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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 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.
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.
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.
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.
It is with heavy heart that I report that the Qimo4Kids Project, has ceased. This project developed and promoted Qimo4Kids, an open source educational operating system for children. Based on Xubuntu Linux, Qimo4Kids incorporated the Xfce Desktop Environment with collection of open source educational suites and software. The developers sadly announced via their now defunct Web site and via the Qimo4Kids facebook page that the project had not been updated in several years, due primarily to the fact that other things kept arising that prevented this. C’est la vie. They also felt that the project was not as poignant as it was when first created. This was a fun, engaging OS and the worlds of open source and education are the poorer for its concluding.
Arguably, storyboards provide the ideal way to introduce young academicians to writing. Story Maps is an open source application that provides young authors with a graphical interface with which they can plot their stories and a text editor to provide the details that will bring their stories to life. In short, Story Maps is a virtual storyboard. The developer who created this application did so as part of his post-graduate studies in conjunction with teachers, students, creative writing experts and an illustrator. It utilizes story elements commonly found in fairy tales.
Upon launch, the user is presented with Planning View, which offers a simple interface. The screen is divided into upper and lower halves. The upper half has a green background and offers tiles, called story cards, from which users can choose story events. The story cards are labeled and have a corresponding image to further convey their purpose. Hovering the mouse pointer over each story card enlarges it and provides the user with additional information about that particular story card.
These story cards can then, individually, be dragged and dropped onto the gray field in the lower half of the screen. Here, they can be arranged into a story map. Near the top of the Story Maps window is a menu bar offering one option, File. From here, users can save the current story, open an existing story, preview the current story, save the current story as HTML or print the story. At the bottom of the screen is a panel offering options to Write your story!, enter your story’s title and a button that allows users to sort story cards. The result is an interface that allows ready access to features and that is also aesthetically appealing and delightfully engaging.
Using Story Maps is easy. As mentioned above, simply click on and drag story cards to the canvas below. Once the story cards are selected, users click on the Write your story! button. This brings up the story editor that takes up the lower half of the screen, while the selected tiles move to the upper half of the screen. The current story card is displayed to the left of the editor.
The story card is described (e.g. Home: “How the story starts”) to the right and ideas for what to write are presented below this description (e.g. for the Home tile: “You could: Introduce the main characters and…”). Scrolling down in this pane brings the user to the editor where the stories are typed. Below this is a toolbar offering Cut, Copy and Paste options on the left and Save Story, Preview Story, Save Story as HTML and Print Story on the right. Prev and Next buttons with appropriate arrows are, respectively, on the far left and far right of this pane and allow users to scroll through tiles without having to leave the editor. Clicking on the Go back to planning button moves the editor pane down so that the writer can access the story cards.
In terms of exportability, Story Maps can save only to its native format and HTML. The HTML format is more like of snapshot of the sessions in question, as can be seen in the screenshot above. Printed pages look just like the HTML pages. The beauty of this is that the hard copy can serve as a graphic organizer when moving the story text to a word processor where the story can be viewed without graphic organizer components.
So, if you’re looking for an engaging application that serves as a graphic organizer and as a motivator to get young academicians writing, give Story Maps a try.
Story Maps is available for Linux, but there are similar Web-based programs available online.
The Story Maps Web site
Fernandez-Sanguino, J. (2012). Story maps: general commands manual. GNU General Public License.
Hammond, S. (2012). Story maps [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
As the new school year approaches, I thought that I’d shift gears again and write about something every teacher could use, but that few do: a means to electronically manage your classroom library and other resources. Tellico is an open source application that allows users to do just this. Tellico has been developed for the K Desktop Environment for UNIX and Linux, but is also available for Microsoft Windows and runs fine in UNIX/Linux without KDE. With Tellico, users can organize books, comic books, music and other media.
Upon launching Tellico, it can be seen that there are no surprises in terms of its interface. There is a menu at the top of the screen with a toolbar below this and a search tool to the right of the toolbar. Below these are three panes: one long one on the left and two panes, one on top of the other, on the right. The pane on the left lists authors for the given category. The top pane on the right lists books by the selected author and the bottom right pane provides information about the selected work, as shown in the screenshot.
Everything that you can do with Tellico can be done through either the menu or the toolbar. For example, clicking on the New button on the toolbar provides you with a list of catalogs that can be created. Here are the types of items that Tellico can be used to organize: books, bibliographic entries, comic books, videos, music, trading cards, coins, stamps, video games, wines (probably not at school, but home?), board games, and file listings. Plus there is a generic template available for other items not included in this list.
Once a type of collection has been established, most of the routine tasks can be handled using the toolbar. Tool tips provide users with more information about each button. For kicks, click on New and select New Book Collection. Now, let’s just jump in an do a search together. Clicking on the Search button opens the Internet Search window. Items can be searched by Title, Person, ISBN or Keyword. For my search, I chose HTML, XHTML & CSS by Elizabeth Castro. You may choose your own book.
My previous experience as a copy cataloger in a local library has taught me that the ISBN is often the fastest way to search, so that is the search criteria I will use. I select ISBN from drop-down menu under Search Query and type me book’s ISBN in the Search field left of this. You can also search for multiple ISBNs by clicking the checkbox next to Multiple ISBN/USP Search to the left, just below the Search field. To the right of this, select your Search source. Options include the Library of Congress (US), Google Book Search and ISBNdb.com, among others. I chose the Library of Congress. When ready, click the Search button right of the right of the drop-down box.
Surprise! My first search produced no results. I then tried searching ISBNdb.com and found my book. The key here, folks, is to be persistent and to be prepared to alter your search criteria. Just because the item doesn’t turn up, doesn’t mean that it isn’t out there. Notice that publication and cataloging information appear in a pane at the bottom of the Search window. Click the Add Entry button and the item will be added to your new catalog. Clicking the Save button opens the Save As dialog box. Here you can name your collection and select where to save it. All collections are saved in Tellico’s native format (.tc).
One of Tellico’s strongest features is the ability to customize fields of data for a given type of catalog. Clicking on the Fields button opens the Collection Fields window. Here fields can be removed, added or modified as users would like. Very useful for customizing your database. Another wonderful feature is the capacity to check materials out to borrowers. Simply click on the item in question, click Collection and choose Check-out… and the Loan Dialog window opens. Here you provide the borrower’s name and, optionally, a due date via the integrated calendar and you’re all set. You can even add a reminder to the aforementioned calendar.
The Settings menu provides easy configuration in a number of ways. The Filter option allows for querying of your collections using a wide range of criteria. Tellico can also be used to generate bibliographies for collections, something that could be very helpful with student research projects. The Configure Tellico option allows users to configure Tellico’s general functioning, printing, templates and data sources. Librarians should note that with the yaz library installed, Tellico can access z39.50 servers and read MODS and MARC (USMARC/MARC21 and UNIMARC) formats. I have been unable to determine, either way, whether or not Tellico supports exporting to MARC format. Finally, Tellico has a wonderfully integrated help feature.
Tellico could be just the thing you need to track classroom resources. You could even set up an old laptop in your classroom for just this purpose and have students do data entry for your books. This would be a great way to build skills such as literacy and problem-solving. Materials could even be checked out via this laptop. So, get started now and let Tellico relieve you of the stress of worrying about lent materials.
Stephenson, R. (2011). Tellico [computer software]. GNU General Public License.
Stephenson, R. (2011). The Tellico handbook. GNU General Public License. Retrieved from https://docs.kde.org/trunk4/en/extragear-office/tellico/tellico.pdf.
I am extremely excited to announce that my latest article, a tutorial entitled Learn Geometry with Dr. Geo, will be published by opensource.com. This is the first article of this nature that I’ve written that someone else will publish. I think that they did a wonderful job presenting the article and using my screenshots. Thanks to opensource.com for publishing this article.
It will be available here on August 22, 2016 (that’s 22 August 2016 for the 6.68 billion people not living in the United States).