Tag Archives: open source

Throwing in the towel

It’s been coming, and I’ve been dreading it. Now that it’s here, I’m just glad to have it over with.

I’ve been working for years to expand the use of free and open source software in my school and amongst our teachers and students. We started with OpenOffice, which did away with problems we had with different versions of Microsoft Office. Then we started using other free systems such as Zimbra for our mail & collaboration software, the GIMP for photo editing, Moodle for our virtual learning environment, Firefox for web browsing, etc. We had some students test out Ubuntu as a computer operating system and the response was positive, so we rolled it out as a system for all our students.

There were problems, but there were also successes. Students learned new skills, became adept at working with different systems, took delight in hacking their computers, etc. They shared the software with family and friends, and found workarounds to issues they faced.

But things change. We’ve got a 20% turnover rate here, and all our administrators and most of our teachers have only joined us in the past couple of years. They got frustrated when software wouldn’t install with ease on Ubuntu. They resisted using LibreOffice and complained about compatibility with their Microsoft software. They asked why we didn’t just spend the money to buy the software that they were used to and get in line with what most people use.

So we’ve decided to move back and restrict choices. We’ll all be using Microsoft Office. We can choose between Windows 8.1 or OSX 10.10. I’ll go back to using a Mac (I’ll still keep an Ubuntu system running on it as well).

I’m working on being upbeat and positive about the move. It will make many things simpler. It will reduce some of the friction in classrooms and in school.

But it sometimes feels like I’m in this cartoon:

©Dan Piraro - Bizarro! comics
©2009 Dan Piraro: Bizarro! comics (Used with permission. Thanks, Dan & Christy!)


Gift-giving: Free Software, Free Music

For many of us, it’s gift-giving time. Choosing or making a present, wrapping it up and putting it under a tree or handing it to a friend or loved one.

This Christmas, why not give free gifts? There are great sources of free software AND free music. They are not only free to download and use, they’re free to share (and free to adapt & customize). It’ll save you money and it will come with the fringe benefits of freedom – the people who receive the gifts can share with others. It’s a gift that keeps on giving!

Free Software

These are free and open source software packages that we use at school with students and teachers. They are fully functional, cross-platform (so they’ll work on Windows or Mac OSX), and free to share. Download a copy and install it on your computer. Put a copy on a flash disk and give it to a friend or neighbour. They are all licensed so that you can share them freely.

Here are a few choice software tools that we use at ICS (and I personally use and enjoy!).

Powerful Productivity: LibreOffice

libreofficescreenshotLibreOffice is a free and fully-functional office suite. It has a word processor (Write) that can be used to type up a simple poem or format a multi-sectioned formatted document. The spreadsheet (Calc) supports all the usual functions and graphing features you would expect. The slide presenter (Impress) lets you make boring bullet-list presentations or slick graphics-full slides. Furthermore, there’s a Math formula editor, a powerful database component and (one of my favourite features) a drawing component that lets you create graphics or lay out brochures, posters, etc.

The main commercial competitor to LibreOffice is Microsoft Office. They both have strong features and each have functions that the other lacks. LibreOffice can open just about any MS Office file (.docx, .xlsx, etc. files) and also save files in Microsoft formats. See this LifeHacker article for comparisons.

In a review, PC World calls LibreOffice “extremely capable” and “highly configurable, extensible and cross platform.” It’s 100% free and available for Windows, OSX or Linux. Download it for free from the website.

Creativity Unlimited: The GIMP

gimpThe GIMP has an aweful name, but it’s an awesome program. The GIMP (it’s short for GNU Image Manipulation Program) lets you edit image files (photographs, etc.) in both simple (cropping, adjusting brightness, colors, etc.) ways and also in much more complicated ways. It has a range of artistic and creative filters you can apply to a whole image or part of one, multiple layers and brushes, etc. It’s an incredible creative program.

The GIMP’s main commercial competitor is Photoshop and it’s often compared to it. Expert Photoshop users find the GIMP’s interface and workflow different and might find it hard to work with. They both offer similar features, and both are incredibly powerful. If you’re a professional photo editor you might want to pay for Photoshop. If you just want to get creative with photos, try the GIMP. Here’s a simple and balanced comparison.

A review in ExtremeTech lauds the GIMP’s “extensive and powerful set of features” and states that “in some areas …it actually outshines Adobe Photoshop.” Check out this gallery to see some examples of amazing work with the GIMP.

Download the GIMP for Windows, Mac OSX from the website. (Click “other versions” for links to OSX and Windows downloads.)

Incredible Drawing Tool: Inkscape

Inkscape-1024x777Inkscape is a vector graphic drawing tool. That means it focuses on drawing and construction, rather than “paint-like” tools. With it, you can create graphics projects that are simple diagrams, plain clip art or complex artwork. It’s all SVG files – scalable vector graphics – so you can zoom in as much as you want and the graphics are crisp and detailed. There’s a great plugin (Sozi) which lets you create zoomable presentations. (Check out a workshop I presented about it here.)

The main commercial program that rivals Inkscape is Illustrator. Again, they both have powerful tools and can do many things the same. Check out this comparison on BrightHub.

MacWorld gives Inkscape 4 mice and calls it “powerful” and “highly extensible.” Download Inkscape for Windows, OSX or Linux here.

Want more?

Audacity is great for audio/podcasting, VLC is simply the best for playing any videos, Thunderbird is a terrific email client, KeePass is a secure way to store your many passwords, Celestia is incredible astronomy software, GeoGebra is a fantastic math learning program…

Check out the OpenSource.com website for much more information, or see these sites for free & open source software for Mac OSX or Windows.

Free Music

Sure, you can download “free” music from various sites on the internet, but much of that is pirated. You’re breaking copyright laws and violating licensing agreements. There have been cases where individual downloaders have been taken to court and fined hefty fines. And you’re really stealing the music – taking something without proper permission by the owner.

However, there are a number of musicians – independent, lesser-known artists – who share their work freely and give you permissionto download, listen to and even share their work. They don’t use copyright laws, but license their work with Creative Commons licenses. This is a way artists (even you or me) can protect their work but give permission to others to use, share, remix, etc. The artist can control how the work can be used (commercially? mashed-up or just like the original?) but all require attribution (giving credit to the artist), so you can use but not steal.

I’ve wrttien about this topic, including some of the Christmas music I found to give away, on my own personal blog.

Here are a few sites that I go to for great music.


The Free Music Archive is a great source of all types of music and podcasts. I often find interesting artists and good music to listen to. The music all has different licenses – mostly some version of the Creative Commons licenses. One of my favourite finds here is the Debo Band – an American/Ethiopian band that plays some great funky versions of Ethiopian jazz music.


Jamendo is another place I go to find interesting and free music. There are all kinds of independent bands that release music on the site, with all kinds of styles. I recently found and got hooked on the band I Am Not Lefthanded – featured on the website screenshot.


MusOpen has some beautiful classical music – all in the Public Domain. That means there is no copyright or restrictions on the music at all. Use them as you wish. They also have sheet music and educational resources …it’s a great site.

Happy holidays …give freely!

Launching a CoderDojo

It was actually quite a nerve-wracking experience.

Right up until the minute we started, I wasn’t sure that we would have anyone attending at all. We’d sent out emails. We’d put up posters around campus. We’d talked it up with students. But there really was no way of knowing. It was Saturday afternoon. The morning was busy with the charity run/walk. I’d got some negative feedback from both students and teachers (about the time – too busy, already there in the morning, etc.). And …I just didn’t know.

So we waited. Leulseged and I were the ones running the afternoon session. We were both tired – he from running a staff training in the morning, me from daddy duty all morning at the walk/run & then at Nadia’s tennis tournament. We kicked around ideas and thoughts – dancing around the question of “what if nobody comes?” Then David came in. He’s eager and ready to be running things on his own (except that he’s too busy with his schoolwork) – I talked with him about our plans and gave him the option of leading or learning.

Then it started. …and it was delightful! First one student came in, then another, then another… High School students. Middle Schoolers. Elementary kids. It was a small turnout, but a great one. We asked the kids what they wanted to do and helped them get started. They dove in and had a great time.

I’ve written about the session on my school blog – what the students were up to, how excited they were, etc. For here, I’ll simply say that it was great having students from Elementary, Middle and High, all working on different things: Scratch, Python, Java. The kids were motivated and happy. I was delighted! It was a great start.

I’m really excited about CoderDojo at ICS. I love the open-source philosophy of the program: that each individual Dojo can use & adapt the rules, process, features, etc. There are other after-school coding programs that each have their own advantages (more structure & guidance, for one thing!), but something organic, open-source and markedly anti-commercial really appeals. I also think it’s terrific that it’s a program that was started by a high school student in Cork, Ireland.

The free-form nature of the project perfectly suited our startup. We had kids doing all kinds of things. (I’m probably most proud of David and Simon who came in wanting to learn Java. I told them that neither I nor Leulseged were Java experts – no problem. The guys found a Udacity MOOC and dove in. They were focused and motivated – listening to video lectures, helping each other out with bits of code. Awesome!) We might get more focused and structured in our offerings if we get more students in later sessions, but for now the free-form nature is great. “What do you want to do?” is how we greeted each student. I think that’s just perfect.

We’re also planning on opening up to the wider community. That will no doubt greatly expand participation (and more management work!). It’ll also be a good thing for our students and our school to be helping others in Addis. We’re already talking with the folks at AfriCoderDojo about us being the main site in Addis. It’s still in negotiations, but it’s looking very good!

So lots more planning, work and effort to come. For now, I’m equal parts relieved and very happy! Nothing like a successful launch to a big project to make me smile.


Hard = Good

It’s not intuitive. It’s too hard.

Such goes the typical dismissive comment on software or a website that someone isn’t familiar with. It’s a good way to diss an application without admitting that you don’t want to take the time to figure out how it works. Things should be so simple that anyone can just pick it up and immediately know what to do. Isn’t that how everything should be?

Maybe not. Maybe it’s a good thing that things are not easy to figure out, that it takes some effort. Maybe the constant work to make things effortless and intuitive means we are actually losing something.

Here are three things that happened to me today:

  1. A teacher expressed frustration at using LibreOffice because he couldn’t figure out how to format the page. He sent the file to me and told me to just do it – he didn’t have time for me to tell him what to do. I helped out …and told him the command to format a page was in the – surprise! – Format menu.
  2. An accountant came for help because she couldn’t log into her email. We’d closed it down because she’d followed a link on a phishing scam email and entered her username and password, so her account was taken over by spambots. This was despite repeated messages to everyone pointing out the dangers of phishing scams and that everyone should “Think before you click.”
  3. Someone else messed up and sent out an email to multiple recipients containing sensitive information. I was asked if I could delete all the emails. When I explained that it was impossible to delete it from all the recipients’ mail servers and that some might have already read the mail, I was greeted with incredulity that a recall wasn’t possible.

These are all examples of people who weren’t thinking. People who were just doing things without really considering what they were doing. People who were – if you will – intuiting.

Does it help them that they were used to just doing things? No. What they were engaging in was activities that required a little cognition and metacognition: trying to think about how a different piece of software would accomplish a task they were used to in a different way, reading and responding to messages that enticed and directed, composing messages that contained sensitive information. Unfortunately, none of these people really were thinking – they just reacted in ways they were used to and the result was not what was intended or wanted.

It’s one reason that I’ve become devoted to open source software. Such software is usually highly capable and feature-rich, but you often have to work at it. You have to think about what you want to accomplish and find out how to go and do it.

Another example: a colleague commented to me that he wanted his students to annotate PDF files. He had a Macbook and the bundled Preview application has some good annotation functions. His students who were using Ubuntu said they couldn’t do it in their PDF reader, so he’d asked for help in figuring out how the students could annotate the PDF documents.

In five minutes of searching, I found references to three software applications that could partially do the job – none satisfactorily. However, one website referred to a solution which jogged my memory and resulted in the best response. LibreOffice – which is installed on all our computers – can open a PDF and it has a wide variety of editing and markup tools. Problem solved!

Am I a genius? Am I an Ubuntu expert? Not at all. I just knew that I would have to go and look for the answer, test out possible solutions, and settle on one that worked the best in the given circumstances. That teacher could have done it. Any of his students could have done it. It didn’t take intelligence on my part – it just took the realization that the solution wasn’t intuitive but required some problem-solving.

As a teacher, and as a parent, this is the kind of thinking that I want my students (& child) doing. I want them analyzing a situation, considering what objective they want to achieve, and then looking for and analyzing potential answers. Isn’t that what all teachers and parents want? Do any of us really want our children simply intuiting the answers to their problems?

I realize that this is one perspective and that another one is simply: tools should be easy to use and we shouldn’t have to work too hard to figure them out. I get that. I shouldn’t have to Google how to use a screwdriver. However, most computing tools are less akin to a screwdriver and more similar to internal combustion engines. Those do really require some study and serious cognition.

So here’s to complicated software. It forces us to think.

Isn’t that great?

stolen from Julian Ridden

Moodle is ugly

stolen from Julian Ridden
shamelessly copied from Julian’s presentation

During one of his presentations at iMoot, Julian Ridden showed a slide from a presentation in Germany stating, “Moodle ist hasslïch.” His point was that many Moodle courses are ugly: boring lists of PDF, PDF, PDF, quiz. He then showed a well-designed Moodle course (lots of graphics – appealing & inviting) and another slide, “Moodle ist wunderschön.”

I heard that phrase – “Moodle ist hasslïch” – and understood it a different way: Moodle IS ugly. There are all kinds of blocks and activities and settings and options. You have to search for the page that shows the thing you want, the default way of dealing with things is text-based and simplistic …you have to work at it.

I posted something like this in the chat session, and Shalimar came back with:

If you’re looking for a rose & seeing a bee, it’s ugly. If you’re looking for a way to propogate flowers, a bee is divine.

Yes! Indeed, yes.

You see, to me the fact that Moodle is kind of ugly makes it all the more valuable. If Moodle were all beautiful and slick and perfect, it couldn’t be adapted. It couldn’t be customized. It couldn’t be personalized. Even if it could be, you wouldn’t want to because it’s perfect and beautiful. You wouldn’t want to mess with perfection.

I’ve said it before that open source software isn’t easy. It can be ugly. It might need tweaks. But with all that comes freedom and ability to change things. Moodle has all of that in spades and that’s one reason why I love it. With Moodle, you can build a course or a school VLE almost any way you want. Sure, you might have to work a bit to get it, but anything valuable is worth putting some effort into.

Why I use free/open source software

In my job – and in my life – I use open source software. I advocate for it. I defend it. I promote it. Sometimes I win converts. Sometimes I lose battles. But I will keep on using and promoting it.

I wasn’t always that way. I used Apple hardware and software for years. I liked Macintosh computers – I liked their simplicity, their ease of use. I liked their sleek design. I still do. I still use them. There’s something beautiful about the way they’re put together.

But I’ve been converted to the open source/free software movement and am a firm believer in the benefit of openness and freedom. I recognize the warts (geez, some of this stuff is butt-ugly!) but I am willing to put up with the negatives of free/libre/open source software for some very real reasons.

Freedom means choices

The opposite of 'open' isn't closed. The opposite is 'broken' @cgreen @wilbanks #oercongress #oer
Opposite of ‘open’ is ‘broken’CC-BY-SARon Mader

When I use Macintosh software or an Apple device, my choices are limited. They’re limited by what the folks at Apple decided I should do. They often build options in – there are some settings I change in how things work – and I can use different software – I use Firefox on my Mac – but in the end they make decisions and I have to go along with it. Sure, there are limitations even on open software, but those are simply limitations of coding, not necessarily decisions made. Apple does not want me to pull music from my iPod to my Macintosh …so I am limited by that. Apple doesn’t want me to have to deal with the files in iPhoto, so it’s all saved in a database. I have to live with that. (And cope with the loss of dozens of holiday photos when I maxed out my database!) I can find ways around many of these restrictions, but it feels like I’m living in a prison (or a “walled garden” if you prefer) and have to resort to subterfuge to do what I really want.

Open isn’t easy

This may be counter-intuitive but it’s something I’m growing to appreciate more. When I advocate open software, many times I hear from people, “It’s too hard to learn.” or  “It takes too much time.” etc.

jona3 – Pixabay – CC0

Think about it: what’s hard in life? Becoming successful. Making your marriage work. Raising a child. Learning new skills. Cooking an elegant meal. Convincing someone of your viewpoint. Nearly every good and valuable thing in life is hard.

Things that are easy in life are often not valuable or good for you. It’s easy to slob out and watch television all day. It’s easy to go grab a bag of fast food. It’s easy to throw the trash out your car window. It’s easy to do a Google search for an image and copy & paste it into your blog without considering the license or copyright.

If you want something good, if you want something that means something to you, you have to put some work into it.


Openness means forever. I have a bunch of files that are .cwk …remember ClarisWorks? AppleWorks? Those were decent programs… but they are no more. What can open those files now? We still have AppleWorks groaning along on our iMac. One day that won’t even open. And then the data in those files ….gone forever.

Meanwhile, any .odt file will be able to be opened forever. Because open source and open standards means anyone can and will use it.

Openness and Freedom Encourages Tinkering

tinkering – photo by me

This is a vital reason for me, working in a school. As students come to use open software, they are encouraged to tinker. Want to change something? You can! You just need to learn how.

And this is an important skill for our students to learn. They are growing up in a world of computers: of hardware and software. They should know how these things work. They should know what goes into making software. They should be able to figure out how the hardware is put together.

When Apple glues its laptop batteries in, when it hides the screws on its phones, when it purposefully designs the devices to prevent a user from experimenting, tinkering, etc. then it is restricting not only our freedom as users but our opportunity for really understanding the device. It’s as if it’s all a secret that’s only available to a select elite. (And how can you become one of the elite?)

Coping with Unknown Unknowns

This one came at me today as I was advocating for open software. As you use something, you know its uses and know what you need it to do. (Known knows.) There will be new things that you can anticipate you may need it to do later. (Known unknowns.) But somewhere down the line you may need the software to do something that you can’t anticipate. (Unknown unknowns.)

At that point, having open software will become invaluable. If you need the software to do something new, you will be OK if it’s open. Either you can make it function properly by tweaking the software or building some new component, or you can find someone to do that for you.

If the software is closed, you will be dependent on the company that makes it. They may do it for you. They may not.

While this may not be important for you as you choose a web browser or a photo editor …or at least it may not seem important… it certainly will become vital if it’s a complex system you’re using to run your payroll or document management or whatever.

Need more?

There are plenty of other reasons, big and small: ability to share, avoiding licensing issues, cost, transferability, cross-platform compatibility, etc. Here are some other reasons: from the Free Software Foundation, from Saigon South International School, from a technology company, and the UK Government. If you have your own reasons, please leave it in the comments.


A MOOC more Open than Massive

I’ve just completed a MOOC on programming with Python called “Python for Informatics.” It was created and taught by Dr. Chuck (Charles Severance), on a platform that he built.

This was the second course I’d taken with Dr. Chuck: I’d also taken his Coursera class, “Internet History, Technology, and Security.” That was a very interesting and engaging course, and I found it very worthwhile. It was definitely a massively open course! Here are his statistics: ” Over 49,000 students registered for the free class, over 16,000 attended the first week’s lecture and over 4900 students earned a certificate at the end of the 10-week course.” (I was one of the 10% who completed it. 🙂 )

When I heard Dr. Chuck was creating his own platform, I was intrigued. I wanted to see what he was doing and was interested to see how he put it all together. As I am interested in Python and am still quite new to the language, I was keen to take the course and willing to put in the time to complete it.

I joined in a little late, but made the deadline to register for the course. (He has an open enrollment “Python Playground” if you’d like to try it out.) I started, stuck to the assignments and completed all the assignments. (No certificate for this one. Just the satisfaction of completion.)

There were a number of things that impressed me about the course, but two things immediately jumped out at me:

1) The Size (the “M” in MOOC means “Massive“)

Dr. Chuck’s course has around 800 students enrolled. Compare that to the 49,000 in his Coursera course. (Or even compared to the 4,900 who completed it.) While that truly is Massive compared to any face-to-face university course, it certainly does not compare to the size of other online MOOCs. I’m concurrently enrolled – and thoroughly enjoying – MIT’s Learning Creative Learning, which has around 24,000 officially “enrolled” and many others who didn’t register in time but are following along.

Immediately, this got my attention and appealed. In the courses with umpteen-thousand participants, I’ve found it very hard to focus and identify with others. Joining a smaller, less massive, MOOC seemed much more manageable. It certainly allowed for more personal connections – and that really is key in any learning experience. (The MIT course has divided up participants in groups – both assigned and self-managed. That has made it a very valuable experience – I’m in a group with several colleagues and we can collaborate online or in person.)

2) The Licensing (the first “O” in MOOC means “Open“)

Dr. Chuck really believes in openness. He clearly says:

If you are a teacher and interested in reusing my materials, this is my plan:

  • My textbook is Creative Commmons Share Alike
  • All my lecture slides will be Creative Commons
  • All of my recorded videos will be up on YouTube and you can use them any way you like.

In one of his video lectures, he simply states: “I want to make more teachers! Use my stuff!”

Personally, I find this incredibly inspiring. Here’s a busy teacher embarking on a huge undertaking who makes it openly available and remixable. Rather than gain, he is truly focused on expanding people’s knowledge all around the world. This is really what “open” SHOULD mean in a MOOC: not just open for enrollment, but open for reuse.

Yes, I know there are differences of opinion. There are those who say that only some can afford to do this – those universities or professors who are secure in their positions and paychecks. It is possible that more open sharing of this sort will make it difficult for professors & teachers to get hired and for universities to fund R&D. I’m not ready to grapple with this issue at this time …but hope to at another date.

So, thanks to Dr. Chuck I now have some great resources I can use in having my own students learn Python. I also am inspired to put more of my own work out there with open licenses.

I’ve also learned a lot and have a lot to think about – not only related to the Python language, but also to course structure, incentives, pedagogy and more. It really was a fascinating class and I’m so glad I took it.

Freedom’s just another word for being in control

Big engine, little car!
Big engine, little car!CC-BYStephen Bowler

Using a computer is kind of like using a car. The device lets you do all kinds of things. It needs some maintenance. Most owners show some pride and prejudice about their chosen brand/model/etc. Owners like chatting about the pros, cons, features, etc. of the model they own, etc.

Users of Free & Open Source Software (FOSS) – especially Linux users – want to get under the hood, figure out how the engine works, re-configure the timing and so forth to get better performance, customize the paintjob, etc. We want to know, to understand, to be in control.

Most users just want to get in the car and drive. Let it get you where you’re going – who wants to know the details of how an internal combustion engine works? For the most part that works OK. But the less you know about how the device works, the more you are  at the mercy of mechanics.

Many computer users can do basic maintenance tasks (check the oil, add brake fluid) and deal with minor issues. They’re not completely helpless. So who needs Linux or FOSS?

The problem is that things are changing. Computing devices and the things we do with them are changing and users have less and less control. Go watch Alistair Croll’s brilliant presentation: “Clouds of Loving Grace: the other war on General-Purpose Computing (or read the related post by Cory Doctorow: “Lockdown: The coming war on general purpose computing” or his follow-up talk on “The coming civil war over general purpose computing“).

Consider devices: when you’re using something like an iPad, it’s literally impossible to get under the hood. No maintenance, no performance enhancement. You are not allowed. Imagine your car’s front hood welded shut. And not only must you go to a specialist for any repairs or modifications, but you also have to go to one licensed by the manufacturer. No use going to a mechanic at the corner shop: you have to go to the dealer itself to get service.

Consider software: when you’re reading digital books, you are locked into specific software or particular devices. Buy an e-book in PDF form and you have to use a registered copy of a specific Adobe e-reader. Want to transfer it to your tablet? Sorry. Not allowed. It’s like only being allowed to listen to certain radio stations in your car. (And no use buying a new device made by another maker – you’re stuck with that brand.)

Consider the cloud: when you store things in an online service like Dropbox or Google Drive, you get a great service but it’s at the discretion of the company. If they want to change terms, or stop the service, or if they go out of business… that’s it. You’re out of luck. Remember Google Wave? Remember when Ning stopped providing free service? The only choice was to accept their new terms or go elsewhere. Imagine if Peugot went out of business and your car disappeared. Suppose Toyota went completely green and you had to pay to upgrade your car’s engine to a hybrid one, otherwise your car would just stop working.

Sure, these limited, controlled devices and software and services make life easier. It’s less messy. Things just work. But they work the way the companies allow them to work, not the way you want them to. They work fine until they don’t …and then you’re helpless. You as the computer owner or user are not in control. The corporations are.

It’s all about control. Computer users have less and less these days. It’s why Linux and FOSS make sense. It’s all about freedom.