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  • John Bell

Tech Sense: Back To School 2017

It is back to school time again. Last year at this time, we looked at the traditional office suites, free books, and tools to learn programming and new languages. This year we will stay with the theme but look at other learning tools.

Encyclopedias and Dictionaries

Research for many children begins with the encyclopedia. When I was young, we went to the library and read the World Book Encyclopedia. Today, most people know about Wikipedia ( Wikipedia is an “open” encyclopedia maintained by volunteers. Anyone that wants to help can sign up and become an editor. You may think that this makes the encyclopedia inaccurate, and it is true that you must read the articles and references with this in mind, but it has been shown that Wikipedia works and is generally considered a very good resource. Wikipedia even provides a reference page to other online encyclopedias ( Many of these are recognizable names like Encyclopaedia Britannica available free online. is an example of a free online dictionary ( provides definitions based on the Random House dictionary. It also provides a thesaurus and antonym lookup. Merriam-Webster and Oxford dictionaries are also available freely online ( and


As students get to middle school and high school, they often need to research news articles. Google is a good source for news. Google provides a news aggregation and search service ( that captures articles from many news services; can be set for local, regional or world news; and can search for news topics of interest. You can use the Google alert service and get notifications about news topics you are interesting in following (

Most newspapers also have online editions. Many of these have “pay walls,” which are designed to allow a few articles a month to be read but ask for payment beyond set limits. I subscribe to the online edition of The Washington Post. Discount online subscriptions are available for as little as $19 per year. USA Today’s online edition is often available free as are news services like Reuters (,,

Clip Art and Photos

Clip art and photos are useful for preparing student presentations. Many online photos have copyrights, and the owners want payment for their use. To find good photos that are free to use, I like to employ Google image search ( Once you have searched for the photo you want to use, select the tools menu and pick the usage restriction filter for photos labeled for reuse. These photos are legal to use in your presentations. Other filters allow you to specify photo size and dominant colors or select between photos and clipart drawings.

However, be wary: in my experience, many clipart sites link to ads with malware. One clipart site I do recommend is ( This site was created to provide clip art for use in open source programs. As of today, it has over 130,000 clipart images. The images are available in many different formats including Windows WMF files, Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) files, Portable Network Graphics (PNG) files, and Portable Document Format (PDF) files.

Geography and Maps

Probably everyone knows about Google Maps ( Google Maps will create directions, locate points of Interest, and show you photos from almost anywhere in this world. Maps can also show terrain views and eye level, street views. Microsoft also offers Bing Maps with similar abilities. Google also creates Google Earth ( Earth provides a three-dimensional view of the planet and allows you to zoom in to areas smaller than a city block. Google has now provided atlases of the Moon ( and Mars ( Google Sky ( provides an atlas for space as viewed from Earth’s sky.

That is it for this month; enjoy the rest of your summer vacation.

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