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Open-source software for educators

New York Teacher

Tired of the expense and ever-present logos of commercial software? Open-source software is a good option to consider, whether you’re looking for an alternative to Microsoft Office or a cheap photo-editing tool.

What is open-source software? If you have Firefox as your Web browser, you’re already using it.

Open source is collaborative: coders and designers publicly share their code with each other. Therefore, anyone can use the code, adapt it or use the program. Open source works on the strength of numbers: with more authors and testers, there is more feedback for improvement and more minds sharing ideas.

Open source is also a movement. Its proponents share a deeply held belief that digital tools shouldn’t be available only to those who can afford them. Professional software can be costly, even prohibitively expensive, while most open-source software is free. Some turn to illegal downloads because they can’t afford software, but open source removes that risk. Open-source software is not pirated — these programs are independently designed.

Here are some of the best open-source programs, all Mac and PC compatible, to get you started.

1. Open Office (openoffice.org): As the name implies, it’s an office suite that is open and free of charge. You can create documents, presentations, spreadsheets, databases, equations and graphics. Files are usually compatible with Microsoft Office files, as well as Google Docs. It looks very similar to other office programs, so its interface will seem familiar. Open Office has been available for 20 years; it’s reliable and well-tested. It lacks some advanced features, but for most users, the differences are negligible.

2. Gimp (gimp.org): Photo-editing software can be very expensive, and most photo editors bundled with computers and iPad photo-editing apps are rudimentary. Gimp manages to keep up with the features of professional software while also being free. When students ask where they can “get” photo programs, I know they’re talking about pirated software, and I point them to Gimp instead.

3. Audacity (audacity.sourceforge.net) is a free sound editor that’s great for a simple podcast recording, or you can multitrack sounds to mix music. Audacity is so good and easy to use that many educators I know use it even when more expensive options are available.

4. TuxPaint (tuxpaint.org) is a drawing program for young children, which I discovered after my eight-year-old begged me for similar software at the Apple Store. I downloaded TuxPaint instead, and he was not disappointed. TuxPaint has loads of tools and options, with a kid-friendly interface, fun sound effects and a penguin mascot.

Ready to try open-source software? Before downloading anything onto a DOE computer, be sure to get the okay from personnel at your school. And never download anything without ensuring that you’re using a reputable organization or recommended site. Remember that since there’s no central office where open-source software is produced, there’s no number to call for assistance (although I never got much help from those numbers in the past). But if you have a question or concern, open-source programs have online communities that will give you easier-to-understand guidance than most software manuals.

For more information about open-source software, check out opensource.com, an online magazine that is accessible to beginners. The magazine features an education section, too.

Related Topics: Linking to Learning