Web-based applications have three advantages that make them perfect for students: They're cheap or free, they're accessible from any computer, and they enable collaboration in a way that's clumsy or impossible with desktop apps. We've rounded up some of the best free Web apps to support students in their work.
(We didn't bother with general run-your-life apps like Ta-da List, productivity suites like Google Docs or storage/sync tools like Dropbox. They would certainly be of great help to students, but not especially to students.)
- BibMe: These days, a research paper might quote a Web site, a book, a film and a newspaper. Getting the bibliographic citations in the right format is the last thing you need to be spending time on when you're trying to finish a paper that's due the next day. Let BibMe take care of that. You just pick the type of source (book, magazine, Web site, etc.) and enter the title, author, ISBN number, URL, director or whatever into the search field, and BibMe will likely find your particular reference. (If not, there's a manual-entry mode as well.) Review and correct the information, click Add To My Bibliography and watch the list of properly formatted citations grow.
- Diigo: Diigo is a browser add-on that supports Web research by letting you bookmark, highlight and annotate Web pages. It's available as a toolbar for Firefox, Flock and Internet Explorer, an extension for Chrome and a bookmarklet for Safari and other browsers. Your notes are saved in your own personal Diigo library, so you can access them from any computer. Diigo also lets you archive entire Web pages, saving them in both HTML and screenshot formats. You can add tags to bookmarks and saved pages to make them easy to find later, and make your library public or share it with a particular group.
- NoteMesh: What student hasn't asked to borrow a classmate's lecture notes? NoteMesh makes that a simple process by providing a class-oriented wiki to which students can contribute, edit and comment on notes. Each course gets its own wiki page, and registered users can add, remove or change content as they wish, basically creating a custom Wikipedia entry for that class. And like Wikipedia, NoteMesh maintains a history of changes to a class notes page, so any problems can be corrected.
- SparkNotes: Owned since 2001 by Barnes & Noble, SparkNotes can be described as a sort of online CliffsNotes. The idea is to help students through the rough patches when the usual resources aren't enough. The notes on literature cover everything from Angela's Ashes to Watership Down, in addition to the expected classics. There are also notes for films, chemistry, history, math and most other standard subjects.
The site's only real drawback is a ridiculously cluttered Flash- and ad-heavy interface. But once you hack your way through the visual underbrush to the actual notes, the information is solid. Just be forewarned: Professors are on to SparkNotes, so make sure you use it for assistance rather than wholesale copy-and-pasting.
- Writeboard: Writeboard, from 37signals, the people responsible for Ta-da List and the information-sharing site Backpack, provides an online environment for brainstorming or collaborative writing -- a virtual whiteboard, if you will. The site lets you create a basic text box with its own URL and invite others to work on it with you. Writeboard keeps track of who changed what and lets you compare two versions or revert to a previous copy. And that's pretty much it: a simple idea, well executed.