Saturday, February 10, 2007

Open Source, Free Stuff, and the Hooked-Up Classroom

What is open source?

Imagine this. I create an assignment to use in my ENG 1113. I pass that assignment on to my friend Tammy who teaches the same course. She makes a few changes to suit her own needs and passes it on to Jeanne. Jeanne adapts the same assignment to what she's been doing and gives a copy of it to Susan who passes it on to Pam who gives it to David who adds an extra component and shares copies with Cheryl and Missie.

That's open source. No one is concerned with ownership or copyright. Everyone is just interested in helping each other make what we have to work with a little bit better and a little bit more useful to our own individual needs. This model is a time-honored tradition in education, and the collaborative spirit behind it is the same spirit that has fueled the open source movements in software development and in online educational environments.

Open source software means that the source code is left open for others to borrow, copy, edit, change, improve, and so forth. According to, this initiative is based on the premise that collaboration means improvement:

The basic idea behind open source is very simple: When programmers can read, redistribute, and modify the source code for a piece of software, the software evolves. People improve it, people adapt it, people fix bugs. And this can happen at a speed that, if one is used to the slow pace of conventional software development, seems astonishing.

Open source is often confused with freeware and shareware, and though it doesn't really matter for our purposes in finding high quality, free stuff out there to hook up our classrooms, a good explanation of the differentiations can be found here.

The point is that open source is a friend to you and me.

MIT demonstrates the epitome of the open source ideal in its open courseware program in which a wide variety of materials for entire courses are posted online for anyone to view and even potentially to use in other courses at other universities. Other universities are on board as well with web-based classrooms and open podcasts.

In short, open source for us means that we have an enormous amount of both course materials and course tools available that would not otherwise come to us from the more proprietary conditions of the corporate world.

Programs Available Without Cost

Some of these programs fit the technical definition of open source, and some are just free and useful by any name. They are in no particular order other than the order in which I remembered them.

Open Office--Open Office is an alternative to Microsoft Office. It includes a word processor, a spreadsheet program, a presentation-maker and more. It is available as a free download.
Google Docs & Spreadsheets--This is an online word processing and spreadsheet program that allows for collaborative editing of files as well as web publishing. It is a great alternative for students who have compatability issues between their home computers and their school computers. To use Google Docs & Spreadsheets, all that is needed is a free Google account. If you are a teacher who would like an invitation to join Google, send me an email: sharon dot gerald at gmail dot com.
Google Groups--Google Groups are online discussion groups in the vein of message boards. This could be used for peer review groups, presentation groups, and/or class discussion groups. Google Groups also requires a free Google account.
Blogger--Free blog software and hosting. The new version of blogger is also associated with Google accounts.
Word provides blog software that is available as a free download. It must be loaded to a server to be used. provides an online version of the blog software as well as free blog hosting. is essentially an easier but more limited version of the same software available through To read more about the comparisons, click here.
Drupal--Like Wordpress, Drupal is blog software available as a free download. It requires finding a server to host it. Drupal may have more features for group sites such as wikis, but both Drupal and Wordpress make excellent blogs.
Moodle--Moodle is a course management system available as a free download. It is an open source alternative to Blackboard and WebCT. Click here for a study comparing Moodle and Blackboard.
Audacity--Audio recording/editing software available as a free download.
Odeo Studio--Audio recording and hosting software available online with a free membership.
PBWiki--This is wiki software that claims to be as easy as "making a peanut butter sandwich." The basic wiki features are available for free with free hosting. More advanced features require a paid membership.
Active Boards--Message board software that can be set up to be used with entire communities, such as classrooms, with a free membership.
Gimp--Photo editing software available as a free download. The screen captures on this blog were taken and edited using Gimp for Windows.


Kaj Kandler said...

Hi there,
great you are writing about Open Source. However your examples name a few free but not open source services, namely all the Google products.

Chief screencaster at Plan-B for

Sharon Gerald said...

Thanks for the link. I did include a disclaimer that not all of my examples were open source. I should probably split the list up to make that clearer.