I’ve recently come across a piece of open source technology that will not only take the struggle out of getting your kids to do schoolwork at home, but will also put them in control of this work while helping them to self-monitor and develop independence at the same time. AutoTeach will do all of these things. So, what is AutoTeach and how can it do all of this?
With AutoTeach Parent Tool, students earn credits which can be used to “purchase” time on the Internet. There are three components that make this happen. the first is the Credit Meter. The student logs onto this via his or her wi-fi device (tablet, game system, etc.). While this is running, the student can access the Internet. The next component is a Raspberry Pi. For those unfamiliar with Raspberry Pi, they are open source palm-sized computers consisting of a motherboard with a CPU and RAM, as well as audio, video, SD card (used as hard drive), USB and LAN ports. In short, they are fully functioning computers. The Raspberry Pi serves as router, Credit Meter and firewall. By default, the firewall only allows the students to access the third component of AutoTeach, the Credit Reader Web site.
The activities are just as engaging as they are educational. By completing activities to a predefined skill level, students can earn credits toward free Internet time. You may actually find your kids begging to do schoolwork. A really neat feature of AutoTeach is that credits can be awarded manually. This means that you could use it as a reward for completing chores or other activities that you would like to encourage. In terms of personal growth, students will have greater control over their learning and a greater enjoyment of it. Through monitoring their own progress and working independently, young people will develop a sense of independence as well as one of self-reliance.
Arguably one of AutoTeach’s greatest strengths is its capacity for growth. Developers will be constantly creating new plugins. There is also a development suite available, AutoTeach’s Development Sandbox, which will allow developers to create plugins on their own. The result is that potential for more plugins is limitless.
As you can see, I am very enthusiastic about this technology. So how do you acquire AutoTeach? It is available as a subscription. To learn more, check out some of the resources below to which I’ve provided links.
Cossé, C. (n.d.). AutoTeach your kids, advance education software development.
Thanks to Charles Cossé for permission to use the images that appear in this article.
I’d like to look at a nifty little media converter entitled WinFF. WinFF bills itself as an open source video converter. I refer to it as a media converter as it is capable of converting audio files as well. Truth be told, WinFF is actually a graphical front-end program for FFmpeg, which is a program run from the comand line that does the actual converting. WinFF simply allows users unfamiliar with the command line to run conversions using a graphic interface.
Before I begin, I want to say that I am running WinFF in Ubuntu Linux. Although WinFF is available for both Linux/UNIX and Microsoft Windows, the screenshots in this article will show WinFF being run on Linux and will also show a file manager, equivalent to Windows Explorer, displaying the contents of a CD, or as Linux refers to them, an Audio Disc, which is similar to a CD’s/DVD’s folder in Windows. That having been stated and without further adieu, let’s get to the point of this blog: converting media files using WinFF.
When initially launched, you will be presented with a window that should look like the screenshot at left. WinFF’s interface is WYSIWYG and you can see from the screenshot that the buttons on the toolbar (referred to as the Buttons in the WinFF documentation, which can be downloaded from their Web site) offer tooltips to provide more information about their function. Above the Buttons is a menu bar. Below these is an empty field where information is displayed during the conversion process. Below this are tabs pertaining to various types of media and a place to specify your output, or destination, folder.
I will be converting the CD shown in the screenshot at right. It was a gift from my niece (Love you, Ayla) and I’m anxious to add it to my MP3 collection. Place the audio CD in your DVD drive. A window will open asking you what to do with the disc that has been placed in the drive. Choose to open it in file manager. This way you can view the files on the CD. WinFF and FFmpeg support WAV files, but not CDA (Compact Disc Audio) files. Your CD is likely to have files in either format. Once you’ve checked the contents of the CD or, as WinFF refers to this type of media, Audio Disc, you can start WinFF.
Once WinFF has opened, click the Add button. This will open the Select Video Files window (shown at left), which looks like a file manager. Select the files that you wish to convert (Tip: You can press the CTRL and A keyboard keys simultaneously to select all pf the files) and click the Open button. This window will close and return you to the main WinFF window.
Now, set your desired conversion format and preset. For this type of action, Convert to should be set to Audio and the Preset to MP3. Next, choose your destination folder. This is important as it will make finding your converted files easier if you place them in a precise location. Clicking on the ellipsis (…) will allow you to select a more specific location than the default, which in Linux/UNIX is your home directory. When you are ready, click on the Convert button and the process will begin. The actual conversion process occurs in a terminal window as shown in the screenshot at right.
When the process is completed, you will be instructed to Press Enter to Continue (as shown in the screenshot above), which will close the terminal window and return you to the main WinFF window. The process is complete and you can now close WinFF. You may still want to rename your new MP3 files as they will still possess the generic name (e.g. “Track 1.mp3″) that they had while on the CD, but that can be done in a file manager at your leisure.
Ballard, F. (n.d.). FFmeg [software]. Lesser GNU General Public License.
Weatherford, M. (2013). WinFF 1.5 English Documentation.. GNU General Public License.
Weatherford, M. and Stoffberg, I. (2015). WinFF [software]. WinFF.org.
I want to look at a fun application entitled LinCity-NG. As the name would imply, it is an open source clone of Electronic Artis’ (EA) SimCity. LinCity-NG has evolved quite a bit since my first encounter with it ten years ago. It has an aesthetically appealing interface and is highly customizable in terms of features and game play.
LinCity-NG is also a wonderful way for students to learn about both economics and ecology. My reasoning for this is that this game requires users to build a civilization. In order for a civilization to grow it must first survive and then expand. Surviving means that you must have a successful economy with employment, resources and trade. These things fluctuate during the game and to succeed, you must be able to compensate for them. In terms of ecology, as you expand, you will encounter various types of terrain, such as wetlands, that you must work around as removing them is very expensive. You must also be aware that civilizations generate pollutants. These pollutants must be dealt with responsibly in order to avoid repercussions. Keeping these factors in mind, let’s take a closer look at LinCity-NG.
When initially launched, LinCity-NG presents the user with a straightforward interface. The screenshot at left displays the main menu. Clicking the New option opens a menu allowing users to select a scenario. Available options include Beach, good times and bad times, among others. Personally, I like to start with an empty board and when I create my LinCity-NG academic unit (forthcoming), this will be required so that all students start at the same level in the game. If you’re experimenting with LinCity-NG, by all means try different scenarios. The titles are self-explanatory.
Once your game starts, you will be presented with a map of the terrain upon which a civilization must be built. There is a panel on the upper left-hand side of the screen that provides access to available actions and structures. In the lower left corner is what looks like the control buttons on a DVD player. These allow users to accelerate and pause the simulation or to run it at normal speed. Users can also access the main menu from here. In the lower right-hand corner, is a panel offering a map, some buttons below it and several tabs. Both tabs and buttons allow you to view various information about your civilization, such as economic standing and resource availability, among other things. The map is laid out in a rhomboid shape. Check out the screenshot at right for an idea of the initial layout.
In the beginning, users can create only the bare minimum in terms of structures for their civilization. As your civilization grows, more options become available. This is what would make LinCity-NG an ideal platform for learning. All learners start at the same level. Each could be provided with a rubric identifying what their society must have in terms of services and industry at specified points in game time. For example, “By simulation year 60, your civilization should have Residences and Farms powered by Windmills.”
Looking at the panel in the upper-left corner, each button represents a category. The top button allows you to toggle between the Query tool (mouse pointer),the Bulldozer and Water. Clicking on anything with the Query tool will provide information about that item in the little map window in the lower-right corner. The next tool on the panel allows you to iniitally build Residential areas. You can choose from one of three options, each of which affects the population levels differently. The button below this could best be described as basic resources. These include at outset Market (where jobs are created and goods exchanged), Farm (for food) and Water well.
The next button opens a menu that could be best described as social services. Initially, Monument (something to give the citizens pride in their community) is the only option available, but others include School, Fire Department and Sport (like a basketball court). Transportation is the next category. The only option available is Track (like a trail) at first, but others such as Road and Port can quickly be unlocked. Power sources are next and none of these are available at start up time. Windmills however can be readily earned to provide power to Residences and Farms, as I indicated above.
Resource sources are next. The options available at the beginning include Commune (a place where such goods as coal and steel are produced), Ore mine and Rubbish tip (landfill). Other choices that become available are Coal mine and Recycle (recycling center). Industries make up the final menu. Pottery is the only option available at outset (like all industries in the game, Pottery converts resources into goods). As the game progresses, users have access to Blacksmith, Mill, Light Industry and Heavy Industry. If you haven’t got all of that committed to memory, don’t worry. One of LinCity-NG’s greatest strengths is its integrated help. Just right-click on any of these options for more information about them.
I could write more on this stimulating application, but I leave it to you to explore LinCity-NG for yourself. Your students will be enrapt. There is one more academic aspect of LinCity-NG that I neglected to mention and that is creativity. Though you can use it to teach students about economics and ecology, one fun aspect for the educator is the opportunity to observe the worlds that students will create and how they vary. Student creativity is often one of the greatest rewards that educators can enjoy.
Sharp, G., Keasling, C. and Peters, J.J. (n.d.). LinCity-NG [software]. GNU General Public License.
I’m going to walk you through the process I followed to update an old laptop into a useful computer. My thinking is that if I could do this, so could anyone else, especially educators in poorer school districts or even homeschoolers.
A friend of mine gave me an old IBM ThinkPad T40 (shown at right). It has an ebay value of around $40 (U.S.). It was built for Microsoft Windows XP and worked decently, save for the outdated software and hardware and the fact that the onbooard wifi didn’t work. I decided to make it into something a little more useful for today’s computing.
Here are some specs:
- Intel Celeron M processor at 1.5 GHz
- 512 MB SO-DIMM SDRAM
- 80 GB ATA Hard Drive
- BIOS Date: 2006-06-02
- 6x DVD-ROM
- 2 USB ports
- 2 Sound Ports (1 in, 1 out)
- On-board modem, NIC and wifi
As I saw it, the best and easiest course of action was to upgrade the RAM. This can arguably be said any laptop or desktop PC as it’s a fairly easy procedure and a fairly inexpensive as well. I bought my 200-pin SO-DIM SDRAM replacement module on Amazon, but there are many other places online where this can be procured. For those of you thinking “Chris, I’m not a computer repair technician. It’s too complex. I can’t do this,” I say “Yes, you can.” Internally computers are compartmentalized and therefore easy to work on, so long as you’re careful about electricity. Laptops are no exception. If you turn the laptop over, you will see various panels held in place with Phillips screws. The screenshot at left indicates the panel we need to open.
Once you have removed the panel (after taking out the screw, I had to use a small knife to lift the plate up), you will see the RAM module. You will notice two clips, one on the right of the module and one on the left (if you look at the screenshot on the right, you can see that the right clip is just to the left of the screw hole). These are simply pulled out away from the RAM module. The module will pop up and can then be slid out. Make a note of its positioning to make sliding the new RAM into place easier. For my RAM update, I chose a module offering 1.2 GB of RAM, which is a tremendous upgrade for this system and the maximum supported RAM. Slide the new RAM module into place, push down on it until it lies flat in its cavity and the clips will lock it down. Put the plate back on and we’re ready for the next step.
I chose to install Xubuntu Linux 12.04 LTS (Long-Term Support) 64-bit as Xubuntu 14.04 LTS presented a warning during installation stating that Celeron M processors do not support PAE (Physical Address Extension). If you have the time and the interest, however I have provided a link below to an article on working around this problem. In either case, I have provided a link to Xubuntu’s download page. Once you have downloaded the ISO file, you’ll need to burn it to a DVD as an image then place the disc in the DVD-ROM drive. You’ll also need to enter the T40’s BIOS and set the DVD-ROM as the primary boot device. To enter the BIOS, you’ll need to press the Access IBM key (located in the upper left corner above the keyboard) when you first turn the laptop on and choose Start setup utility from the menu. When done, save your settings and restart the computer. Installation will begin on reboot.
The reason I chose to install Xubuntu is that it is lighter than Ubuntu in terms of hardware demands, which makes it an ideal OS for older computers. You will be guided through through the installation process. When it is completed, you will be prompted to remove the disc and restart the computer. When it restarts, you can log in using the account created during installation. If all goes as it should, you should be greeted with a desktop like the one shown in the screenshot.
Regarding the on-board wifi, you will find many discussions online about this topic. Rather than to resolve it, I went on to Amazon and purchased a Panda Mini Wifi 150 Mbs Wireless-N 24 GHz USB Adapter. It plugs right into one of the USB ports and starts working immidiately. It provides a reliable connection and after a year and a half, I still have no complaints. You may want to install additional software, depending on your needs, but other than that, you now have a perfectly good computer for education, Web surfing, productivity, gaming or whatever your needs may be.
Energize Education through Open Source will be one of the books presented by Lulu Publishing at the Los Angeles Times’ annual Festival of Books at the USC campus on April 18 and 19, 2015. More information will be provided as it becomes available. For more information about the festival, click here.
While looking for a blog topic, I came across Colobot, a real-time, 3-D first-person strategy game that teaches users how to write computer programs. The pretense is an engaging one. The user is an astronaut who is equipped with robots. The user must use these robots (called “bots”) to make the planet he or she is currently on safe for human colonization (thus the name (“colony”+”robot”=”Colobot”)). In order to get the bots to accomplish tasks, the user must write the commands in CBOT, Colobot’s programming language, which is similar to the C or Java programming languages in its syntax.
Upon initial launch, the user is prompted to create an user account and character. The next screen presents the user with a switchboard interface that is graphically enhanced to make it appear similar to a control panel for a highly technical piece of equipment. Here users can configure Colobot and choose what kind of scenario they want to play out. The screenshot on the left shows this screen. There is a series of tutorials to help new users get accustomed to Colobot and the CBOT language, so this is what the author chose to do while experimenting with Colobot. The goals of each tutorial vary so the user can get a very clear idea of the missions that lay agead.
Once the game has begun, the user finds him or herself in the role of the astronaut. A button in the upper left corner allows for users to toggle between being the astronaut and being one of the bots. To command a bot, the user must open the Program editor (shown in the screenshot at right). Here the user instructs the bot on what to do. Commands include movement, rotation, location scanning and object manipulation, among other things. Looking at the simple script that the author created, you can see that the bot has been instructed to turn ninety degrees left (to turn right, -90 would be used) and to fire its flame cannon at the spider. Clicking the Execute/stop button will verify that the code will work. Click on the OK button and the program is executed (see the screenshot below).
One of the great components of this software is the help feature integrated into the Program editor. The help provided includes both general assistance relating to the CBOT language as well as assistance writing a program for the given training scenario. In the first instructional scenario, users are even provided with the complete program to complete the mission. The author called upon this integrated help repeatedly while learning to use Colobot and found it to be very helpful. The screenshot below shows a typical help session.
In closing, I just want to say that this is an engaging and imaginative way to teach young people how write computer programs. This application is greatly enhanced by slick, colorful graphics and fun, realistic sound effects. When users learn to write complete programs (as opposed to doing things one step at a time as the author did) that’s when things really become visually appealing. It’s fun and fascinating to watch a bot complete a task and automatically go on to the next one like a, you guessed it, robot. Colobot is available on Linux and Microsoft Windows platforms.
Colobot [software]. (n.d.). GNU General Public License.
This is a topic of great importance to anyone who has tried or wishes to try to introduce people to open source. For many computer users the mention of “open source” brings to mind Linux, what they perceive to be a computer geek’s operating system that is just too complex for regular people to use. Writer and technology coach Scott Nesbitt presents in this short video a viable way for people in the know to introduce open source to new users. He makes some damned good points, so you may want to take notes.
For this installment, I’d like to take a look at a piece of open source software (what else?) that allows you to view and modify hard drive partitions. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, please allow me to elucidate.
Modern hard drives offer an enormous amount of storage space. Imagine a massive warehouse in which you can store things. However, what if you need to section off space for certain things, such as office equipment? You might put in a room to house these things so that you can access them more readily. That’s where hard drives are like warehouses. You don’t always need one big space to store your data. You may want to section off, or partition, space on your hard drive for backup or maybe for personal files. If you use a recent version Microsoft Windows, your hard drive is already partitioned (one partition for your use and one partition for system restore files).
So, how do you partition a hard drive? This is usually done using a program called fdisk prior to installing an operating system. The reason for this being that adding or removing hard drive partitions can erase data on the hard drive in question. The only alternative is to use software designed to allow this process to occur while simultaneously protecting your data. This is where GParted comes into play.
Let’s take a look at the GNOME Partition Editor, or GParted, for short. When you start GParted, the program window will open and immediately start looking for hard drives and hard drive-like devices connected to your computer. Once such devices have been identified, GParted is ready to use. The screenshot on the left shows GParted displaying the partition table for the author’s primary hard drive (/dev/sda).
As you can see, GParted provides information regarding partition type, size and usage. In the case of the author’s hard drive, information regarding unallocated space is also included. Right-clicking on a partition will open a menu providing options such as unmounting the partition in question, resizing/moving the partition and even more information about said partition. Unavailable options are grayed out. Here you can also toggle the partitions from which your computer will try to boot, using boot flags. A toolbar provides moderate functionality, however, the menu bar near the top of the window provides the quickest access to features.
To demonstrate how easily partitions can be created, the author chose to create a partition on a 1 TB external hard drive. Simply right-click on unallocated space on your device and choose New from the menu. This will open the Create New Partition dialog box (as shown in the screenshot at right). Here you can enter such information as the size of the new partition, the file system (operating system type) and even a label for the new partition. When ready, click the Add button and GParted will do all the work.
When the process is completed, you’ll be presented with the main GParted window, which will display your newly created partition (see the screenshot to the left). Looking at the top pane in the screenshot, you can see that my new partition occupies the entire hard drive. Below this, a pane provides specific information. You will notice that the aptly named “New Partition #1″ has a fat32 (usually spelled FAT32) file system. I have given it the label “My Passport,” which is the name assigned to this device by the manufacturer. You’ll also notice that its size is 931.48 GB. Used space and unused space are blank and this partition has not been flagged as bootable.
So, what types of partitions does GParted support? The screenshot on the right shows a GParted window displaying compatible file systems. Not all file systems are supported. However there are a few worth noting. The file systems ext2, ext3 and ext4 are the most common Linux/UNIX file systems. You’ll also notice file systems fat16 and fat32, the latter of which I used for my partition on the external hard drive. These file systems were used in DOS and Microsoft Windows 95,98 and ME. Finally, you’ll see ntfs, which was/is used on Microsoft Windows NT, 2000, XP, Vista, 7 and 8.
This leads me to one of GParted’s strongest features -the capacity to possibly restore data from a hard drive. If you’re running GParted in Linux, gpart must be installed. If you’re using a live CD/DVD version of GParted, this shouldn’t be a problem. I used an older EIDE hard drive that had been damaged in a system-wide crash a few years ago. Click on the GParted option on the menu bar, hover over the Devices option and select the desired device from the list that unfurls. GParted will analyze the device and display its report as shown in the screen shot on the left. Clicking the View button next to each file systems found will open a file manager in read-only mode. Here you can peruse the recovered data and even relocate it to a safer place.
The best thing of all is that you don’t need to be using Linux to use GParted. The GParted Web site offers a download for an ISO file that can be burned onto CD/DVD, as mentioned above. Your computer can then boot from this disc into GParted. Once booted up, you can readily partition any hard drives you need to or engage in data recovery in the event of a crash. How cool is that?
GNOME Partition Editor (GParted)
Hakvoort, B., Gedak, C. et al. (2014). GNOME Partition Editor [software]. GNU General Public License.
Season’s Greetings, everyone. The holiday season is upon us, so I thought I’d take a break from my usual blog on open source educational technology and write about a something a little more lighthearted.
If you want to make your Linux desktop look more festive for the holidays, all you need is a little time to do this.
Perhaps one of the easiest ways to do add holiday cheer is to set your screensaver to Fuzzy Flakes. If you go into Settings, you can set the background color to something that might be a little more seasonally festive than the default pink. The screenshot on the left shows the Xscreensaver Settings window.
Next you’ll want to set a holiday-themed background.
Simply search for “linux christmas (or the holiday of your choice) wallpaper” in your favorite search engine and you’ll get plenty of hits. Choose one or several of your liking and download them. Once downloaded, use your desktop environment preferences utility to setup the desktop background of your choice. On a related note, you can also find Christmas/holiday themes for your desktop environment or window manager. Check out the great Window Maker theme that I installed in the screenshot to the right.
The next item you’ll want to obtain to complete that holiday look (at least if you live in the northern hemisphere) is Xsnow.
Xsnow is an application developed by Rick Jansen that generates snowfall on your computer screen. You may already have it installed. Open a terminal and type “xsnow” and it should start right up, if it’s installed. A gentle cascade of snow is not all that Xsnow gives you. You also notice tiny fir trees appear on your screen as well. To add to the fun, Santa can be seen driving his sleigh and reindeer through the snow with Rudolph leading the way. Xsnow can be customized in a number of ways, so I’d suggest you read the Xsnow manual page (type “man xsnow” in a terminal window) to learn more. The screenshot shows my Window Maker session dressed up for the holidays with Xsnow running to enhance the effect.
That’s all for now. Have a safe and happy holiday season.
Dmytro, B. (2004). Fuzzy Flakes [software]. GNU General Public License.
Jansen, R. (2001). Xsnow [software]. GNU General Public License.
Window Maker [software]. GNU General Public License.
Xscreensaver [software]. GNU General Public License.