BRLTTY is a background application that runs in UNIX/Linux and that provides access the Linux/UNIX console for a person using a refreshable Braille display, which is connected to the computer. BRLTTY also serves as a driver for the connected device so that it will run on a UNIX/Linux computer. Like all of the software I review here, BRLTTY is open source. Let’s take a look at what it can do for its users.
BRLTTY is feature-rich. These include the usual screen review facilities one would expect to find, as well as cursor options (block, underline or none) and underlining for highlighted text. One feature that I thought was wonderful was screen freezing. This allows users to review output at their leisure. Intelligent cursor routing allows for users to readily fetch the cursor in such applications as a word processor or Web browser without having to move their hands from the Braille display. There are far more features available than I could cover here.
In terms of capabilities, BRLTTY has much to offer. For example, it can be configured to run at system start-up to help users log onto the system. It supports scrolling back to review prior messages (those that came up during the boot process for example). BRLTTY supports video modes which offer more columns and/or rows than the default 80×25. It also offers basic speech support and a preferences menu. Supported Braille displays include those manufactured by Alva, HandyTech and B2GBaum among others. Voice synthesizers supported include, but are not limited to, eSpeak, GenericSay and Alva.
If you’re in need of a full-featured console for a refreshable Braille display for a UNIX/Linux system, BRLTTY should meet your needs.
BRLTTY [computer software]. (n.d.). GNU General Public License.
BRLTTY man page. (22 December 2015). GNU General Public License.
Figure 1 retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plage-braille.jpg.
Figure 2 retrieved from httsp://asd-hs.wikispaces.com/file/view/braille-alphabet.jpg.
So, what is exportability and how does it relate to open source educational technology? Exportability is the ability of an instructional product to be utilized in a setting other than the one for which it was designed. How do you make an educational product exportable? It’s not as complex as it sounds. You simply need to create an instructor’s manual providing information about how to employ the product. That’s it. So, if you have a student for whom you’ve created some great instructional materials, be sure to create instructor’s manuals so the educators with whom your student will work in the future will know how to use them.
So, what is LibreOffice Math and why is it so important to computer programming? While most people are familiar with LibreOffice, LO Math, the equation editor, is arguably the least known component. On a whim one day, I decided to check out LibreOffice Math. The experience was an eye-opener. This is a wonderful tool for building equations. The interface is clean and there are features that any mathematician would savor.
Looking at the screenshot to the right, we see that the LibreOffice Math window is divided into three panes. The two stacked panes on the right constitute the Equation Editor. The pane on the left is referred to as the Elements window. The elements presented here are mathematical in nature and can be dragged and dropped to the top pane at right. The pane below the top right pane presents the equation in a written format, similar to that used in programming languages. The equation can edited here or in the pane above. This whole interface is topped off with a toolbar and menu bar at the top of the window. In regards to elements offered, these include unary/binary operators, trigonometric functions and mathematical relations, as well as providing examples and allowing users to customize the appearance of their equations.
What makes LibreOffice Math so ideal as a learning platform for burgeoning programmers is the fact that it provides them with a means to experiment with and to become more familiar with, Boolean Operators (and, or, not). Boolean Operators are used by computer programs to tell the computer that a decision must be made at a given point. For example, the line “if A=no then 100″ tells the computer that if the value of A equals ‘no” then the computer should proceed to line 100 of the program. It’s a fairly straightforward concept and a skill that should be cultivated early in would-be programmers. If they have this principle mastered when they first start writing computer programs, then they will be that much farther ahead in the game.
The equations can be fairly complex, depending on the need. There is a fairly all-inclusive library of equation expressions to draw upon. Looking at the screenshot above, you can see my modest creation. It is a circuit created in discrete mathematics. To the layman, it simply reads “‘A and B’ or ‘B and C’ not ‘A and C'”. Imagine what an enthusiastic learner could accomplish.
My advice is to take a look at LibreOffice Math for yourself. You’ll see my point. When you’re comfortable with it, introduce your students to LO Math. Once they are familiar with it, you should be able to step back and watch the magic unfurl.
LibreOffice 5.4 help: Instructions for using LibreOffice Math. (n.d.). Mozilla Public License.
Retrieved from https://help.libreoffice.org/5.4/gu/text/smath/main0000.html?DbPAR=MATH.
This is an update of an article I ran three years ago on customizing Linux for the holidays. The biggest difference is that the Window Maker theme used is of my own design.
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.
f 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. If you’re experienced in creating Window Maker themes, it’s easy enough to design your own. Check out the great Window Maker theme, December, that I created 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 [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
Jansen, R. (2001). Xsnow [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
Whittum, C. (2017). December [computer software]. GNU General License. Retrieved from http://christopherwhittum.com/window-maker/.
Window Maker [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
Xscreensaver [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
There is a huge push in our schools to introduce learners to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and to cultivate student interest in STEM. The reason is obvious. These are fields of technology that will be generating jobs in the future as well as making our world a better place. So, why do I say that STEM education and open source is a match made in heaven? Let me elucidate.
First of all, there is an enormous volume of open source software that involves STEM in one at least one capacity. Better still, many of these applications are free! Looking at the screenshot at left, we see the author’s session in Synaptic, a software management application for Ubuntu Linux. In the lower left-hand corner of said screenshot, we can see that my search for “math” generated 855 hits. Granted, not all of these are necessarily developed for elementary or secondary classroom use, but you’re sure to find an application that will meet your needs and pique your students’ interest.
One strong argument is the variety of applications available to help students learn computer programming. There is almost literally something for every taste. My regular readers will know what a big fan I am of Colobot. The premise is that you are an astronaut preparing a planet for colonization. Towards this end, you have programmable robots at your disposal. They just need instructions (programming) in order to do their jobs. The screenshot to the right shows Colobot’s Program editor window. For the artistic, KTurtle, part of the KDE Education Project, allows users to enter code to create colorful patterns. Laby gives the user a chance to troubleshoot and guide a robot ant through a maze, avoiding or overcoming obstacles. Laby even allows users to select from a variety of programming languages with which to work. Etoys integrates art and computer programming by allowing users to create pictures and then to animate these pictures using Squeak, Etoys integrated programming language. There are other applications, so please shop around to find one that you believe would best stimulate your students’ inner programmers.
Another supporting point for my claim is the number of programming languages available with the installation of an open source operating system, like Linux or BSD UNIX. Among these are C, C++, Python, Perl, Java and Ruby, which are among the better known, but there are others as well. Your students can use the above applications to learn to write computer programs and then chose a language through which their newly attained programming skills can be applied. Each language has its strengths (Perl, for example, is ideal for working with strings of text). I think the best approach is to help students select the programming language that best matches what kind of program that they would like to write..
Probably the strongest argument for my claim is that open source, by its nature, invites the curious. As users, students have a right, under the GPL (GNU Genreal Public LIcense), to change the software with the intention of improving it. For example, in Colobot, users can customize their astronaut (hair color, sunglasses, etc.). The one thing that can’t be customized is the gender of the astronaut. It’s always a man. We need a female astronaut as an option. How cool would it be to be able to say that your students created a female astronaut for Colobot? Or added enhancements to other pieces of open source software? Students could look at the development history of the software and see their contribution listed. How’s that for a well-deserved feeling of accomplishment? It might take a little time to find open source software that your STEM students will love, but the rewards will be worth it.
Breijs, C. (2017). KTurtle [computer software]. KDE Education Project: GNU General Public License.
Colobot [computer software]. (n.d.). GNU General Public License.
Etoys [computer software]. (n.d.). GNU Genreal Public License.
Laby [computer software]. (n.d.). GNU General Public License.
Vogt, M. . Synaptic [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
One of the two people who reviewed my book on Amazon stated that he was disappointed as he expected a collection of lesson plans with open source technology integrated into them. My line of thought was that I’d put enough effort into researching, organizing and presenting the book’s contents that I really didn’t want to construct lesson plans to go with the software. Here, I attempt to amend this. This activity incorporates science (ecology), mathematics and physical fitness. As this involves going outside, choose a week when the weather looks most cooperative.
This would work best with students in primary grades, but could be modified for intermediate-level students with ease. The best time for this is at the height of the fall season, when plenty of leaves litter the ground. Each student will need a plastic grocery bag or food storage bag. Each student will also need a Leaf Sorting Sheet (see below) and access to an electronic spreadsheet. In keeping with the open source theme of this blog, I chose LibreOffice Calc, but any such application will do. At the end of this article there are links to download the Leaf Sorting Sheet, in ODT format, and the Leaf Tally Sheet spreadsheet, which is in ODS format and can be used as a template to design your own. Note that the species of trees listed on these two items are indigenous to the northeastern United States, so please feel free to adapt them to match species found in your vicinity.
Introduce the activity by asking if anyone knows what a safari is. Tell your students that we’ll be going out to the playground on a leaf safari and, in so doing, will learn a little about local ecology. They are to collect as many leaves as they can, but they should try to select a variety of leaves. When we’re finished, we’ll take a look at what we’ve got and make spreadsheets and graphs showing our findings.
Head out to the playground, preferably between recesses, so your students will have fewer distractions. Give them 20 minutes to complete this task. They can work with a partner, if desired. At the prearranged time, call them back and head back to the classroom. Each student/group will need a Leaf Sorting Sheet. Give the students 10 minutes to sort their leaves and be prepared to answer any questions that may arise regarding leaf types and sorting practices.
When the sorting is finished, you can have your students open the spreadsheet that you have previously created. I’d suggest using mine as a template and make any changes needed to it. Anyway, each student, or group of two students, should have his or her own spreadsheet into which they will enter the quantity of each collected leaf type. When done, guide the students, if necessary, preferably using a projector connected to your computer, through the chart creation process. This will provide them with a graphical representation of their leaf collections. These graphs can be printed and put on display in the classroom. For closure, ask students what they may have learned while doing this activity. Were some species of leaves more prevalent? What does this tell you about the kinds of trees that grow in this area? Now that you now how to put data into a spreadsheet and to create graphs, in what other tasks could you use these tools?
I hope you’ll find this activity useful and that you and your students both enjoy and learn from it. I welcome any comments or ideas.
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.