Archive for Software

Scratch programming fun

While it’s often assumed that programming is difficult to learn,  many  8 to 14 year olds are now learning programming skills using a specially designed programming tool  developed at MIT  called Scratch.  Scratch is a free program that runs on Mac, Windows and Linux. First released in 2007, it now has an extensive following of students around the world. The developers saw Scratch not just as a programming tool, but an opportunity for students to explore and be creative with computers. Although today’s digital natives can ‘read’ computers, until now most wouldn’t have the first idea about ‘writing’ for computers – i.e. programming.  That might change as more students discover Scratch.

Learning to program has so much going for it that it’s probably only a matter of time before it becomes regarded as an essential part of learning for children of all abilities. Not only does it develop logical reasoning and problem solving skills, but programming can creative and challenging at a number of ability levels. Since programming lets students create projects connected to their own particular interests, projects are more likely to be ones that students find relevant and more meaningful,  and so more likely to have the motivation ingredients found in a self-directed learning activity. Perhaps best of all, programming fosters a healthy attitude to mistakes and setbacks. Analysis of results by review and reflection are fundamental  programming skills. Last but not least, programming can also be a lot of fun. Read more

Find that freeware application

There’s heaps of freeware out there. Often it is open-source and still being actively developed and improved, supported with active user forums. All you need to do is find it.

Gizmo’s Freeware Reviews groups software into useful categories. It then has reviews on particular categories comparing the main programs in each category, attempts to recommend the best program in that category with information about why a particular program was considered to be the best. Although these are only opinion and you may not always agree with them, they let you quickly cut to the chase. You can search for a particular topic  – anything from pdf to video editing – and quickly find suggestions. An excellent site.

alternativeTo is a community site that does what the name suggests – find similar but alternative programs to a known programOffice . Simply type in the name of a program you know does the job you want to do – eg Word , and it searches and finds alternative programs, ranked by user ratings. The search includes commercial and freeware programs. It even lists alternatives to itself. It can be a little confusing at first as the default links are always to alternative programs – it you want more information on a particular suggested program, then click on the “Information” menu item in the menu bar immediately above the list of suggested alternatives. It doesn’t

Open Source Software Directory aims to list the best and most promising open source software available on the internet. A nicely organised site.

Create and Edit PDF files – free!

Do you get frustrated with the limited control you have over PDF files when you use acrobat reader, the default PDF document viewer installed on most computers? There’s two nice programs that can edit and create PDF files.

Read a PDF file.

Foxit Reader is an excellent alternative reader. It loads much faster than Adobe Reader, lets you highlight and copy text and images, open multiple documents at once, search one or all open documents, annotate pages, create and edit a chapter list of bookmarks, and attach  files to the document. In short it does almost everything you’d want to do with an already created file. The only note of caution is to make sure you read the screens when the program is being installed – it will default to installing an extra Toolbar (Ask) on the browser unless you untick the box agreeing to install it.  The extra toolbar is not that troublesome – you may even like it – and it can be removed without a great deal of hassle, but unnecessary if you are careful when running the installation program.

Create a PDF file

PDFill’s free PDF Writer takes care of PDF file creation. Like most PDF creation tools, the program installs itself as a another printer driver on the computer. To create a PDF document from a non-pdf source, print the document (any document with a print command can be converted to a PDF file) using the PDFill printer instead of the normal printer.  Instead of the document printing, a dialog box appears prompting for the filename and location of the newly created PDF document, which is then saved as a PDF document.  PDFill comes with PDF Tools, a collection of goodies for managing pdf files, including merging or splitting existing pdf documents.

If you use Firefox as your internet browser then PrintPDF is available as an Add-on. Once installed, saving the web page as a PDF file is a simple as File> PrinfPDF, and then nominating the file name and location in the provided dialog box.  A PDF page identical to the display provided in Print Preview is then generated and saved.

PDF to word (or HTML)

Sometimes you want to convert the pdf documenet back into Word or HTML.  Freeware Genius has done a comparative test of various available methods and reached the unexpected conclusion that the best result could be obtained by using the online tool at  This site sells various pdf tools, but the online converter is free. Simply upload the file and wait for the converted file to be created. It works like a charm (provided the original pdf document isn’t security protected), although you do need to be patient and wait for the result.

With these pdf tools in your arsenal you’ll have all the benefits of pdf documents, without forfitting the ability to create and edit the documents. All are  free, virus free, and there are no nag screens or advertising screens (though watch out you don’t install the Ask toolbar when installing Foxit reader unless you really want it or want to try it out). Try them out and it won’t be long before you wonder how you managed without them.

PDF Editing & Creation: 50+ open source/free alternatives to Adobe Acrobat : Codswallop (

How to Create and Edit PDF Files Using Open Source Software (

How to convert PDF to Word DOC for free: a comparative test(

GeoGebra – putting the wow factor into maths

geogebraGeogebra is an open source mathematics program that is so good that that previously bored students find may themselves intrigued by mathematics.

Everything about the program is slick. The drawings it generates look good, and it’s fairly intuitive to use.

Where it shines is in the ability to move one line or one point, and see the rest of the drawing move within the constraints provided. Move one point of a triangle and the lengths of two adjoining sides of the triangle change. Values for angles and the lengths of the sides change accordingly. But it’s not just for geometry – this program also lets you plot charts for equations as fast as you can type in the equation.

It gives students the opportunity to explore mathematics instead of struggle with it.

This is an extremely sophisicated program, so mastering all its features will take a little time, however the learning curve is fairly gentle and there’s ample help, tutorials, and examples available. The program runs in stand-alone mode on a computer (requires java to be already installed), or as a java applet in a browser. It’s already a fantastic program, but since it’s actively developing open-source freeware, it will probably be even better down the track.

The last two screen shots are two of the many activities using GeoGebra at Henrico Public Schools,  which includes four interactive demonstrations of Pythagorus’ Theorem.

Sliced bread for mathematics at last!

Computers in the classroom – life beyond powerpoint?

Back in the early eighties when computers started to become affordable enough to make their way into the classroom, the catchcry was that any teacher who could be replaced by a computer should be (replaced by a computer). Computers were seen as a  convenient rote learning aid and self-marking multiple choice tester.  It followed that learning experience on a computer was bound to be a poor quality learning. We’ve all seen “educational” computer programs that either failed to keep students interested, or more frequently engaged the students but had dubious educational value. More recently the obligatory requirement to ensure that students are computer literate can find students in computer labs frustrated by the slow speed of internet access shared across many users, or enhancing their “cut’n’paste” skills with powerpoint presentations.

Back in the 80′s most of us believed that a computer would not be able to beat a world master at chess, yet in 1997 IBM’s Deep Blue won against the then current world champion Garry Kasparov. Computer chips have kept on getting smaller and more powerful since then, and in August 2009 a mobile phone application, Pocket Fritz 4, won the Copa Mercosur tournament with 9 wins and 1 draw, giving it a stunningly impressive performance rating of 2938. (Only five players in the world have exceeded ratings higher than 2800.)

The point is that classroom computers are now far more capable than thirty years ago, and so is the range and quality of software available -much of it for $free thanks to creative commons licensing and open source software.  Software is one area where free does not necessarily mean second-rate – there are programs available that challenge and engage students, and the quality is first class.

Here a few suggestions of programs that should be in every classroom. Try them out at home and then pester the IT department to install them on the school machines.

1. Geogebra

GeoGebra probably has no equal when it comes to mathematics. Every mathematics teacher owes it to themselves and their students to explore the potential of this program. Not only does it make charting equations a snap, but it is flexible enough for tasks ranging from demonstrating alternative Pythagorus proofs, to showing how to calculate the area of a circle.  It lends itself equally well to simple counting and measuring activities for younger students. Teachers or students can use GeoGebra to make lessons on a particular topic,  and the library of ready-made lessons is building rapidly. EDC in Maine have an impressive collection that can be used as java applets in web pages on their site, or the entire collection can be downloaded (see the links under Learning Tools at the bottom of the page.) Sometimes the educational value of  Geogebra is it’s ability to interact with previously constructed visualisations, but it is as a platform allowing students to do their own mathematical explorations that this program really excels.

2. Google Sketchup

Google Sketchup is a mature 3D modelling program has been improving steadily since it’s prize winning days in 2000. Sketchup does an admirable job of making 3D modelling relatively easy and intuitive. When it was first released curved shapes had to be imported from other 3D modelling programs, but now it’s possible to make complex curved shapes. There is also an extensive range of free plugins that add all sorts of extra bells and whistles, from ray-tracing for photorealitic images with SU2POV to collisions and gravity effects with SketchyPhysics.  While this is fairly advanced stuff and won’t suit all students those students requiring extension math and physics activities will probably thrive on it. There’s some great basic tutorials using Sketchup for various activities such as tesselations and platonic solids at 3DVinci. Woodworkers seem to be using Sketchup to model their projects before building them. It is also possible to import a location from google earth, so you can build you own dam, bridge or building in a realistic location.

3. Scratch and Etoys

Scratch (for younger children) and Etoys both come from the same stable and introduce children to simple programming. Scratch has a more active following, but more sophisticated programs are possible in Etoys, with activities as diverse as calculating the perimeter of a rectangle to the behaviour of ants following a pherome trail between their nest and food.  The two programs share a number of common features which reduces the learning curve for mastering both programs. Both are free and open-source programs, and Etoys is already supplied on the XO computers, the $100 (ish)  laptops being distributed to schools in Africa, Asia and South America.

EToys is the creation of Alan Kay, an award winning computer scientist with a keen interest in constructionist learning. He discusses how EToys can be used to teach mathematics and science at TED talks. (I’ve used the youtube version to skip past the preliminary 12 minutes.)

4. Project Presentation

Finally, as alternatives to power-point, Microsoft’s PhotoStory 3 (free!) with it’s ability to animate images by zooming, cropping, panning – all with a voice-over or music sound-track- can create dramatic presentations.