...dedicated to...hmmm, we're still figuring that one out...
The Freewares of 2009: Part 2
An Educators' News Feature
December 11, 2009
As I wrote at the end of Part 1 of this feature, July was a lousy month for free stuff on Educators' News. So on to August.
Linux for Education
A ZDNet Education blog posting in August by Christopher Dawson, linux-for-education.org = a huge resource, sounded like something school techs would love. I think it is, but it would be a pity if teachers in general missed it.
Chris wrote of the Linux for Education (Li-f-e) site, which contains collections of Moodle courses teachers may take, copy and reinstall on their school Moodle server, and forums, chatrooms, courses, and help materials to help folks "better use the applications found on the Linux distributions."
I didn't get very far down the list of available courses before I found Paul Nelson's Digital Photography course. Guest access is enabled on Li-f-e, so I invited myself in to take a peek at the course. I found it to be a well developed Moodle course, and it prominently carries the download link where one can download the course backup and reinstall it on their home Moodle server. Since a few of the graphics were missing on the site and a reading assignment link was broken, I went ahead and downloaded the course and reinstalled it on my practice Moodle server. All the graphics and links then worked fine. (I had to visit the E-Learning Portal to download the correct Moodle theme Li-f-e is using.)
If your school uses a Moodle server or you have access to one, Linux for Education has lots of courses you may want to look at, copy (Creative Commons License), and use. If you're a bit more geeky and want to play with the courses on your own machine as I did, visit the Moodle Downloads page. For this exercise, I downloaded the newer XAMPP version of Moodle for Mac. It's pretty much a drag and drop installation! The Windows version installs rather easily as well.
A discussion on a tech listserv led me to the CK-12.org site that has the downloadable files for the California Free Digital Textbooks Initiative. An eSchool News posting, California lists state-approved digital textbooks, tells a bit more about the initiative to save money by using digital texts.
I took a few minutes to download the Earth Science (130MB PDF document) textbook. The download produced a useable PDF file that could be easily used on a laptop or printed out.
Do note that the download did take quite a while. I'm not sure whether it was their server that was busy or my connection, but it took an hour to complete the download.
Picturing the Thirties!
Picturing the Thirties is a new site from the Smithsonian American Art Museum that features photos and movies from the 1930's. It allows students to collect images and information and create their own videos from the material. New Smithsonian site lets teachers and students create short historical movies on eSchool News tells of the web site for students.
In early October, I nearly missed what appears to be a really good site for educators. A promotional email came in about Homework Day to promote the use of Wolfram Alpha for education on eSchool News, and even checked out the site. Then, with other responsibilities looming, I totally forgot about the Wolfram Alpha site. I'd guess that the name Wolfram made me think of their advanced software application, Mathematica, which is way, way above my ability level. I once helped a Rose-Hulman grad student get the Mac version of Mathematica running on his iBook.
Fortunately, something jogged my memory and I finally got back to take a good look at Wolfram Alpha. It looks to be a site that many educators might want to try out. While the site is basically a math homework help site, they also suggest users try several searches to acquaint themselves with the site's possibilities. Their suggestions include trying entering a date, town, two stocks, a calculation, or a math formula. Since I'm not a math wizard, I entered our town, Sullivan, Indiana. The results were pleasantly surprising.
Encouraged by my initial success, I tried typing in several important dates in history, important names and such, almost everything but anything to do with math. Wolfram Alpha spit out data and results on each of my searches that could have proved useful if I was doing anything but just messing around.
I did finally enter E=MC2 (actually e=mc^2) and was again pleasantly surprised that the site/software obediently retrieved the information requested (without mocking me). Of course, there was far more information than I'm showing at left, but I also liked that it had a pop-up preview about the subject that linked to Wikipedia.
Wolfram Alpha also has a page of simple code to add the site search box to ones web page. Cool!
Open Source Desktop Screen Recorder
Oak Hill High School (IN) science teacher Tom Rademaker recommended an interesting, open source desktop screen recorder he'd tried, CamStudio. He commented, "I have to say it is the easiest desktop screen recorder utility available. Recording and narrating a desktop screen activity only takes a few seconds longer than the actual activity." From just a quick test, I have to agree with him.
"CamStudio is able to record all screen and audio activity on your [Windows] computer and create industry-standard AVI video files and using its built-in SWF Producer can turn those AVIs into lean, mean, bandwidth-friendly Streaming Flash videos (SWFs)." The current 2.0 version has a bug that prevents SWF's for working right in the Firefox browser, but a version 2.5.1 beta (2.1 MB) is available for download that addresses that bug. You'll also want to download and install the CamStudioCodec-1.4 (37K).
I did a posting in October about the replacement for an old spelling shareware I'd used extensively in the classroom. Unfortunately, the new version turned out to be a shadow of its predecessor, but in the course of the posting, I had to mention one excellent application that moved from shareware to freeware a few years ago.
Jay Lichtenauer's Master Spell (Mac only) is a dandy practice spelling test application. It became available as a shareware several years after my old school had purchased a site license for SpellTutor, or we might have gone with it. Now a freeware, Master Spell uses text-to-speech technology, but also provides an option that allows teachers to record the word list themselves. I prefer the recorded word lists, but they really take a lot of time if you teach in a situation where you have multiple levels of students requiring different word lists. I tell in Teacher Tools 4: A Roll-Your-Own Spelling Program how we were able to raise spelling scores around 10% across the board in our special ed classroom by using such a program.
Sadly, Master Spell is Mac-only. The author of SpellTutor has put out a cross-platform spelling practice program as a shareware, Spelling Depot. I don't like it nearly as well as I do Master Spell or even its predecessor, SpellTutor. But it does run on Windows.
October wound up with a biggie that you've probably already heard about. NASA released a free app for the iPhone that delivers NASA news and images right to your iPhone. Since Verizon seriously pissed off my wife, our cell phone purchaser, she dropped by the AT&T store in August and ended up walking out with two iPhone 3G's. Otherwise, I wouldn't be able to talk knowledgeably about the app.
An article on eSchool News led me to the NASA Images site. NASA Images is a relatively new site created by a partnership "between NASA and the Internet Archive to bring public access to NASA's image, video, and audio collections...to promote education and facilitate scholarship in the math and sciences at all levels, and to build general interest and excitement around space exploration, aeronautics, and astronomy." The Internet Archive is the group that maintains the Wayback Machine, their effort at preserving internet content.
When I tried the site this week, I found its organization and presentation to be excellent. Searches returned large thumbnails of images with popup descriptions. Choosing an image displayed a good description of the item and photo with download options.
Do note that the site is very busy at times and performance may be a bit slow.
The Internet Archive Wayback Machine
Since I mentioned the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine, let me add that it's excellent for pulling up old pages and sites. At left is the first week of Educators' News from April of 2001. At right are images of CNN and The New York Times from the same week. The CNN archive goes back through 2000, and the Times through 1996. My first web site didn't get archived, but when I moved it to a new web host, the Wayback Machine recorded it from 1999.
I'm fond of the Wayback Machine, as when I signed up for my first gig as an online columnist, I wasn't wise enough to just sell one time rights to my columns. So, someone else owns the copyright to my first column series, That Other Steve... The site I wrote for has since failed and is no longer available.
Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, the columns remain available on the Internet Archive. I've also linked to them via my Columns & Editorials index.
Keep an eye out for a JAVA application, Magnum Opus. It's a puzzle maker from John Stevens, creator of the excellent Crossword Express shareware. Magnum Opus is still in beta, and I've already found a bug that was a showstopper for me, but John generally gets things fixed on his apps pretty quickly. While Crossword Express was shareware, Magnum Opus is donationware. You get to pick how much to pay or contribute for its development.
I reported the bug I'd found in Magnum Opus to John and received a prompt response that he was aware of the issue. He's working with some users on a solution and hopes to release another beta of the puzzle maker application sometime this month (December, '09).
Update: The December release is out. The export as an applet function is now working well, although I still had trouble with the print function under Mac OS X 10.4.11.
Be a Martian
A NASA press release, NASA and Microsoft Allow Earthlings to Become Martians, led me to the new Be a Martian site hosted by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The press release stated, "Participants will be able to explore details of the solar system's grandest canyon, which resides on Mars. Users can call up images in the Valles Marineris canyon before moving on to chart the entire Red Planet. The collaboration of thousands of participants could assist scientists in producing far better maps, smoother zoom-in views, and make for easier interpretation of Martian surface changes."
The server appeared to be seriously overloaded when I tried to access the site in November, but appears to be working a bit better now. There are still some bugs. Trying to access the site via the Anonymous Tourist Visa link in Internet Explorer 8 kept returning me to the start page. Interestingly, Apple's Safari for Windows worked well with the site! The site also requires Microsoft's Silverlight 2.0, which locks out users with older, non-Intel powered Macs (PowerPC G5, G4, and so on). Microsoft never produced a 2.0 version for PowerPC.
While I was rummaging around my old school files, I ran into some coloring calendars our kids had done the last year I was in the classroom. The activity was a great success, but it took a bit of time to complete. I put together calendars based on DLTK's Free Printable Custom Calendars page, had the kids color them, and sent them home before Christmas vacation.
When I tried to recreate a few calendars for this posting, I found that I needed to grab a screenshot of each calendar page, rather than printing a hard copy or saving them to a PDF file.
Why coloring? It's like weightlifting for special ed kids' fine motor control.
eSchool News featured the Jason Project as its Site of the Week in December in JASON Project launches free energy curriculum. The JASON Project, a non-profit subsidiary of National Geographic, offers free science curricula in both downloadable and online interactive units. Currently offered curricula include weather, ecology, and energy.
The units offered are "designed to fit within school districts' core curriculum." The initial unit, Operation Monster Storms, "provides at least five to nine weeks of material with suggested lesson plans, extensions, interdisciplinary connections, and other teacher resources."
Still being a kid at heart, I jumped into the Storm Tracker Lab to sample the site. Lots of basic information (great explanation of latitude and longitude, etc.) was presented in an engaging manner. "My storm" nipped the Yucatan Peninsula before turning and wreaking havoc on the Florida coast. And as you can see at left, I blew the prediction. The simulation went on to explain that the storm I tracked was actually Hurricane Wilma that did significant damage in 2005. My reaction was what I think many students' reaction might be: Can I try it again?
Free International Space Station Calendar
The free International Space Station Calendar appears to be an annual thing with NASA. I downloaded last year's calendar and was impressed with it. The 2010 calendar is just as attractive, although you may have to hunt a bit from the link above for the download. Or, you can just use this download link (10.2 MB PDF document).
Now I'm going to have to decide whether to print and hang the gorgeous ISS calendar or my usual Ansel Adams calendar. Maybe I'll go with two calendars in the office this year.
While writing and editing this feature, I've had a note at the bottom of the page to include something about Earthshots, Science@NASA, and the Astronomy Picture of the Day that I frequently feature on Educators' News but don't seem to fit anywhere.
Odd Thoughts While Shaving Between Paragraphs
This feature carried the date of December 31, 2009, right up until the day before I decided to turn it loose early! I'm not sure I'm going to find a lot more freewares or free web sites between now and the end of the year, and I'd like to get this up before everyone breaks for the holidays. I'm amazed that I got done rewriting this thing so fast. Maybe that's one of the joys of retirement...having the time to get things done right, on time, or even early.
I hope you've found some useful sites and freewares via this feature article. We sorta lived and died with freewares much of my teaching career, as we couldn't afford to buy much of anything. And I'm happy to see the open source movement and some independent freeware authors bring back a vibrant group of free offerings for parents, teachers, and most of all, students.
As of January 1, 2010, the MATH DITTOS 2 series of fact controlled math workbooks will become freewares. I'd hoped to include this announcement when I originally released this feature, but didn't have enough done yet to do so. The Addition & Subtraction workbook and the Division pre-release pages are already repackaged as freewares and are now available for download. With any luck, I'll have the rest done by the first of the year.
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©2009 Steven L. Wood