Free for All: Great Freeware for the Classroom
Allen, a retired middle school teacher from the Chicago area, admitted to using only a fraction of the free software he finds but insisted that it isn't just about finding what solves a specific problem; it's about finding powerful, free tools that enhance the educational experience and then sharing that knowledge with everyone around you. "I might not have a use for all of these tools," he continued, "but I suspect many of you will."
Launching into a comprehensive list of recommended tools and applications, Allen started with the familiar--but not without offering a little twist.
We're all familiar with Web browsers, Allen said; and most of these will come as no surprise--except, perhaps, for the obvious omission of Internet Explorer. But there are a few, he continued, that offer some interesting possibilities. On Allen's Short list: Firefox, Flock, RockMelt, Chrome, Safari, and Opera.
Flock and RockMelt, he pointed out, cater specifically to social media, with a dashboard interface that covers sites from YouTube to Twitter to Facebook and more. Still, Allen's favorite, he said, is Firefox--for its customizability and the availability of thousands of extensions that allow users to take control of their own browsing experience.
All e-mail clients are, according to Allen, similar in their core functionality. Pointing to Mozilla's Thunderbird, Eudora, and Pegasus Mail, Allen commented, "They get mail, they send mail ... you know: the basics." Still, he said, "I tend to lean toward Mozilla's Thunderbird product for its ease of use and integrated tools", such as calendaring, automatic spam filtering, and it's ability to learn user preferences and behaviors. Another plus, he added, is the ability to pull mail directly from Web-based POP accounts like Gmail and Yahoo.
Word Processing and Productivity Suites
When it comes to productivity, Allen said he doesn't think you should be saddled to the major software providers, like Microsoft. Citing Oracles's OpenOffice.org and OOo4kids (OpenOffice.org for Kids), he insisted that many free options "offer a full suite of tools very similar to Microsoft Office. In fact," he continued, "open source tools often provide a more appropriate feature set," whether you need the full set of features found in some commercial offerings or just a limited set. OOo4kids is a prime example of the latter, he said, offering only the most basic tools for young learners, leaving all the bells and whistles behind.
According to Allen, you don't need to be a graphics or digital media instructor to see the value in powerful imaging tools. From painting programs to image editing software to slideshow and presentation platforms, Allen provided a comprehensive list of options, including GIMP, jAlbum, Paint.net, FxFoto, TuxPaint, xnView, and irfanView.
Video is quickly becoming a ubiquitous resource in the classroom; according to Allen, that's creating a new set of challenges for managing, editing, and converting files for use on various devices. His picks for media conversion include Quick Media Converter and Freemake Video Converter, along with the VLC Media Player for viewing a range of video file types.
"You can definitely save money in the long rung," Allen said, "by dramatically reducing your licensing costs."
Of course there are other considerations, like support--both software and technical support--as well as district download and installation policies. Allen said his best advice "is to check with your IT folks before you make decisions on how to integrate these tools in your classroom." They may be free, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do your homework.