January 2009

You use a word processor sometimes, but do you use the drawing tools of your office suite?

Our Curriculum and Lesson Plans page now has the link to a file that will help you teach the skills to your students. Of course, you want it NOW! The link is here, too.


The file is the practice for the ButterBox Project which can also be downloaded from the Curriculum and Lesson Plans page.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is the effort to control copying and sharing or downright piracy. It was once very common for PC game software, and it is currently the rage in music (think iTunes) and movies (think MPAA).

Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_rights_management

Cory Doctrow is an author who generally gives away his work while also selling it. He is not a fan of DRM. You might be interested to read this post by Cory Doctrow from the blog “Boing Boing” about the childrens’ book The Pig and the Box which is about sharing vs. DRM.


You might also like to examine the site from which the book may be purchased AND from which it may be downloaded in PDF format (free).


Be sure to click the “Home” link after you check out The Pig and The Box. There are more books with similar themes. I love the one about the crow.

Linux Journal has posted a nice tutorial on their Web site.


Don’t all of you use your computer/projector instead of an overhead and acetate sheets?

The Ubuntu Pocket Guide and Reference is a good book to buy (currently less than $10.00 from Amazon) and keep handy while you get started or expand your use of and knowledge about the popular GNU/Linux distribution. It can fit in your pocket, or sit easily beside your computer. What’s more, you can download the PDF ebook for free.


The Amazon link is included at the Web page above.

We want to provide a wide variety of useful classroom activities in the form of lesson plans and project templates as part of what we do here at MOSSSIG.

We are going to start the effort off with ButterBox, a template/project for OpenOffice Draw. Students, having gained skill with the Draw tools and methods will create a box to contain the “product” they design.

Click the link for “Curriculum/Lesson Plans” at the top of the page to check on new files. You can also click this link to get directly to the ButterBox project.

Your contributions and suggestions are the next step.

Here’s a link to a blog about files that generate random times table practice worksheets in OpenOffice Calc each time the file is opened. To use it, just download and open the file. Then print the file and duplicate it as needed. You can also use the PDF save function on the file menu to keep a particular version.


It should come as no surprise that Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) is an international effort. The Internet provides the path to cross national borders. Worldwide, Ubuntu is the current darling of the GNU/Linux distributions, and it started with Mark Shuttleworth of South Africa.

You might want to read this FOSS document, initially intended for Asian use, which gives a very good introduction to using free. open source software in education.


Happy reading.

Dia is a program for doing diagrams such as flow charts, organization structure, etc., similar to the Visio tool from Microsoft.
It has versions for Windows and Linux and a FAQ file said it could be used on Mac with a special compile from source code (not for the faint of heart). There does not appear to be a simple Mac install.

Like much FOSS (Free/Open Source Software), Dia has a three piece version number. It is at version 0.96.1 but that is far enough along to be highly usable. It isn’t uncommon for the version numbering of FOSS programs to advance slowly. I am the happy user of several programs with version numbers well below that. Developers work steadily to advance from alpha stage numbers like 0.1.1 when the software may “work” but have very limited features and hasn’t been extensively tested for crash problems. The higher the middle number goes, the more “beta” it becomes with more features and an accumulation of loyal, and supportive users who contribute their comments, suggestions and complaints back to the developers. The middle numbers can go on for a while, not rising just to 9. There is no force to 1.0.0, since the middle number can rise gracefully to show versions like 0.12.5 while developers round off the sharp edges and add the final feature tweaks before the first “official release” of 1.0.0.

One program I use regularly is only at version 0.1.5 and works well. The developers have plans for much more improvement. What they have done works, and, typically, versions 1.0 and beyond represent more ambitious goals. FOSS software doesn’t need to wait for a 1.0 release. The philosophy is to get some initial working features. Implement them effectively. Advance from there. Set goals you can reach with the development team “staff” you have.

The tradition of FOSS flows out of the programming style of Unix. Around the original operating system, software developers created small, often single-purpose tools. If they needed a new “feature” they typically made a new small utility program instead of adding more features to another one. The idea was that you could string several utilities together to accomplish a more complex task. As a result, each “Unix style” program does just what it needs to. Over time, the simple program can be made more efficient, effective, elegant, etc. without taking on new features. The Unix style also usually produces fast programs.

Taking a huge jump from Unix utilities, we go to to the other extreme. Sometimes, you will even hear pundits and software reviewers talk about the feature glut of large programs, sometimes citing Microsoft Office as an example. As such programs grow, they often become “bloated” and become slower. In fact, these days, large programs are segmented, using overlay “libraries” (think files with the DLL extension) so they can fit in the RAM of typical computers. For commercial software, there isn’t a significant expanding market for common programs, such as Office. To make money from Office, Microsoft must sell new copies somehow. Of course, selling a new version of any software requires that it be worth buying and typically that means adding features. Very few end users notice incremental improvements in efficiency or speed. When there are competing commercial programs, you will often hear about “feature wars” and such as two or more similar programs try to leapfrog over their opponents. Word Perfect and Word were an example for a while.

Unfortunately, added features can cause their own problems. Again, using Office as the example, I understand that the new file format is a feature. It probably is better, but older Office versions cannot open the format. Users certainly must feel the pressure to upgrade, and to upgrade commercial software, that means spending money, too. In a school district the money isn’t insignificant. Schools with hundreds of computers must get hundreds of copies of Office…and pay for them.

FOSS development frequently has a small core of programming contributors, a wider core of dedicated users who participate through regular feedback of bug reports and recommendations. Some projects are “supported” by corporations who give employees time to contribute during the regular work day. Some of the bigger FOSS programs are projects that have full corporate support. OpenOffice.org is an example. Sun Microsystems did most of the original development and continues to offer a version called StarOffice which has commercial support. Open Office is a “community” project that Sun Microsystems continues to support, but has released it as FOSS and allowed its development to be a shared effort with contributions and leadership from people from outside the Sun corporate walls. Open Office is a competitor of Microsoft Office and has used the file format as a battleground. Do a Web search for ODF if you are interested.

Much FOSS has no big sponsor. Just as often, the development team is small. It may be just a few programmers, and occasionally a single dedicated coder. Small projects are often eager for contributions and advance when they get positive feedback from early users and grow to meet the needs of many users. Remember, a key to FOSS is source code access. That means a core of good code can be examined and enhanced, extended and improved by others beyond the small start. The first World Wide Web server/browser was such a project. Just look where that has gone!

The upshot of this discussion is that you shouldn’t hesitate to try a program because it isn’t version 1.5.0 or more. Even better, check the site where the developer(s) discuss the project and send them supportive suggestions that would make your use of the program better. If you don’t do programming yourself, you could write usage notes or tutorials or pages of a manual…You are entitled to make a contribution, after all you are a part of the FOSS community by participating at any level.

And, yes, you can be a community member just by using a FOSS program. Downloads from the developers site stimulate developers to keep going. They know they have a user base that way and feel their effort is appreciated.

The MassCUE TIE special interest group meeting flew by. Yours truly spent too much time on the philosophy of open source. We did have some rousing discussion, though. It was good to get together with the eight SIG members who were able to be there (Beverly, Bev, Warren, Carol, Nancy, Susan, Brenda and Jennifer).

We had a lively discussion of the suitability of Wikipedia, classroom blogging, the cost of software and training, and administrative support for innovation. Nobody said they had too much computer/software training time!

Wikipedia faces push back from educators. Its reliability is questioned. Biased opinion in articles is often blamed as a reason for recommending against its use in schools. Ultimately, it can at least be a great object lesson about the need to check multiple sources when creating an essay. The “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” statement scares educators, I think. We also talked about the K12 Open Ed Kids Open Dictionary Builder which is still in early development. Some wanted to see it as a tool for students to enter words, but feared that it would become corrupted by malicious or silly entries. I pointed out that it was more a tool for teachers who could expect to generate word lists and glossaries and legally include them in handouts they created for their students. It was interesting to see the expressions on several faces when I reminded them that copying definitions from commercial dictionaries to create glossaries was a copyright violation. It does seem odd that using the meanings of words should be restricted in that way. That is, of course, the reason that the Kids Open Dictionary Builder exists. It is planned to be a public domain dictionary which will allow unrestricted use of word definitions.

Keeping student blog comments out of “public” view was an issue. Issues with the Web sites like FaceBook and students who reveal too much for their own safety are in the news. Getting your school/district to host an internal blogging tool can be one answer. WordPress is an open source blogging tool that can be installed on a server (for free) by the tech staff so that that it is only accessible within the school or district. It should be noted, however, that blog comments can be “moderated” on the classroom blog by the teacher. Teachers can, as they routinely do, help to direct the flow of discussion and keep students from being too controversial for their own good. Without involving overworked school tech staffs, teachers can set up a blog on a commercial blog space (no cost there, either): WordPress.com, Blogger.com and Edublogs.org [for some reason, I am having trouble making a link there, but you can type the Web address in yourself – http://edublogs.org%5D.

Everyone was able to go home with a CD of open source programs that could be installed on Windows machines and a copy of the Ubuntu 8.10 Live CD so they could explore it even if that could only happen on their personal computer at home.

Here’s a list of the links to the tools we discussed:

There was general sentiment that school tech staff/leaders were reluctant to explore beyond the boundaries of “approved” software. Some who attended felt that they would not be able to install any of the programs on school PCs. Some (most?) schools have implemented restrictive installation policies. A couple of reasons may make sense, keeping malicious software off computers, for one. Keeping students from installing games to play instead of competing assignments makes sense, too. But knee jerk push back against teachers installing useful software does not make sense.

What is the situation at your school/district?

  • Can you, as a teacher, install software on your “teacher” computer in your classroom?
  • Can you get software installed by a tech onto a lab of computers?
  • Does each program need approval from administrators before it can be used?
  • Is your district encouraging innovation by offering training on Web site creation, blogging, and other similar tools?
  • Do you have a Web site set up/hosted by your school/district?
  • Do you have a Web site like the ones set up by companies like Teacher Web?
  • Do you have a school related or classroom blog?

Let us know.

Tuesday afternoon, January 13, 2009 at 4:00 the Technology Integration in Education SIG will have a meeting at the Burlington Public Library, 22 Sears Street, Burlington.

The topic is open source software in subject areas. I (Algot Runeman) will be at the meeting to provide whatever support I can. There will be free Ubuntu 8.10 CDs, Open Disk Project’s Education disk (Windows), and more.

If you are in the area, I bet everyone would be glad to see you there, too. I know I would be ecstatic.

Look here for a post about the meeting with a list of any software we discuss.

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