Freeware and Open Source Staff Recommendations
Freeware and open source software have taken an ever increasing roll in education over the past decade largely owing to the greater sense of community emerging on the Internet and the growing centrality technology is playing in educational practice and goals. Gathered here is a small sampling that our staff at the TLC recommends as both alternatives to proprietary solutions and a means of enhancing your productivity in ways you might not have been aware were possible, especially from free software. While by no mean comprehensive, these are a great way to get some exposure to the advantages of an online community of users and development.
|License: Open Source|
|Developer: Audacity Development Team||Platforms: Windows/Macintosh/Linux|
|Description: “Audacity is a free, easy-to-use audio editor and recorder for Windows, Mac OS X, GNU/Linux and other operating systems.”1|
I’ve been using Audacity to cut and clean audio for years, mainly to transfer my aging cassette and vinyl music collection (200+ Yipe!) into iTunes. I’ve also used it to create a couple of audio podcasts for friends and cut up audio lectures for instructors. Its proprietary counterpart, Pro Tools ($138 USD academic), is overkill in the way as slicing bread with a laser might be just too much. You’d get the job done but might be investing a little too much for your actual needs.
Audacity ability to record and manipulate multiple tracks, apply effects, and speedily edit even large audio files effortlessly makes it a powerful entry level tool for all of your audio needs. Add the LAME plug-in to add the ability to export to the popular MP3 file format. Hundreds of other plug-ins are available for Audacity that add additional functionality and effects (including noise reduction for those that are already thinking about their tape collection).
|Developer: Google||Platforms: Windows/Macintosh/Linux|
|Description: “Google Earth lets you fly anywhere on Earth to view satellite imagery, maps, terrain, 3D buildings and even explore galaxies in the Sky. You can explore rich geographical content, save your toured places and share with others.” 2|
There are many virtual globe applications out there but Google’s Earth application is easily the most popular, probably largely due to the intuitiveness of its use. More than just a novelty, Earth (like many of its brethren) is packed with useful educational tools that will “mesmerize young people with its ability to put the world’s geographic information at their fingertips.”3 Use of layers allows educators to overlay visual representations of information upon geography to truly explore its meaning and importance. Google Earth can also turn your eyes to the sky to explore the galaxys, infrared topography, access Hubble telescope images, and so much more.
The most powerful force behind Google Earth is the community of educators and scientists that use it. Get started by visiting the Google Earth Community Site and browse their gallery of featured content available through Google Earth.
|Developer: Irfan Skiljan||Platforms: Windows|
|Description: “IrfanView is a very fast, small, compact and innovative FREEWARE (for non-commercial use) graphic viewer for Windows 9x/ME/NT/2000/XP/2003/Vista.”4|
You’d be surprised how hard it is to find clean, efficient, and powerful image viewer at a reasonable cost. Irfanview (pronounced ‘Ear-fan-view) is all of this and free. Developed by Irfan Skiljan, Irfanview handles all of the basic tasks you’ll need for image management including cropping, rotation, resizing, optimization, etc. All of which can also be done in batch allowing you to automate many redundant tasks. Add in a load of plug-ins to extend its features to suit your specific photo and video needs.
|License: Open Source|
|Developer: OpenOffice.org||Platforms: Windows/Macintosh5 /Linux|
|Description: “To create, as a community, the leading international office suite that will run on all major platforms and provide access to all functionality and data through open-component based APIs and an XML-based file format.”6|
Not everyone can afford an office suite (also called a productivity suite) such as Microsoft’s Office (currently around $140 USD academic for the complete package), especially educational institutions with limited funding needing to install on multiple machines. Nonetheless, having a skillset to work efficiently with what an office suite can do is absurdly critical to being competive in the modern world. OpenOffice.org (yep, that both the name of the product and the name of the developers) utilizes much the same skillsets that are utilized in Microsoft Office and is also able to read and write back the latest file formats used by Office 2007 for Windows and Office 2008 for Macintosh. What this means is that there is no longer a price tag to gain access to a modern productivity suite.
Microsoft Office has made a considerable departure in the look and feel of its interface lately. OpenOffice.org, however, still looks much as Office 2000 (which some have argued to be superior). For new and experienced users alike, this difference will feel quite substantial if not outright intimidating transitioning one for the other. This is among the chief concerns educators and administrators will need to wrangle with before adopting an office suite across the institution. However, it also illustrates the peril of teaching a specific product rather than focusing on universal skill sets.
|License: Open Source|
|Developer: pdfcreator.org||Platforms: Windows|
|Description: “PDFCreator is a free tool to create PDF files from nearly any Windows application.”7|
PDFs (Portable Document format, was first developed by Adobe back in 1993 and has since become an open standard to deliver print content independent of the program originally used to produce it (Word, PowerPoint, WordPerfect, Illustrator, etc). Users will too often email a Word document with the expectation that everyone will be able to read it. Many, of course, may be using a competing product and/or be at a different version. The best practice is to convert documents you’d like to share into a PDF, which as its anagram suggests, makes the document portable. While users will still need to install a reader such as Adobe Reader, it is free and ubiquitous.
What PDFCreator offers is a free way of converting your documents into this format. While Macintosh has long had the ability to create PDFs built into its operating system, Windows users typically think they need to purchase Acrobat (pricing around $70 USD academic for the base version) to have the same functionality. PDFCreator installs a virtual printer that is available just as any other printer would be. When you need to convert your document, merely select it rather than your standard printer. While Microsoft recently released a plugin for its latest Office Suite for PDF conversion, PDFCreator is available to all of your programs, not just Microsoft products.
VLC Media Player
|License: Open Source|
|Developer: VideoLAN.org||Platforms: Windows/Macintosh/Linux|
|Description: “… a highly portable multimedia player for various audio and video formats as well as DVDs, VCDs, and various streaming protocols. It can also be used as a server to stream in unicast or multicast in IPv4 or IPv6 on a high-bandwidth network.”|
But what you really need to know is that it simply plays just about everything! You know that video file that you can play on your PC but not on your Mac at home (or visa versa)? Download VLC for either platform to play almost any problematic file.
One of the best features of VLC is that it doesn’t require installation. Though they do provide an executable for a traditional installation, the ZIP archive of the program does not require administrative rights to unpack and launch the standalone application. What this means is that I can place the VLC application files on my USB flash drive for example, and wherever I go for a presentation, a family visit, etc, I know that I’ll be able to play what I need to play.
- Audacity: About [↩]
- Google: Earth Home [↩]
- Google For Educators: Geo Education Home [↩]
- Irfanview: What is Irfanview? [↩]
- Supported in the newer Intel Macs. See NeoOffice for older PPC based Macs [↩]
- OpenOffice.org: About [↩]
- pdfforge.org: Home [↩]
- VideoLan Home [↩]
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