I’ve heard and read of people lately lamenting our dependency on technology, complaining about how “social” networks seem to alientate us from real life social interaction, etc. While I hear these things, I try not to listen. No matter how over-stimulated I feel, no matter how out of control my RSS reader gets (sometimes you juts have to hit “mark all as read” and move on), I’m still pretty stoked about living in this time.
One of my favorite things about the web and connectedness is the availability of tons of free software. Developers and programmers blow my mind. I have Program or Be Programmed by Douglas Rushkoff marked as to-read because I am unabashedly being programmed. I don’t know much about how all of this stuff works – the stuff I sit down to use every day – but I would be lost without much of it. The authors of many of the free programs out there spend countless hours developing programs only to spend even more time answering questions in discussion threads, responding to tweets, making helpful screencasts, and addressing errors in the program with subsequent updates. They might request a donation here and there, but whether or not they get it they keep plugging on. I’ve started reading Seth Godin’s Linchpin on recommendation from my super-smart friend Amber Karnes. I realize that these software developers found problems or needs, figured out how to address them with a program, and set about spreading the answer freely. They weren’t waiting for someone to “pick them,” as Godin calls it. They went for it and boy am I thankful.
I’d just like to give a shout out to some of the rad software I’ve been using lately. All of this is available for free. A few of these have freemium options or additional things you can add on for a fee, but at their most basic they’re still great:
1. Calibre. I’d be lost without this program. With the many ebook devices, file formats, and files available, one can easily get overwhelmed. If someone wants to share a file from their e-reader device with you, but you only have a Kindle, you need to convert the ebook to a different format. How do I do that? Enter Calibre. With minimal input from you, the program will take a file and convert it to the format needed for your device. You can also download metadata like tags, book covers, author info, and organize your library. Another awesome feature is the news gathering option. Calibre will grab news from various sources and create a readable file from that online content you can send to your device. Oh, and did I mention it will grab all your Instapaper reads and send them to your device? Every time I turn around this program gets more awesome.
2. Anki. I had a little trouble figuring this one out, but thanks to active discussion boards with responses from the program’s developer and screencasts, I’m set. Anki is a spaced repetition system, which most people consider to be the best system for reviewing information in a flashcard setting. I won’t get into whether flashcards are helpful for truly learning info (there is a lot of debate about the “best” languge learning methods), but it’s something I’m experimenting with in my learning of the Dutch language. To oversimplify an SRS system, it uses algorithms to remember what cards you answered easily versus the ones you need help with and puts the ones that need review closer to the front of the deck. There’s an Anki desktop app, an online version (both free), and a iPhone app ($25) that will seamlessly sync cards and statistics. The program also supports non-Arabic characters and is popular among people learning Japanese. This is a reminder to myself that I need to be studying my Dutch more…
3. NeoOffice. Who needs Microsoft Office? Seriously. This program allows you to save documents, spreadsheets, presentations, in tons of different formats, including super old MS Office file formats. While I tend to use Google Docs for everything, and I recently found my Office for Mac disk, I still need something to open files that might be sent to me in formats my programs don’t currently support. Not totally necessary, but it’s nice to have if you want all the bells and whistles offered by the ubiquitous Microsoft Office suite of programs. NeoOffice is part of the OpenOffice.org project.
4. OmmWriter. This is a distraction-free writing zone program. Once you open it you’re given a clear space to write without pop-up notices or anything else happening on your desktop. Omm has an upgrade for which you can pay, but the basic is enough for me. I’ve gone a little analog with a traditional writer’s notebook for brainstorming ideas, but when I need a clear space to write a blog post or free-write and want to type, Omm is my go-to.
5. Evernote. Yeah, this is another one where you can pay for extra storage space and features, but I’m still below that threshold (most of my notes are text) and find its basic to be enough for my needs. Right now I’m using my new favorite screenshot Chrome extension to grab articles I’ve written online and save them to Evernote. My hope is to create an online portfolio outside of links, which can often go dead.
There are risks with using free, start-up, and open-source programs (the biggest being programmers can just stop updating them or companies can fold without notice leaving users floundering), but those risks are outweighed by the great things you can do with them. And there are lessons to be learned when companies fold – things we can teach students, such as “Don’t put all your digital content in one basket (program)” and the one I need to remind myself of often, “Backup your data early, often, and in multiple places.” We teach kids about time management and organizing their notebooks – here are those same lessons, digitized. Photo by vancouverfilmschool.
So don’t just sit back and accept the suite of products that comes standard on your computer (or on your school computer). There are people out there creating programs that can put the best productivity suites to shame. Schools should be considering these programs first before heading to vendors and spending astronomical fees on licenses.
While the preceding tools aren’t all deserving of the term open-source, I wanted to mention it since I believe the open-source movement to be one of the most amazing parts of the internet. People are creating software and content and telling others to “go, use it, copy it, do with it what you want and maybe in the end it will be even better.” There’s a community out there and a lot of learning and creating going on without any payback (Wikipedia comes to mind). This intrinsically-motivated community is happy to share with others and often asks for nothing more than a bit of hyperlinked credit. This community is an important thing to introduce to students and offers a lot of potential for educational institutions (hello, free software! goodbye licensing fees!). Isn’t this what we want from our students? To not even think about the grade or the points value or the damn rubric, but to create because it’s fun and can make a difference?
Tags: Anki, calibre, digital citizenship, Douglas Rushkoff, evernote, learning, Linchpin, Microsoft, Microsoft Office, NeoOffice, ommwriter, open-source, OpenOffice.org, passion, passion-based learning, Program or Be Programmed, programming, Seth Godin, software, spaced repetition system, SRS, student-driven, teaching, teaching with technology 3 Comments »