themselves to PCs or laptops.

“The higher sales figures for smartphones and tablets are also being reflected on campuses,” says Kathrin Braungardt of the e-learning team at Germany’s Ruhr University in Bochum.

Universities are still playing catch-up with these devices, laments Apostolopoulos. “There’s a lot lacking. For example, there are usually no learning platform displays that have been formatted for mobile devices.” But he thinks that will all change in the next couple of years.

After all, there are already apps for organizational matters.

Bochum’s university already has RUB Mobile, which helps students familiarise themselves with the campus, call up meal plans and contact people in the university directories.

Well-known app stores like iTunes App Store and Google Play also have a lot to offer students. CamScanner can turn a mobile phone camera into a scanner for all kinds of devices. Cloud-based apps like Dropbox or Google Drive can let students access their documents even when they’re away from a PC.

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