A Beginner's Guide to #EdTech Open Source Software

Did you ever explore a learning possibility only to realize that the software to make it happen costs a lot of money? Do you want to write music but can’t afford Finale or Sibelius? Do you want a powerful tool for photo editing but Photoshop is out of reach? Do you want to explore 3-D animation but don’t want to spend a lot of money on software you might not ultimately use?

You might want to explore Open Source software!

Open Source Software

When you buy name-brand, “proprietary” software such as that made by Adobe, Microsoft, or Apple, you simply get the software and if you don’t like something about it, you have to live with that. In contrast, Open Source software groups allow you to download the source code, so that you can add to or alter the function of the software. Even if you are not a programmer, many Open Source packages have forums online where you can ask for features and talk with programmers who contributed to the software.

Some people think that Open Source is equivalent to “free” software. The makers of Open Source would like you to contribute to their efforts, whether that is in the form of a monetary donation, coding, writing documentation, or participating in forums. Programmers collaborate on Open Source software, which means that the code has been examined by a lot of people. As a result, many Open Source packages rival or even exceed the functionality of expensive, specialized proprietary software. Their documentation, created by multiple users, can be very detailed and helpful.

Types of Open Source Software

For every task you can imagine, there is probably some Open Source package that is designed for that task. Some of this software is well-established and some may be still buggy, but it’s out there. In fact, before investing in proprietary software, it’s worth a look to see if there is something Open Source that will do the job. Wikipedia has a huge list of Open Source software organized by functionality: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_free_and_open-source_software_packages

Examples of Open Source Software

You may be using Open Source without realizing it. For example, the web browser Firefox and the Learning Management System Moodle are both open source.

The following packages are the tip of the iceberg; there are many thousands of Open Source software options. These packages are well-established and have plenty of documentation. They install easily and are reliable and stable.

1. LibreOffice


This is a branch of Open Office and is a productivity suite including a word processor, a spreadsheet program, and a presentation program, much like Microsoft Office. If students don’t have Microsoft Office on their home computers and they need more functionality than Google Docs, you can recommend this one.


2. Gnu Image Manipulation Program (GIMP)


GIMP is the Open Source alternative to Photoshop. You can edit photos in a complex way and create artworks with this software. Older students might enjoy editing their own photos.


3. Inkscape


Inkscape is a vector graphics editor. It creates scalable graphics which means that when you make them big, they don’t pixelate. It is the Open Source alternative to Illustrator.


4. Muse Score


Muse Score allows you to write music and to create both printed sheet music and sound files. You can create scores and extract parts from them. The most recent version also allows you to write guitar tablature.


5. Audacity


Audacity is audio recording and editing software. It is simple enough to learn and yet has some cool features that allow you to alter sounds in various ways.


6. Blender


Blender is one of the most amazing pieces of Open Source software I have found. It allows you to do 3-D animation–the movie-worth highly sophisticated animation. It is complex to learn and there are a lot of tutorials out there to help. For students who need a real challenge, this one is worthy and engaging.


Open Source and School Computers


Sometimes you will be able to download new software to a school computer, in which case you will be able to explore it and perhaps help students to do the same thing. If, however, this is not possible, you may want to explore an Open Source operating system called Linux. Actually, Linux, by now has a few thousand “flavors” that often can replace proprietary operating systems.

When you cannot use Open Source software in your classroom, you may want to scrounge an older computer and put some version of Linux on it. Ubuntu is a good version to begin with. If you do this at home where you can get the computer online, you will be able to download from tens of thousands of Open Source packages and install them. Linux distros tend to be lightweight, so you will find your old computer to be rejuvenated and ready for a new life in the classroom. Even if you cannot get this computer onto the school’s network, you can give your students access to an amazing array of educational software.

Find distros here: http://distrowatch.com/

Open Source Hardware



Finally, in addition to Open Source software and operating systems, there is Open Source hardware to explore. Two examples are “Raspberry Pi” and “Arduino.” An Arduino prototyping board costs about $20US and can be plugged into a regular computer for programming. Using an Arduino board, you can do all kinds of physical computing, from manipulating LEDs to robotics. Using Raspberry Pi, you can create a working computer. If you are less adventurous, you might want to buy a kit that includes one of these boards and some accessories to help you get started.

Learn all about Raspberry Pi here: https://www.raspberrypi.org/

You will find information about Arduino here: https://www.arduino.cc/

Computer technology and the internet created an information revolution similar to that which happened when Gutenberg began printing books. We can find information instantaneously about every topic imaginable. Open Source software opens even more new doors in education by making it possible for students and their teachers to create anything imaginable. The ability to create and construct is a foundation for learning.

Interested in Open Source?

Here are some resources:

  • https://opensource.com/ – A website completely devoted to Open Source.
  • https://sourceforge.net/ – This is one of my favorite places on the web. Here you will find Open Source software in all stages of development, from very buggy but promising to extremely well-developed and stable.
  • http://distrowatch.com/ – This is a website all about Linux distributions (or “distros”).


Feature image adapted from image courtesy of Flickr, Waag Society.

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