Friday, May 18, 2007

Ready for Prime Time: Open Source Programs for the K-12 Desktop

This week I moderated a CoSN webcast on Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) with guests Laura Taylor (the director of the Office of Learning Resources at the Indiana Department of Education) and Jim Klein (the director of Information Services & Technology at Saugus Union School District in California). Below is a starter list of FOSS programs we came up with for the K-12 desktop that you can start using in the classroom right away--and that can be given to students for free.

Audacity is a free, easy-to-use audio editor and recorder for Windows, Mac OS X, GNU/Linux, and other operating systems. You can use Audacity to:
  • Record live audio
  • Convert tapes and records into digital recordings or CDs
  • Edit Ogg Vorbis, MP3, and WAV sound files
  • Cut, copy, splice, and mix sounds together
  • Change the speed or pitch of a recording
  • And more!
Blender is the Open Source Software for 3D modeling, animation, rendering, post-production, interactive creation, and playback. Blender allows students and teachers to animate 3D computer graphics.

The free space simulation that lets users explore the universe in three dimensions. Celestia comes with a large catalog of stars, galaxies, planets, moons, asteroids, comets, and spacecraft, as well as a catalog of additional downloads. Students and teachers can plot a course and navigate a 3D solar system. See also

Dia is inspired by the commercial Windows program 'Visio', though more geared towards informal diagrams for casual use. Teachers and students can use it to draw many different kinds of diagrams.

FreeMind is a premier, free mind-mapping software written in Java. Teachers and students can use mind map diagrams to represent words, ideas, tasks or other items linked to and arranged radially around a central key word or idea. It is used to generate, visualize, structure and classify ideas, and as an aid in planning, organization, problem solving, and decision making.

GIMP is the GNU Image Manipulation Program. It is a freely distributed piece of software for such tasks as photo retouching, image composition and image authoring. GIMP works on many operating systems, in many languages.
See also

Knoppix is actually a full operating system with a collection of programs, and is downloadable as a .iso CD image file. KNOPPIX is the technician's best friend, and actually runs as what is known as a "Live CD," meaning that you can boot KNOPPIX from your CD ROM drive and it doesn't affect (or need) the PC's hard drive at all. KNOPPIX gives you an incredible variety of utility and recovery programs for troubleshooting and solving PC issues.

Moodle is a course management system, designed using sound pedagogical principles, to help educators create effective online learning communities. It can be downloaded and used on any computer (including webhosts), yet it can scale from a single-teacher site to a 50,000-student university. We're calling it a desktop program since you access Moodle using the web browser, but it does need to be installed on a server somewhere. the product is a multi-platform office productivity suite. It includes the key desktop applications, such as a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation manager, and drawing program, with a user interface and feature set similar to other office suites. Sophisticated and flexible, also works transparently with a variety of file formats, including those of Microsoft Office, and the vendor-neutral OpenDocument standard from OASIS.

Scribus brings award-winning professional page layout to desktops with a combination of "press-ready" output and new approaches to page layout. Underneath the modern and user friendly interface, Scribus supports professional publishing features such as CMYK color, separations, ICC color management, and versatile PDF creation.

The Open CD is actually not a program, but a very easy-to-distribute collection of popular free and open source software programs, including most of the titles mentioned so far, and many more. You download the .iso image file, and can burn and distribute this as a single CD for both educators and students to install these programs.

Tux Paint
Tux Paint is a drawing program for children ages 3 to 12 (preschool and K-6). It combines an easy-to-use interface, fun sound effects, and an encouraging cartoon mascot who guides children as they use the program. Kids are presented with a blank canvas and a variety of drawing tools to help them be creative.

Ubuntu is a full operating system, like Windows or the Mac OS, which can run either as a "Live CD" or can be installed fully on the hard drive. Ubuntu has really come of age and is rapidly becoming an incredibly useful alternative when looking for a robust, easy-to-use, free operating system. There is a special version for education community (includes new thin-client LTSP) at, and another version for old computers called Xubuntu at


  1. Steve -
    Will you be releasing this CoSN webcast as part of your FOSS/K-12Ed podcast series?


  2. Sorry! The CoSN webcast archives are only available to members. But we'll have other good resources up on the website for CoSN's Open Technology Initiative, as well as at



  3. Anonymous9:21 PM

    Is it just me, or is it pretty silly that a discussion on open source is locked behind a proprietary network? Seems to me that someone doesn't get what "open" means...

  4. Well, you have to remember that they are member-supported, and this was one of the benefits of membership. It's not cheap, I'm sure, to organize and host such an event. On the other hand, CoSN's K12 Open Tech website has a lot of freely-available content, and as I'll be working on that coming up, we'll see if we can't add more and more. :)

  5. Great list you have created Steve. Thumbs up!


  6. Steve,

    how about adding WordPress to your list? we've set it up here at CTAP 6 for our Writing in the Classroom classes.

    Brian Bridges

  7. This is a great list. I would second the nomination of WordPress and think it might be a good idea to add an OSS wiki, such as DokuWiki, MediaWiki, or other(s).

  8. Brian and Tom: thanks! You just added them to the list by commenting! :)

  9. Anonymous10:48 AM

    Is it worth adding Edubuntu as a specialist Ubuntu set up?

    There's also KidsKnoppix - though I've not tried that myself.

  10. Emma: I really, really like Edubuntu, and it's listed there as a part of Ubuntu. I'll check on the KidsKnoppix... :) Thanks.

  11. Anonymous10:34 AM

    Steve, thanks a ton for this list. I'm doing a little research on a post over at my place that calls for the adoption of FOSS in k-12 schools. With constant shrinking budgets and the call for more accountability every year, this seems the next logical step to take. How many millions of k-12 dollars are spent each year on software licensing?

  12. Rick:

    Be sure to check out my interview series on Open Source in K-12 at

    Why Open Source is not being more widely adopted--both "in" education and "as" education--is a fascinating part of a larger question about how technology is used in education... and how technology decisions are made in schools.

    Let's keep in touch!


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