A beginner's guide to using your Mac at school

Macs aren't just for creative professionals, they're also a great computer for students to write and research assignments and other projects.

And although some schools and colleges actively discourage students from doing so, chances are you've used the internet for research.

The web is now so ubiquitous that the old idea of learned repositories just doesn't work as it used to. The web's ubiquity means that you can do your research anywhere: it used to be that researching a topic in any depth meant hanging out in dusty library stacks. Not any more!

Now you can consult encyclopaedias – commercial ones, like Encyclopaedia Britannica or free ones like Wikipedia – on the move or in the park: anywhere you can get a WiFi connection or a mobile signal. And such sites are far from being your only resources – there are reputable journals, archives of books, and audio and video lectures by world authorities on just about any subject available online.

Doing any kind of research has its stages: first you need to clarify what you want to know – we're not going to talk about this because it's more the subject of an article about study skills; we're here for the love of Macs, so we're more interested in how your Mac can help you once you know what you're after. That's when you move on to the second stage: gathering information and references.

This, of course, is the key work: it's the actual 'doing' in doing research. And then you need to process and make sense and draw meaning from your information. There are some great Mac tools for each of the stages of this process, and we're going to mention a few of the best, along with some tips for the journey.

What you have already

A dictionary is a fundamental tool for every kind of writer, student or researcher, and having one at your fingertips is just great. Luckily, there's the New Oxford American Dictionary (not English, unfortunately) built into OS X, so highlight a word in TextEdit or Safari and tap C+[Ctrl]+[D] to bring up the Dictionary app.

It's available system-wide in all Apple apps, so whether you're working in a word processor like Apple's Pages or surfing the web from Safari, you can just hit that key combination and up pops your definition. Where the keyboard shortcut doesn't work, you can usually right-click (or [Ctrl]-click) and select Look up in Dictionary from the contextual menu.

Inside the app you also have access to the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus and Wikipedia (OS X 10.5 Leopard only). In fact, the Wikipedia browser – that's really what it amounts to when you've selected Wikipedia as your source – is a fine way of searching the community-contributed encyclopaedia.

Of course, you're likely to want to look further afield than Apple's dictionary in your research, and that's where you start hitting your web browser, whether that be Safari, Firefox, or any of the alternatives. One thing that recommends Safari is the fact that Dictionary's C+[Ctrl]+[D] keyboard shortcut works with it, but not with any of the other browsers available, though Opera offers an easy search of an online dictionary, and you can add similar functionality to Firefox by installing any of several addons – just run a search for dictionary at http://addons.mozilla.org/.

With Dictionary, Safari, and Google, you could just throw in Leopard's Stickies application and you'd have a rudimentary (and workable) research setup already, without having to install any extra software. But with additional 3rd party software there's much more you can do – better search options, and better ways to organise and work with your information.

Doing more with Google

Google is a good place for any search to start. It might be that you've got by so far with just the standard Google interface, but the search giant offers other options better targeted to research purposes, and you may not have heard of them before.

To get started, head over to http://scholar.google.com to access results drawn only from peer-reviewed (for example, more credible than Wikipedia) papers, theses, books, abstracts and articles.

Results of your searches here are arranged in order of the number of other sources citing the particular resource (in a sense, this is one of the most important criteria by which Google ranks websites in its standard search engine, too, but there it's counting the number of sites that link to each particular page).

Where results are clickable, they take you either to a downloadable PDF article or to a book or journal available from Google Books, the vast online digitisation project through which Google is making millions of books available online. (By November 2008, there were seven million books scanned on the site.)

Working with Wikipedia

While Wikipedia is shunned by some institutions, it's usually still worth a critical look. Most of what you'll find there is fairly reliable, and if you know more on that subject, you have the opportunity of improving the resource yourself by posting corrections and getting involved in online discussions about the topics that interest you.

Every page has a Discussion tab alongside the tab containing the main body of the article, where you can join in the discussion and post corrections. And, of course, you can always use the references cited in particular articles as signposts for your own further research. It would probably be foolhardy to base your entire MA on Wikipedia, but if you're just setting out on outlining your project, it's a very useful way of starting to get an overview and put together a reading list of sources you can follow up later.

There are a few applications that can extend your experience. We've already mentioned the built-in Dictionary application, and you can add to this the innovative Pathway (on the disc), and the best of the crop of iPhone/iPod touch apps, Wikipanion+ (£2.99, from the App Store with limited free version available).

Pathway uses a clever 'web' view to display a map of subjects related to the page you've chosen as your centre. You can then click on the nodes to explore the relationships between topics and extend the range of your research. It's a great way to visualise different areas of information, and you're likely to find that you end up exploring unexpected connections. You can then append your own notes to particular articles, and even attach files.

Wikipedia has at last started serving iPhone optimised pages, but Wikipanion+ adds the ability to save pages for offline viewing. So if you know you've got a journey in which you'll have no internet access, you can simply save a bunch of pages to the 'Queue' before you leave home. Then when you're comfortably sat on your train or plane, there they are for your offline reading pleasure. Links that you click on while offline will be queued for downloading next time you have a data connection.