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The Freewares of 2009
An Educators' News Feature
December 11, 2009
When I was working as a regular columnist for various Mac-centric websites, I found my most popular columns were often ones that featured free stuff. I later started doing a review of the best freewares I'd mentioned on Educators' News at the end of each year, but somewhere along the line dropped that effort. I think it had something to do with freewares pretty well drying up on the Mac side of computing when Mac OS X was first released.
Over the last year or so, I've noticed a resurgence of freewares, open source applications, and free web sites for education. It's a good trend for educators, who often have to dip seriously into their earnings to round out what is needed in their classrooms.
The following is a rewrite, often just a gussied up cut and paste, of what has appeared here on the Educators' News site over the last twelve months. My educational expertise runs towards the elementary side of things, although I did work at a middle and high school web site for several years after retiring from regular teaching but before entering real retirement (whatever that is). I also work primarily on a Macintosh, but the listings here are usually cross-platform. You'll even find something in here for preschoolers, as my grandchildren are pretty active computer users.
I've tried to organize things first by the month in which they appeared, but also have added updates and related items that may be out of chronological order.
Picasa for Macintosh
Picasa, a free desktop application for editing, organizing and sharing digital photos from Google Labs, had long been available for Windows and Linux users, but Google finally got around to issuing a Mac version (Intel CPU only) at the 2009 Macworld Expo. Adobe also offers an online image editor in its Photoshop.com. I reviewed it when it debuted as a beta, Photoshop Express, in March, 2008.
Totally blowing my plan for a chronological listing, I'll add a new editor for Mac users based on GIMP technology that I reviewed in October, Seashore. Seashore features gradients, textures, and anti-aliasing for both text and brush strokes, multiple layers and alpha channel editing. It also uses the GIMP file format. "Seashore only aims to serve the basic image editing needs of most computer users, not to provide a replacement for professional image editing products."
If you've used other graphics programs such as Photoshop or Elements, you'll find Seashore very easy to use. I pulled together the screenshot at right, reduced the giant Andromeda in Ultraviolet shown on Educators' News in January to a more manageable size for this posting, and easily optimized and saved the shot in just a few minutes.
All of the above appear on my Freebies page of software I think might prove useful for classroom teachers.
Memidex Online Dictionary/Thesaurus
Memidex is a free, online dictionary/thesaurus site that opened in late January. The press release announcing its launch stated that it includes "extensive cross-referencing, complete inflections, simple interface, and frequent updates" and should be a "useful English language reference tool for students, teachers, researchers, professional writers, and casual browsers alike." As the site developed over the year, the authors have added some free tools one may add to their web page or site, such as the dictionary/thesaurus lookup at right.
Google Earth Adds Oceans
Google released Google Earth 5.0 in early February. The free application added lots of new content about the oceans and three-dimensional, satellite imagery of Mars taken during NASA space expeditions. "Google Earth users can now plunge beneath the ocean's surface, explore three-dimensional images of the underwater terrain, and view articles and videos about marine science contributed by scientists and organizations such as the National Geographic Society."
A posting on the HECC (Hoosier Educational Computer Coordinators) listserv led me to the Pics4Learning.com site. Pics4Learning is a copyright-friendly image library for teachers and students. I was impressed with the assortment of images available for teachers to use. I also liked that when a search of the site fails to yield a match, a list of other copyright-friendly image sites appears.
I shared my image of a tobacco hornworm that was feeding on my tomato plants a couple of years ago with Pics4Learners, along with various other images that I thought might be useful to teachers. The hornworm image is also available for use as an ugly desktop or wallpaper from my Desktop Photos page.
New Online Math Game
eSchool News tells of a New online game [that] brings a fresh approach to learning middle-school math. Prepared by Maryland Public Television, in collaboration with MIT’s Education Arcade and educational media producer FableVision, Lure of the Labyrinth is "a free learning tool to help all students learn pre-algebra concepts regardless of their math ability." Be sure to look at their Teachers page for a full description of the game, along with lesson plans and such.
I made a brief mention of the free Starfall site for preschoolers early in February, and then had to come back to it after I'd seen it in action with one of our granddaughters. After nearly a year of "kid testing" the site at the request of one of our granddaughters, I've become a big fan.
The site is a good one for folks who don't have a really fast broadband connection or killer computer hardware, as it loads quickly on our satellite internet connection on an ancient Compaq 1.3 GHz computer. The content is definitely age appropriate for 3-6 year olds and holds the interest of our 4 year old granddaughter quite well.
I've been amazed as Katherine sings the songs along with the site, readily says letter names and sounds, and even seems to be reading a few words here and there.
Oak Hill High School teacher Tom Rademaker gave me a heads-up in mid-March on a potentially useful free tool for teachers, Linktivity Presenter. I had to put Tom off a bit, as my PC was offline as I waited for a copy of Norton AntiVirus 2009 to replace the dreadful Norton 360 I had been using previously.
Linktivity Presenter adds a small toolbar to many applications that can add lines, boxes, text, and other items to the screen display without changing the actual document. This can be useful for PowerPoint presentations or almost anything you might want to annotate or mark up when using a projection screen with a class.
I opened an old PowerPoint presentation and found Linktivity Presenter fairly easy to use. My only problem with it was that when I wanted to take a screenshot, I kept marking up my screenshot utility. I'd guess there's a way to neutralize the toolbar somewhere in the documentation.
While Linktivity Presenter is a Windows-only application, Mac users needn't feel left out. OmniDazzle is a free Mac utility that you can use to spice up PowerPoints. I wrote about it on Educators' News several years ago.
World Wide Telescope
NASA and Microsoft in March announced "plans to make planetary images and data available via the Internet under a Space Act Agreement. Through this project, NASA and Microsoft jointly will develop the technology and infrastructure necessary to make the most interesting NASA content -- including high-resolution scientific images and data from Mars and the moon -- explorable on WorldWide Telescope, Microsoft's online virtual telescope for exploring the universe."
The problem with such an agreement is, of course, Microsoft. The WorldWide Telescope desktop program is Windows only with some really steep hardware requirements! There is a web client that NASA suggests Linux and Mac users may try. It requires Microsoft's Silverlight 3.0, which only runs on Intel based Macs, ruling out a lot of older Macs. I finally got the web client for the WorldWide Telescope on my aging PC. I wasn't impressed, but after jumping through all of Microsoft's hardware and software hoops, I probably didn't give it a fair try. And guess what? I suspect that most classroom teachers won't either.
If you're doing a column on freewares of the year, the problem is how to work in the 800 pound gorilla of open source software that's been around for years. My answer here was to just to pick an update and use it to work in, ta da, OpenOffice!
OpenOffice, the open source alternative to Microsoft Office used by many schools, has pretty well come of age with the version 3 releases this year. It's available for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux and does pretty much anything that Microsoft Office will do. Note that the Mac 3.x version is only for Intel-based Macs, but no longer requires the X11 environment. For PowerPC Mac users (G5, G4, and earlier chips), NeoOffice 3 may be a better option.
Since I lack an Intel-based Mac, I downloaded and installed the Windows version of OpenOffice 3.1 on my weary HP Pavilion without difficulty. I used the Writer component to compose and save new documents in the .doc format and reopened them successfully in Word on both a PC and a Mac. I also imported a large PowerPoint presentation with the Presentation component fairly quickly and without error.
Since I already have Office 2004 (Mac) and Office 2003 (Windows), I generally use the Microsoft products instead of OpenOffice or NeoOffice (which I also have installed). When I finally move to a modern computer, I'd guess that I will go to the open source products to save a few bucks. They appear to be ready for prime time.
While hunting new educational software in early April, I noticed that NeoOffice for Mac 3.0 had been released. NeoOffice is a Mac OS X office suite of software based on the open source OpenOffice suite. It runs well on many older Macs that can't run the current version of OpenOffice.
I was pleased in my short test of what NeoOffice could do. I opened up my seed order spreadsheet, along with a couple of letters. NeoOffice didn't seem to mind if it was opening a ".doc" or a ".docx" document. It did have to chew a bit on importing a 140 MB PowerPoint presentation, but eventually got the job done.
Of course, the education application in all of this is that many schools (Mac, Windows, and/or Linux) are moving to an OpenOffice-based office suite to save money (and headaches with licensing). It appears that the OpenOffice movement has come of age and the suite can serve as an adequate replacement for Microsoft's Office suite.
While I was downloading, I also grabbed recent updates for the Camino web browser and Carbon Copy Cloner. Carbon Copy Cloner is a great utility for schools with Macs, as it makes the job of ghosting computers a rather easy, if time consuming, task. I used to use it to put our software package on all of our iBooks. Note that CCC is free for educational use!
For years I watched folks at school struggle with spreadsheets and such trying to create a printable monthly calendar of events. Since the folks struggling with the task had switched over to PCs, I didn't bother telling them of a dandy, free, and at that time, Mac-only, application called Mom's Calendar that I've had posted on the mathdittos2 Freebies page for years.
When I was updating an archive page on Educators' News, I checked the link for Lucky Me Software and found that Mom's Calendar is now available for Macs and Windows! You can print out just a blank calendar, add info, and even have the calendar rendered in HTML. For the price (free), you can't beat it!
Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor announced in June, 2008 that she was developing a free interactive web program for middle schoolers on the U.S. court system. Since that time I've visited the Our Courts site occasionally to check what progress was being made.
As of this April, the site was fleshed out to include lots of lesson plans and "in-class activities" about our court system in its Curriculum Builder section. While you may search for information by state and grade level, state standards aren't included.
In August came word via an eSchool News article that some of the long-awaited interactive games for the site were finally available. I decided to take the new Supreme Decision game out for a spin and found it an interesting experience that could be a good motivator for middle school social studies classes. I tested the game using the Firefox browser on my aging Mac. Possibly more important is that the Flash-based game loaded fairly quickly on my somewhat slow internet connection and had no glitches from start to finish. Since the online games were originally billed to be the centerpiece of the site, it's good to see that a couple of them are now available.
Earth Day Stuff...sorta
A posting this morning on one of the mailing lists to which I subscribe pointed folks to a printable on Make Beliefs Comix that says, "Imagine you were an environmental hero. What brave deeds would you to to save the Earth, and what would you call yourself." The posting produced a lively discussion and some amusing responses about using a printable (kills how many trees?) and Earth Day, and even a link to an environmentally friendly font (that is full of holes to save toner).
There was also a notice on the DOE RSS feed pointing to the FREE site's Environment Teaching and Learning Resources page. I suspect that both Earth Day activities will come to your attention too late for use this year, but both Make Beliefs Comix and especially the federal FREE site are good sources for teaching ideas and resources all year long. I'm not so sure about the font with holes in it!
MSDWT Manu Update
While playing around with OpenOffice on my Windows machine, I wrote a sample page using an old slant print handwriting font I wrote and used with my students for handwriting instruction. MSDWT Manuscript was never intended for anything more than putting a few letters and words on three-lined paper for kids to trace and copy, but the screen font of it really looked horrible! (At least it doesn't have holes in it!) Since I've refined the font a bit over the years on the Mac side, I decided to look at the version I was using and see if an update was indicated. I found I'd made a lot of little changes to the font that weren't included in the last release (over ten years ago). It was, so I've added the newer version to the MSDWT Manuscript page on mathdittos2.com. I wrote about how I used this font in my classroom in at least a couple of columns, Teacher Tools 1: AppleWorks and Teacher Tools 4: A Roll-Your-Own Spelling Program.
As you can see, this isn't the font you'd want to use when submitting a resume or your doctoral thesis, but it nicely served its purpose in my classroom. On my last job, I would occasionally use the font in blue to print notes on our notepad with the program's letterhead to hide my poor penmanship and give the illusion of a handwritten note!
Essential Educational BS Tool
The Educational Jargon Generator reminded me of an language activity we once did with our students in the early '70's. It came from the name of a psychedelic rock/pop rock band, the Strawberry Alarm Clock (Remember Incense and Peppermints?). Students constructed long lists of articles/possessives, adjectives, and nouns on long strips of paper, placed the strips side-by-side, and slid one or more of the strips up and down. Reading across yielded some interesting potential rock group names for the time.
Yep, it's gotta be a slow week for educational news, or maybe I'm just reliving the '70's and am a bit high! I guess I could have linked to a pretty cool NASA Image of the Day of the space shuttle Atlantis transiting the sun or Jay Mathews's latest column, Grading Ideas for Fixing Schools, but I'm a bit bummed out about Educators' News these days and am just going to let it go at that.
Who cares what games we choose?
Incense and peppermints, meaningless nouns
Science Nation Online Magazine
The National Science Foundation kicked off the month of June by launching a new, weekly, online magazine for middle and high school students. Science Nation takes an entertaining look at research and researchers each week across a wide variety of science topics. Each issue includes an online and downloadable movie about the week's topic. The current issue is about courtship of the sage grouse. Other issues include features on artificial retinas for the blind, extremophiles (bacteria that have adapted to living in harsh conditions), yellow jackets and other social insects, hydrogen cells for transportation, ancient ice cores and climate change, slithering snakes and movement and design, and so on.
I didn't know about Science Nation until eSchool News featured it this week as their Site of the Week. in December. That turned out to be just as well, as I had quite a few issues to go through and enjoy.
Originally developed by two former CNN producers, Science Nation's examination of new breakthroughs "and the possibilities for new discoveries about our planet, our universe and ourselves" provides another quality tool for classroom teachers.
I like this one!
Page Editor Overload
As I'm editing this column, my ancient installation of Dreamweaver (Macromedia Studio MX 2004) is beginning to do really weird things to page layout. It does that during long work sessions and with extremely long web pages.
Maybe that's sign. So, I'll break to a new page here. But before I do, please don't start hunting for the page with July freewares. For some reason, I just didn't post any or find any.
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©2009 Steven L. Wood