WordCamp Toronto 2008

I’m excited about attending a geeky opportunity this weekend – WordCamp Toronto. WordCamp is a gathering of WordPress users held regionally around the world throughout the year (see this page for other WordCamps). Over two years ago I switched to using WordPress to power this blog, and never looked back. 🙂

One of the main attractions at WordCamp is a talk by the founding developer of WordPress, Matt Mullenweg. I think it’s just cool to be able to connect with someone like this in this setting. Looking at the list of attendees, I think I may be one of the only educators, but I’m looking forward to the conversations.

You may just see a whole pile of tweaks and changes to the blog after this weekend is over!

Learning Russo's Ramblings

What in the Wordle Does This Mean?

Thanks to Doug Johnson and his Blue Skunk Blog, I just learned of a neat tool, Wordle. You can paste a blob of text, or enter a URL, RSS feed, or user, and see a word cloud created based on the content provided. The resulting image can be customized by color and shape.

When I entered the URL for this blog, here is the result:

So it appears I talk about software quite a bit. I like that students shows up quite a lot. Open and source appear more than I would have expected, but I like that too. I wish that learn, learner, and learning were in more abundance.

This is a neat, informal, assessment of what the blog has been about. I probably do talk alot about software since its easy to write about new tools (like Wordle…). I like to think I focus more on learning, but its so easy to get caught up in the tools. What in the Wordle does this mean? What fun food for thought…


On Making Software Accessible

I’ve been listening to the NECC (National Educational Computing Conference) podcasts available free via iTunes. David Thornburg, leading thinker and educator, spoke in a presentation titled, “Open Minds, Open Education, and a View of Open Culture.” The focus was on 1:1 programs for students and open source software.

The quote that jumped out at me was near the beginning:

“Singe platform software is anti-child.”

Pow. Ouch. Absolutely right. I’ll be the first to admit I have a personal preference for some software apps that are on one platform but not another (e.g. Visual Communicator and iLife). However, anytime a piece of software, be it Windows-only, Mac-only or even Linux-only, is used with students, it will prevent the home use of that software by the student if they have another platform at home.

To that end, open source, cross-platform software solutions that students can download and use at home for free will do more to break down the walls of technology than pretty much any other technique we can try. In the best case scenario, time using technology in a class setting is far less than in a home setting (unless in a 1 to 1 program). If the software is accessible anywhere, the benefits go up dramatically.

This year we are installing many more software programs that are open source cross platform (OSCP?). Two examples are OpenOffice, much like the Microsoft Office suite, and GIMP, which is very similar to Photoshop. I plan to make a concentrated effort to help our students realize the power of these accessible programs.

Russo's Ramblings

The Best Free Software

The current issue (March 2008) of PC Magazine features an article, The Best Free Software: 157 Apps for Work and Play (p.78). This got my attention not only due to the attractive price, but more since its getting close to the time where we determine what software we want installed on our computers for next year. If we offer some of these tools on our school computers, the transition to their use at home is much more seamless (from a cost and functional standpoint). I’m going to focus on the apps with classroom and educational focus, as opposed to utility/security tools.

A few of the top picks mentioned are things we already use – Adobe Reader, Firefox, and iTunes. Reader and iTunes are proprietary, and there are alternatives (see Songbird, below), but these two have weaved their way into the “fabric” of everyday computing life. Firefox is a delightful, customizable, web browser. A perfect example of an extension of Firefox is how I’m composing this post – using the Scribefire extension, which allows me to blog directly from any web page.

My top picks from the article’s list:

  • Audacity – we already use this to some extent – a great audio editor – just need to roll it out for everyone.
  • GIMP – open source Photoshop-like program – I’ve never used it, but hear great things about it.
  • OpenOffice – perfect for the students who do not have access to a commercial office suite at home.
  • Skype – computer-to-computer (or landline) voice/video calling – not sure how this would be (mis)used in a school setting, but the possibilities are endless. It’s desktop videoconferencing – we have had requests in the past for out-of-town parents to Skype in to their child’s presentation.
  • Songbird – I’m not familiar with this one, but is dubbed an open source answer to iTunes – sounds intriguing. **Update – Songbird is still in the developer stage, not rollout stage. Looking at it a bit more, it definitely sounds intriguing. Worth a read at the site about what they are up to.
  • Googlepedia – A Firefox extension that puts Wikipedia results along side Google search results (if/when Wikipedia is not blocked…)
  • Google Earth – The neat applications being built around Goolge Earth are growing – a fabulous tool.
  • Second Life – There is a lot of buzz about the educational appliations of Second Life. I have an avatar, and have flown around a bit. I’m not sold by any means on this one. If I’m going to spend that much time creating a virutal world, there are already many options of online conferencing, streaming, etc. where kids could interact with experts and communities, and not worry about what their avatar is wearing or how to build an island. That being said, maybe having it and trying it would be useful.

2 apps that come to mind that were not mentioned in the article:

  • Sketchup – Googles 3D modeling program – very versatile, very good – I know an architect who has stopped using commercial CAD programs altogether, and now uses Sketchup.
  • Scratch – The MIT graphics program – I have no personal experience or opinion on it, but I read positive reviews on it, and MIT knows a thing or two about educational computing!

Note that at least half of the apps mentioned in the article are web-based, and so there is nothing to install. That is a dream for any IT department, and the way many software tools are going. The Web 2.0 world is online, and so is the software to do it. I won’t go into those titles right now since there is enough here to chew on.

I wonder if there are any other installation-based software apps that we should be sure are in the hands of students and teachers?