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?