So what is Window Maker and why would you use it in a primary classroom? Window Maker is a window manager (graphical interface) for Linux/UNIX operating systems. Its most distinctive feature would have to be the dock. This is a place where dock apps and quick launches for frequently used programs reside. The dock first appeared in the interface for the NeXTSTEP operating system. It has since been adopted by Apple for its MacOS interface, among others.
That leaves us with the question of why use Window Maker in the primary classroom? The Window Maker dock supports dock apps, which provide information about the computer system upon which it’s running and about the world around us. It is this latter type of dock app that is the focus of this article. Using these apps and a projector, teachers can do a daily almanac with their students.
Looking at the screenshot of my Window Maker desktop, we can see that I’ve placed my dock on the left-hand side of the desktop. The topmost tile is the GNUstep icon (GNUstep is a project of which Window Maker is a part, designed to regulate and promote open source window managers that employ this style of interface).
The next icon launches a terminal emulator. Below this is the WPrefs tool for configuring Window Maker. Now we get to the informative dock apps. Wmakerclock provides us with day, date and time (time can be displayed in either 12- or 24-hour mode). Wimmoonclock provides information about the current phase of the moon. Wmweather+ provides graphical information about the current weather conditions according to a local weather station. Wmsun displays the times at which the sun rises and sets for the given day.
Wmbubble provides graphical information about CPU and memory usage. Wmwork tracks time spent on projects. Below this are two wmdrawers that scroll sideways, providing additional space on the dock. Lastly, wmshutdown provides a convenient way for shutting down/rebooting the system.
So, how would I use the Window Maker dock in my primary classroom? If your computer is connected to a SMART board or Smoothboard, it’s easy. Start the day with wmclock, so everyone knows what the day and date are. Write the day and date on the board. Moving down, you can integrate earth/space science into your class with wmmoonclock, noting the current phase of the moon and possibly recording this data as well. Then, move down to wmweather+ for a look at the current weather. Students could even compare the weather presented here with what they see themselves. Be sure to record this data, on an electronic spreadsheet perhaps, for graphing activities. Finally, we look at wmsun to find out when the sun rises and sets for the day. Likewise, this data should be recorded as it could be used in activities involving the seasons, as well as earth/space science To add to student engagement, you could have a rotation allowing each student an opportunity to do the almanac.
To enhance visibility, I’d recommend running wmagnify, a magnification program that, in spite of its name, is unrelated to Window Maker. This will open a small window within which whatever is under the mouse pointer will appear magnified. This is especially useful for wmmoonclock which provides information about the moon’s orbit with a click, but which utilizes such small type that it’s hard to read.
There are a large number of dock apps available, so I invite you to do some exploring. Some do similar things to those we’ve discussed, but offer a different take on what they do graphically. I’ve given you a start. Now you can begin the school year with a daily Window Maker almanac. I’m anxious to hear from readers regarding what they did with this idea, so feel free to contact me.
The Window Maker theme, Cottage, seen in the screenshots is available here.
Window Maker Development Team. (2014). Window Maker [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
Vogt, M. (2012). Synaptic package manager. GNU General Public License.
Do you know a writer who would benefit from a distraction-free writing environment? This writer could be yourself, a student or a colleague. Distraction-free refers to any application that allows you to work without inundating you with menus, pop-ups and other distractions. Thus you can just focus on the task at hand. FocusWriter is a distraction-free word processor that exemplifies this concept.
Once launched, FocusWriter fills the screen with an image of a blank piece of paper resting on a desktop or table top, as shown in the screenshot. The user just has to start typing. By default, FocusWriter runs in full-screen mode. This blocks out the operating system’s graphics, including the desktop/wallpaper, icons, window widgets, taskbars and docks/panels (if your OS has them). With said distractions removed, the user need only concentrate on his or her literary creation.
Don’t let the apparent lack of tool and menu bars fool you. FocusWriter is a full-featured word processor with support for .TXT, .RTF and .ODT file formats. Integrated features include, but are hardly limited to, text formatting, spell-check, a search-and-replace feature, smart quotes and autosave. Once a user has saved his or her work, this piece will be opened by default the next time FocusWriter is launched. Add to all of this the high level of customization available and you have a powerful writing tool.
Should you need to access the menu or toolbar, have no fear. Though said items are not visible on the screen, they can be readily accessed. Hovering the mouse pointer at the top of the screen causes the menu and toolbar to drop down. From here, users can save or load files, format text and adjust settings, among other things. Moving the mouse pointer to the bottom of the screen reveals a bar that lists open files in tabs, tracks the word count, tracks daily progress and provides a digital clock. Moving the mouse pointer to the left-hand side of the screen presents a panel that can be expanded to allow for easy page navigation. Opposite this, on the right-hand side of the screen, hovering your mouse pointer opens a scroll bar.
For educators, FocusWriter has much to offer. A timer and alarm can be set up so that students, and their teachers, can verify the amount of time invested in writing. Daily goals can also be established and monitored. It’s possible to enhance the distraction-free environment by adjusting the Focus Text option under the Settings menu. Here, lines or paragraphs not being currently worked on can be set to appear as faded. Students will love the fun ways in which FocusWriter can be customized. There are four themes from which to choose (I chose Space Dreams for the screenshot), as well as an optional typewriter sound effect. Finally, FocusWriter is available in over 20 languages. Get FocusWriter now and enter the world of distraction-free writing.
FocusWriter is available for Linux, Microsoft Windows and MacOS.
Gott, G. (2017). FocusWriter [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
Gott, G. (2017). FocusWriter. Retrieved from https://gottcode.org/focuswriter/.
This blog has danced away from open source educational technology of late, so I’d like to come back to my original inspiration for this blog -the aforementioned open source educational technology. I want to look at an educational suite designed with younger users in mind. pySioGame is just such a suite.
This application offers a delightful, engaging, intuitive and colorful interface. To the left of the main screen are two columns. These serve as your application menus. The left column lists categories of activities. The right column lists the activities for a given category. The scrolling wheel on the mouse can be used to navigate through both these menus.
Below the main screen is a gray field in which the title of a selected category or activity is displayed. This makes it easy to find a desired category or activity. The initial start-up conditions make it very easy to modify settings via the Settings button. You can add users, adjust the integrated narration (called eSpeak) and select a language, among other customizations. Completion of, and navigation through, the activities is handled through either the mouse or the cursor keys.
So, what kinds of activities are available in pySioGame? Here’s a brief list:
- Language Arts: letter and recognition and writing, reading, vocabulary
- Mathematics: number recognition and writing, counting (one-to-one correspondence), addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, geometry, time
- Art: color recognition, color exploration, paint application
- Memory activities
- Keyboarding/typing tutorial
- Games, leisure activities for one or more players
This list hardly does justice to the activities contained in pySioGame. Activity use is just as engaging as the interface would lead users to believe. Most activities require the user to use the mouse to click on an item and drag it to the appropriate box or place. Alphabet writing activities are done using the mouse. Certain activities require input via the keyboard.
Once an answer has been submitted, click on the green checkmark to the left below the main screen. Opposite this in the lower right corner are navigation controls and a button to end the session. As mentioned above, speech synthesis is integrated and it identifies items below the mouse pointer as well as given answers. Correct answers are rewarded with a splash screen and verbal reinforcement, both of a positive nature.
pySioGame is available in many languages including Spanish, German, Greek, Russian and English. Would be contributors are encouraged to contact the pySioGame people. This is an ideal educational suite for young learners and a fun way to reinforce what the older kids already know. pySiogame is available for Linux and Microsoft Windows.
pySioGame SourceForge page (for Downloads)
Imiolek, I. (2017). pySioGame [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
Getting back to educational technology, I’d like to focus on a tool that music teachers and their students will love. Rosegarden is an open source application for composing, mixing and editing music and sounds. It was developed around a MIDI sequencer with an understanding of musical notation and featuring support for digital audio.
Rosegarden is feature-rich, although this depends on the available hardware resources. The more recent or “cutting edge” the hardware, the more features available to the user. Rosegarden supports the importing and exporting of MIDI files. One caveat regarding this is that the Rosegarden Manual states that information about the file in question will be lost if the file is not saved in Rosegarden’s native .rg format. Such files are referred to as Rosegarden Project Files and contain all of the musical note information of the file in question as well as MIDI controller settings, plugin details and the names of any audio files included in the composition. Other supported sound formats include, but are not limited to, Csound, Hydrogen and MusicXML.
The default track-based overview allows users create sound “segments” by clicking-and-dragging or by double-clicking on the desired sound file. Additionally, Rosegarden offers some powerful editing tools. These allow users to get their ideas down and to tweak them as desired. There are three editing windows -the matrix editor, the notation editor and the event editor. These windows share a common interface for ease of use. Musical notes can be entered using either a MIDI keyboard or a computer keyboard. Furthermore, all editors offer unlimited undo and redo. The pan and zoom interface near the bottom of the matrix and notation editors provides axis-independent zoom and fast navigation.
Rosegarden offers many other features. The notation editor allows users to view the musical notation of their work, which can provide an alternative view of a composition. This editor can be used simultaneously with other Rosegarden components. Rosegarden will automatically update the work, saving recent changes simultaneously in all instances of it running in other components. Sheet music can be printed using LilyPond, an open source music engraving program. In terms of audio, file creation is easy. As mentioned previously, external sound files can be dragged from a file manager window and dropped into Rosegarden. From there they can be moved, resized, repeated and more. The synth plugin allows for accurate synthesis of MIDI tracks. The full-audio-effects plugin allows for the addition of audio effects to the composition. Add to all this the capacity to integrate Rosegarden with other Linux sound applications via the JACK audio connection framework and you have a very powerful and flexible sound mixing tool.
If you’re serious about sound mixing, you should definitely give Rosegarden a test drive. Rosegarden is available in English and, thanks to volunteers, in Russian, Spanish, Finnish, Japanese and Indonesian to name a few other languages.
Rosegarden is currently available for Linux and Microsoft Windows.
All images property of the Rosegarden Team.
Cannam, C., Bown, R. & Laurent, G. (2008). The Rosegarden handbook. GNU Genreal Public License.
Laurent, G., Cannam, C. & Bown, R. (2008). Rosegarden [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
Regular readers (or should that be “reader”?) of this blog know that one of my favorite open source games with educational potential is LinCity-NG. This is a port of the classic game SimCity. What makes it ideal for education is that you could build integrated units focusing on ecology and economics, as, in theory, it is possible to create a society that is self-sustaining economically and in balance with the environment. I say “in theory” as thia has never been accomplished by me. Until now, that is.
In order to succeed in attaining such a civilization, you must have one that is economically stable. This means that your citizens have to be employed, fed and comfortable. You also need a
decent technology level (called tech level in the game), which can be attained by constructing Monuments early on, Schools late and, eventually, Universities. Once this has been attained, you will attain the ability to create four things essential to having a self-sustaining, ecologically-friendly society -Recycling Centers, Parks, Solar Power Stations and the aforementioned Universities. Recycling centers cut back drastically on waste and can even be used to empty Tips (landfills in LinCity-NG) as they produce ore, steel and other goods through recycling. Check out the screenshot and you’ll see a Tip that has been emptied by surrounding Recycling Centers. This limits the waste of society to such things as air pollution. To combat air pollution, build Parks around Coal fired power stations and other sources of air pollution to shelter residences. (hint: holding CTRL and P will create a park with a pond.)
Solar Power Plants generate MHz, which can be used to power light and heavy industry, textile mills and other facilities of this nature. To power homes (KHz), you’ll need to connect these to Substations. Once you have Solar Power Stations, you no longer need alternative, polluting energy sources, like Coal fired power stations. You also no longer need Coal Mines. This greatly minimizes pollution in general, but especially air pollution. The one caveat that I would offer is that Solar Power Stations can occasionally catch fire, so be sure to have Fire Departments nearby.
Finally, there are universities. There has to be four schools for every university. Also, universities are more expensive to run. What you gain in exchange for this is the opportunity to more rapidly increase your tech level.
So, I have shared my successes with LinCity-NG. I hope that this well inspire others. None of my previous ongoing games in LinCity-NG have attained this level of success. I hope that you can attain it as well.
In February 2015, I wrote an article on an encryption program that runs from the Linux terminal -bcrypt. I am retracting this endorsement, as bcrypt has been found to be an insecure means of encryption due to vulnerabilities. In lieu of bcrypt, I would recommend scrypt, which also runs from the terminal as well and is secure. For more information on scrypt, read the scrypt man page.
For further reading about bcrypt’s vulnerabilities, you can read an article from the Hacker News, here.
One thing that has chagned quite a bit since I was a kid is the attitude that schools and teachers have towards comic books. When I was a child, if you had a comic book in school, you wouldn’t have it for long, as such things were viewed as the antithesis of education. The attitude now is that so long as kids are reading, it’s a good thing, even if it’s a comic book, which I think is a big improvement. My middle school library has a fine collection of graphic novels, in addition to the other media that they offer. Anyway, I thought that I would write about some open source comic book viewers that work with graphic novel ebooks and that you could use in your classroom.
Comix. Comix is a very versatile and easily customized comic book reader. Ir reads most common image formats, not just .cbr (the native format for digital comic books). Comix supports the storing of comic book libraries as well as allowing users to adjust how they view their comic book reading. Users can zoom in and out as desired. As it presents one page from the comic at a time, the page being viewed can be rotated to suit the reader. For the die-hard comic book fan, media can be displayed in two-page format, if desired. Archive formats supported include .tar, RAR and ZIP. Comix supports the use of bookmarks to mark pages of interest. Comix features integrated archive editing. Though Comix is available only for UNIX-based operating systems, it is available in over 20 languages. The screenshot at left shows the author’s Comix session, displaying a page from DC Comics’ Batman: Gotham by Gaslight graphic novel, as do the other screenshots featured in this article.
QComicBook. QComicBook is highly customizable and provides the user with every feature that he or she would desire through either menus or its toolbar. The Read Me file will tell you that the developers of QCmicBook sought to keep convenience and simplicity at its core. In addition to comic archive files (.cbr), it also supports handling of .jpg, .png, .gif and .xpm image formats, as well as PDF files. Users can navigate through a comic or graphic novel via a context menu, navigation buttons on the toolbar or by clicking on images of pages in the Thumbnail pane to the left of the main viewing pane. Other features include automatic unpacking of archive files, full-screen mode, double page viewing and continuous scrolling mode, among others. QComicBook is available for UNIX-based operating systems.
MComix. MComix is based on Comix, but offers a few embellishments. These embellishments pertain predominantly to a few bug fixes as well as improved stability. MComix’s creators boast that it is both user-friendly and customizable. The interface is very approachable, incorporating a menu, a simple toolbar and a side pane for selecting individual pages. It is designed specifically for comic books and graphic novels, and supports a variety of formats, including .cbr, .cb7, .cbt and PDF. What makes MComix really great is that it is available for both Linux and Microsoft Windows.
I’ve presented three comic book viewers here. So what can you do with them in your classroom? Just as you might buy printed graphic novels for your classroom library, it’s just as easy to buy them in digital format. You could set up a couple of second hand laptops (they’re cheap on ebay) with libraries of graphic novels on them. Your students then sign up for a time to use one of these computers to do some reading. You could even provide them with a reading log so that they can keep track of where they’ve left off rather than to have multiple students using the same integrated bookmark feature, which could get confusing.
Augustyn, B. et al. (1989). Batman: Gotham by gaslight. New York: DC Comics.
Casillas, L. & Brunner, M. (2013). MComix [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
Ekberg, P. (2009). Comix [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
Stolowski, P. (2012). QComicBook [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
Stolowski, P. (2012). QComicBook read me. Retrieved from https://github.com/stolowski/QComicBook/blob/master/README.
You can’t say that open source developers don’t appreciate the holidays. So, why would I make such a strange statement? Well, bear with me, while I elucidate on this.
Let’s take a look at a piece of open source software with which you’re probably familiar –VLC Media Player. VLC is a versatile media player, available for Linux/UNIX, Apple MacOS and Microsoft Windows, to list a few of its available platforms. Formats supported include, but are certainly not limited to, AIFF, AVI, MIDI, VCD, Apple QuickTIme, MP4, Ogg, DVD video and WAV. So, how does this versatile application get into the holiday spirit? By default, when it is launched, the VLC window displays a picture of an orange and white striped cone, like one you’d see at a construction site. Starting one week before Christmas, this image changes to an orange and whitecone bedecked with a Santa hat.
The next program I’d like to address is Potato Guy. As the name would imply, this is a port of the small children’s toy, Mr. Potato Head. This game was developed by the same team that developed the K Desktop Environment (KDE) and is one of the games that can be installed as part of KDE. It can also be run just fine without KDE. The biggest difference between Potato Guy and Mr. Potato Head, apart from the former being software, is that it offers a variety of what it refers to as Playgrounds. These include, among others, two Potato Guy sessions, Robin Tux (Robin Hood with Tux, the Linux Penguin), Robot Workshop, The Moon and, you guessed it, Christmas. The user has access to tree decorations, presents, snowflakes, stars and an interesting assortment of animals that can be used to create a jolly little woodland Christmas scene. Potato Guy, also known as KTuberling, is available for UNIX-based operating systems.
Another game that gets into the spirit of the holidays is SuperTux.. SuperTux is an open source spin-off of Nintendo’s Super Mario. Using keyboard or joystick, the user has to guide Tux the Linux Penguin across Antarctica on a quest to rescue his girlfriend Penny from the evil Nolok. On the way, Tux has to jump over or duck under obstacles, avoid or overcome adversaries and pick up goodies. Tux eventually discovers red flowers that endow him with firepower, the attainment of which is indicated by Tux donning a red firefighter’s helmet. This time of year, however, the red helmet appears as a Santa hat, making Tux look very festive indeed. SuperTux is available for UNIX-based operating systems, Apple MacOS and Microsoft Windows, among others.
Finally, there’s a little program that will liven up your Linux/UNIX desktop for the holidays, xsnow. Xsnow can be run from a terminal and, by default, puts fir trees on your desktop, makes snow fall and wind blow and even shows Santa and his reindeer riding though it all. The snow flakes actually accumulate on open windows and menus. Xsnow can be configured from the command line to tweak options like background color, trees/no-trees, number of snowflakes, wind speed and the size of Santa’s sleigh to name a few. You can read all about these options in the xsnow man page. Xsnow is available for UNIX-based operating systems.
So now you can liven up your computer experience for the holiday season. From all of us here at Energize Education, we hope you and your family have a joyous and safe holiday season!
Bischoff, E., Calhoun, J. & Cid, A. A. (2016). KTuberling [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
Jansen, R. (2001). Xsnow [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
SuperTux Team. (2016). SuperTux [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
VideoLAN. (n.d.). VLC media player [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
Anyone who has been using Linux/UNIX for a long time will have to admit that offerings in terms of desktop environments have improved immensely. For those unfamiliar with Linux or UNIX, a desktop environment is a graphical interface (mouse pointer, background, window rendering, etc.) that is completely self-reliant in terms of support programs (file manager, text editor, etc.). If unfamiliar with Linux or UNIX, you might say “What’s the big deal?” The big deal is that most window managers (another form of graphical interface and part of a desktop environment, but that lacks self-reliant applications like its own file manager) do not. There are a variety of desktop environments out there, such as KDE, GNOME, MATE, LXDE and FVWM Crystal, for example. However, I want to focus on the Xfce Desktop Environment and why I believe that it rocks.
Xfce has evolved since its initial incarnation as an open source alternative to the (then) proprietary CDE (Common Desktop Environment) to take on a life of its own. Xfce was originally XFCE (XForms Common Environment, the “X” coming from the “X” in X Window System, the official name of the Linux/UNIX graphical interface system), but now Xfce is no longer an acronym for anything. So, why do I think Xfce is so special?
First of all, unlike desktop environments like KDE or GNOME, Xfce is fairly light on system resources. This means that it will run well on older hardware. This makes it ideal for anyone or any organization that cannot afford the latest cutting-edge hardware. Public schools come to mind here. Another reason why I love Xfce is that it supports a high level of customization. Its appearance and function can be easily modified through context-sensitive menus. This includes such things as appearance, system performance and accessibility to name a few. Xfce can easily look like any graphical interface that you can imagine.
Another feature of Xfce that relates to appearance and that I have come to truly value is panels. Panels, often referred to as docks, are bars that can appear horizontally or vertically on your desktop, providing a place to put things like a main menu launcher, a clock or a quick way to launch frequently used programs. Xfce requires that you have at least one panel. It does not, however, have any requirements as to what you do with that panel. That panel can serve in any capacity that you desire. You can even auto-hide the panel so that it only appears when your mouse pointer hovers over it. The screenshot at right shows what the author has done with his panels. There are three types of panels offered: horizontal, vertical and deskbar (this latter panel is vertically aligned, but the contents are aligned horizontally. This is ideal for wide-screen computing).
This leads to another one of Xfce’s useful features, Panel Plugins. These plugins enhance functionality and provide information about your system and the world around you. Available plugins include ways to track open applications, ways to monitor system resources and a means for keeping informed about time and the weather, Launcher plugins provide a means to quickly launch your favorite programs. There are plugins for switching workspaces, creating desktop sticky notes, monitoring network traffic, monitoring project time, getting screenshots and even quick access to an integrated online dictionary. This list is by no means all-inclusive. If you have a job to do, there’s probably a plugin to help you do it.
Finally, I love Xfce’s ease of use. This is due to a number of things, but simplicity is key. The interface in general is approachable by default. Widgets and menus are where you would expect them to be. The Main Menu is straightforward, reminiscent of what Microsoft Windows looked like before XP. The menu opens providing users with direct access to what they’re looking for, organized by purpose (Communications, Office, etc.). Context menus (opened with a right-click) allow for ready modification of any component. If this isa’t appealing, users can easily change the way Xfce looks and works using these menus.
In closing, if you haven’t tried Xfce, maybe you should. It’s light, simple and effectual. What’s not to like?
Xfce Development Team (2016). Xfce Desktop Environment [computer software]. GNU General Public License.