Back to school with open source: Five tools for less stress and better learning

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For parents: Shopping for back-to-school supplies, textbooks, clothing, and other accouterments can be frustrating and expensive. To help take the sting out of this ritual, students and parents might consider turning to free, open source software and tools in preparation for a new year of study. 

For students: Beyond cost savings, open source software empowers students to take ownership of their work and be free of software licensing treadmills. And, perhaps the ultimate educational opportunity is the ability to examine, analyze, and contribute to open source software and tools like these.

For teachers: Turning theory to practice, students can learn by doing as they help with documentation, quality testing, bug review, or even code contributions. Teaching is not simply the delivery of content, via lecture-taxi, to passive minds. Participation and collaboration ignites powerful learning, and empowers students to engage in thoughtful, meaningful scholarship. And open source can be the catalyst.

Here are five great open source applications for learning. Share this list to your favorite student or teacher!


Annotation, journaling, and note-taking apps are incredibly popular on tablets and smartphones. Xournal brings these capabilities to the Linux desktop. Students can utilize Xournal to annotate PDF files and capture ideas. Alternately, teachers might use Xournal to grade submitted papers. Extra credit: Use Xournal in conjunction with GfxTablet, an app that allows you to draw on your PC via your Android tablet.

Kazam Screencaster

Forget Kahn Academy; put students in the driver's seat and let them teach the class. Screencasting is a powerful tool for demonstrating student mastery of concepts and ideas. Inspire students to become teachers, trainers, and digital experts with Kazam Screencaster, a simple desktop video and audio recorder.


 Microsoft may offer a reduced cost student edition of Office, but who needs it when LibreOffice can handle your productivity tasks with vigor and vim. LibreOffice is a flagship open source product and continues to set the bar for other collaborative projects. With the ability to handle standard Office documents plus Publisher and Visio files, LibreOffice is a personal productivity powerhouse and a big step toward student document liberation.


 Unleash your inner Mozart with MuseScore, a high-quality music composition and notation program similar to commercial software such as Sibelius and Finale. MuseScore boasts an impressive list of features and runs on Linux, Mac, and Windows.

Kojo Learning

Play with math, programming, music, and art in the powerful Kojo Learning environment. Based on ideas derived from innovative programs such as Logo and Geometers Sketchpad, Kojo offers a rich platform for students to explore the synthesis of mathematical ideas, coding, creative thinking, and learning.
What applications are loaded into your open source backpack? Are you already using some of these applications in the classroom? If so, tell us how in the comments below.

This post also appears on the Penn Manor Technology Blog and is republished with permission.

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Charlie is the CIO for Penn Manor School District in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and the author of The Open Schoolhouse.


Do you really want to use "vim" when discussing LibreOffice?

Folks might also use Anki for flashcard activity when they need to internalize a new vocabulary or set of concepts. Desktop and mobile clients can synchronize your progress via the Anki web sight.

Anki is worth exploring. I could see high school students taking on the role of teacher and authoring cards for younger students.

<a href="">Gobby</a> is a nice collaborative writing tool that could be used for group projects. Think of it as Google Docs without the Google, and Gobby can be used on a LAN. It runs on Linux, Windows, and Macs.

LibreOffice is really a good software and I highly recommend it to everyone. It does not look as good as MS Office but there are a lot of good features that MS Office does not have. You can also change the LibreOffice look through Mozilla Themes. So the look is not a matter. LibreOffice can be used as a replacement for MS Office even in big industries, business and in government.

Our teachers and students really like the clean LibreOffice interface. Less is often more; the streamlined toolbars are simple to use and in many cases, favored over the MS Office ribbon.

My great teacher of math, showed the Cabri (R) software (dynamic geometry).. it was a remarkable experience, I learned geometry spontaneously!

So, my suggestion, to teach dynamic geometry with GeoGebra

I don't mean to be highly critical, but LibreOffice is not yet up to par for compatibility with Microsoft Office. Many professors, teachers, and instructors require an electronic version of written assignments. When I have exported the document to Microsoft Office format, the document is garbled in Microsoft Office. Additionally, when I opened a presentation created in LibreOffice and exported as a PowerPoint Presentation, all of the images were lost.

I'm sorry to hear you had a bad experience with LibreOffice, Thomas. Our school district routinely opens and transfers .doc and .ppt files between MS Office and LibreOffice. Outside of occasional font substitution issues between Mac/Windows and Linux, I've not experienced or witnessed data loss or file scrambling.

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