Back to School 2019
It's that time again when school is starting, and once again we are scrambling to find the tools our students need for the new school year. It has been three years since we took a look at useful software for students, so I thought it might be a good time to revisit the subject but focus on free software.
Free Office Suite Software
An office suite (similar to Microsoft Office) is a collection of several software components: a word processor, a spreadsheet, and a presentation tool. Some come with additional tools like a database, a drawing package, calculators, or note tools.
LibreOffice is a popular free and open source office suite application that includes word processing, a spreadsheet, a presentation, and drawing tools, a math equation editor, and a database. The current version is 6.3.0 and can be downloaded from https://www.openoffice.org. The programs can create, read, and write files that are compatible with Microsoft Office. They can also export documents as PDF, epub, and HTML web files allowing your intrepid student to create e-books and web pages. LibreOffice is available for Windows, Linux, and Mac computers.
Google Docs is a lightweight, cloud-based office suite that offers a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation tool, and a Forms tool. These applications are "lightweight" and do not support the full functionality of suites like Microsoft Office or LibreOffice. However, there is no need to install any software to use the programs; instead you navigate using your web browser to https://docs.google.com and login to your Google account. This will give you access to the Docs, Sheets, Slides, and Forms applications. The apps support collaboration over the web allowing multiple people to work on a document at the same time. This can be useful for working on group projects over the phone. You can also use Google Docs if your internet connection is not available, but you must use the Google Chrome browser for offline editing.
The Forms function is new, allowing documents to be created that have blanks that can be filled in by others. For example, Forms can be used to create an invitation and pose the question "Are you coming," offering the reader the opportunity to respond "yes" or "no." The invitation is shared via email with the people on the invite list, and they are given a link to view the invite and respond. The responses are tallied by Google, and the Form creator can view the results.
All of the Google Docs apps are available to any computer that has a modern web browser. This includes Windows, Linux, Apple, and Chrome OS computers. Mobile apps for Google Docs are also available on Android and Apple phones and tablets.
Diagrams, Art, Photos, and Image Editing
Many times a student needs to create just the right diagram or image to enhance their project or paper. There are normally two broad types of 2D images encountered on a computer: vector images and bitmap images. Vector images are made using drawing programs that create instructions for drawing lines, curves, shapes, and fills. Vector images can be scaled to nearly any size without becoming blocky or "pixilated." Vector images are frequently used for diagrams and drafting. Bitmap images are created using small dots or pixels and are used typically for images from photographs, screen captures, and video images, for example. If you enlarge these images beyond a certain point, the image is lost and you see blocks of color. Image or photo editing tools are used to edit these files.
Inscape is the most popular free and open source vector drawing package. It can be found at https://inkscape.org/ with the current version being 0.92. It has many more features than Draw and supports export to a large number of file formats. Inscape supports Windows, Linux, and Mac computers.
LibreOffice includes the Draw program supporting the creation and editing of vector graphics. Draw saves files to the .odg file format, which is a little-used OpenDocument standard that most other applications can't read. It also supports exporting files to several popular bitmap and vector formats for use with other programs.
Google Drawings is a very limited drawing program that can be accessed like the applications associated with Google Docs.
Image and Photo Editing
The most popular open source photo/image editing software is the GNU Image Manipulation Program, better known as GIMP. GIMP can be found at https://www.gimp.org/ and is available and supports Windows, Linux, and Mac computers. GIMP is a very powerful program often favorably compared to Adobe Photoshop.
This month I have tried to cover software that I think would be useful for today's students and that are both free and open source. Each program is available for the three primary platforms: Windows, Linux, and Mac. The Google software also runs on Chrome OS, iPhones and other iOS devices, and Android devices. Questions and new topics ideas are always welcome. Have a great new school year.