Here’s an overview of some of the most useful open-source software programs for educators. These applications and descriptions come from Aaron Tyo-Dickerson, coordinator of the Model Schools Program for the Board of Cooperative Educational Services in Ithaca, N.Y.; (TheOpenCD project); and the Consortium for School Networking’s “Primer on Open Technologies in K-12 Education.”
OpenOffice.org is a full-featured productivity suite that includes a word processor, spreadsheet, web page editor, presentation program, and database tools. Notable features include the ability to create mail-merged documents from Outlook or Mozilla address books, spreadsheets, or other data sources, and the ability to read and write documents in a wide range of formats, including Microsoft Office.
AbiWord is a lightweight, stand-alone word processor that can read and write a large number of document formats, including Microsoft Word. Because of its small size, it is well suited for use on older hardware and will run on a 486DX with only 16 megabytes of RAM. Key features include HTML export, unlimited undo and redo, and support for spell checking, styles, columns, tables, images, and bulleted or numbered lists. Many optional plug-ins are available, including a thesaurus, translation interface, and spelling dictionaries in many languages. AbiWord is available on multiple platforms, including Windows, Linux, Macintosh OS X, and Unix.
Use PDFCreator to generate PDF (Portable Document Format) files directly from any Windows program. Once installed, simply select “Print” from the File menu of your word processor or drawing program, and select “PDFCreator Printer” from the list of printers. Then, click “Save” and enter a name for your PDF output file.
7-Zip is a program for creating or unpacking archived and compressed files. The program is highly configurable, allowing the user to balance the level of compression and speed. The interface is designed to mimic the standard Windows shell, Explorer, and is localized to 40 languages. Though 7-Zip is free of charge, you have the option of registering if you would like official technical support.
Notepad2 is intended to be a replacement for the Notepad program that is included as part of Windows. Like Notepad, Notepad2 is small, fast, and has few frills. It does, however, add some functionality, such as color syntax highlighting that many people will find useful, especially those who have to edit the odd HTML page or script. You can select the level of zoom and the editing font. Notepad2 supports Unicode, UTF-8, Unix, and Mac text files.
Virtual Network Computing (VNC) gives you remote access to your desktop from any internet-connected computer with a Java-enabled web browser. You can use it to operate a computer across the room or across the globe, using the appropriate password to gain access. The remote desktop appears in a local window, and you can use all of its functions as if you were sitting in front of it. This application is useful if you need to use two computers at once, access your home machine while traveling, or provide remote tech support. TightVNC is a well-supported implementation of the VNC standard, optimized for use over slow internet connections (for example, over a dial-up connection). VNC is also cross-platform: Because there are versions of VNC for Windows, Linux, Unix, and Macintosh, you can get to your desktop regardless of the client platform.
Internet browsing and communication tools
Firefox is a lightweight web browser based on Mozilla technology. It empowers you to browse faster, more securely, and more efficiently. Key features include popup blocking to stop annoying ads from appearing on your screen; tabbed browsing, which lets you view multiple web pages in a single window; and text zooming, a quick way of enlarging or decreasing the text of any web page to make it more readable. You can expand this lightweight core by adding plug-ins that do everything from automatic form completion to blocking Flash animations. The Easy Transition system imports all of your settings, including bookmarked sites, passwords, and other data from Internet Explorer and other browsers, so you can start surfing right away.
Gaim is an instant-messenger client. Use it to chat with others in real time using any supported network, including AIM, ICQ, MSN Messenger, Yahoo!, and IRC. Gaim can be simultaneously connected to several networks, so if you have contacts on different networks, you can talk to them all at the same time–from the same program. It supports many native network features, such as file transfer, away messages, and buddy icons, as well as many unique features. For example, Buddy Pounce can be used to notify you when a buddy signs on, goes away, or returns from idle.
Mozilla is a full-featured web browser, mail, and news suite. It includes advanced options such as pop-up ad blocking, tabbed browsing, and an eMail spam filter. The simple web page designer lets you create and publish your own web pages. With most viruses being written specifically to exploit the default Windows browser and eMail clients (IE and Outlook Express), one of the simplest steps you can take to reduce your exposure to viruses is to switch to an alternate set of applications, such as Mozilla.
Multimedia and graphics tools
Blender is an advanced 3-D modeling program capable of producing high-quality animations. It reportedly is the only 3-D creation suite that allows the artist to model, texture, animate, render, and export the finished product in a package less than 10 megabytes.
Audacity is a sound-editing program that can record, play back, and mix sounds or apply effects using a variety of filters. You can edit your sounds using Cut, Copy, and Paste (with unlimited Undo) and mix multiple tracks together; save your files in a number of formats, including WAV and AIFF; or use Audacity’s native project format for high-performance editing. MP3 support is available using an external MP3 encoder. Audacity is available for both Linux and Macintosh OS X.
Learning content management systems
MyClassroom is available from Visionlearning.com, a new educational resource for faculty and students funded by the National Science Foundation. It provides a library of learning modules and also a course authoring system.
OpenCourse is a web-based online course content management system that focuses on the sharing of reusable learning objects
Interactis an online learning and collaboration platform developed by Christchurch College of Education in New Zealand. It’s a free alternative to commercial programs such as WebCT and Blackboard.
Atutor is another full-featured LCMS from Canada, allowing educators to quickly assemble, package, and redistribute web-based instructional content, easily retrieve and import prepackaged content, and conduct their courses online.
Moodle is a complete online course management system that offers assignments, forums, chats, online journaling, and quizzes.
Special Report: Open-Source Software