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    Copyright 2013 Christopher D. Whittum, M.Ed.

    PortaBase -Database for Handhelds and PCs

    PortaBase logo,portabasePortaBase is an open source application that makes database design and management easy.  It was initially designed for the Maemo operating system (which runs on SmartPhones and tablets), but it runs just fine on desktop PCs.  I was drawn to PortaBase predominantly because its ease-of-use reminds me of FileMaker Pro, one of the easiest database applications to use.

    Simple Interface

    portabase,energize education
    Database creation in PortaBase

    The first aspect of PortaBase that I’d like to address is its interface.  It’s simple, yet in its simplicity lies genius.  A menu and toolbar at the top of the window provide all of the features needed to create and manage a non-relational (single table) database, which is fine for most users.  By default, a newly created database looks similar to a spreadsheet.   Clicking on the headings will sort the table according to that category.

    Straightforward Database Creation

    Creating a database is easy.  Upon start, users are prompted to do that or to open an existing database.  Next, a window will open in which users can create their database by naming and assigning a data type to each field (referred to as Columns when in database view).  Available field types include String, Integer, Decimal, Boolean, Note (multi-line text), Date, Time, Calculation, Sequence, Image, and Enum (used to define user-defined data types).  .Additionally, in terms of security, users are given the option to encrypt a new database when it is created.P ortaBase can import files from SV, XML, and MobileDB formats and export to CSV, HTML and XML.

    Just Jump in and Start Adding Records

    portaboase,energize education
    Available data types in PortaBase.

    When the database has been set up, the user needs to click the Add Row button.  As each record is added, it will appear in the database table as a Row.  In PortaBase, a Row constitutes one item listed in the database table.   Once there is at least one Row available, it can be clicked on to open the Row Viewer window, presenting all data in that row in a single window.  If you’ve added an image Column and have added an image to each Row, this is what must be done to view the image.  This window can be easily quickly to return to the main screen.  Finally, querying the database is made easy through Quick Filter.  Simply click on the desired Column and set the criteria for the search (e.g. Column: “First Name”, Search criteria: “Juan”). Databases can even be printed without the need to generate a report, as is often required in more complex applications of this type.  Another great feature is the integrated calendar for adding dates.  Users can use navigation arrows to find a desired date.

    Everyday Use

    portabase,energize education
    The PortaBase Row Viewer

    What kinds of things can be done with PortaBase?   PortaBase has a number of potential uses in the classroom.  It’s ideal as a means to track media, such as books in a classroom library.  Next, reference charts can be created easily for classroom handouts.  Furthermore, It’s ideal for creating to-do lists, which could be modified into a student job chart.  Finally, lists of needed supplies and materials for class projects can also be easily created.  PortaBase is also a great way to introduce learners to databases.

    I can’t guarantee that PortaBase will resolve all your classroom problems.  It can, however, be used to streamline your classroom and students’ learning experiences.  Take a look.  Give it a try.   You may be pleasantly surprised, like I was.


    PortaBase Homepage



    Using LibreOffice Calc to Make a Gradebook

    In this era of Student Information Systems, the idea of using an electronic spreadsheet to create a gradebook may seem a bit outdated, but not all schools or districts can afford an SIS or have the resources to implement one.  Furthermore, homeschoolers hardly need an SIS to track student performance.  For these groups, an electronic spreadsheet makes a fine gradebook and, in keeping with this blog’s focus on open source, I’m going to use LibreOffice Calc, a spreadsheet  in an open source office suite, to do this.

    energize education, libreofice calc
    Look at all those wonderful cells!

    First, a quick vocab check.  A spreadsheet is an application designed to work with numbers.  It’s divided into columns and rows, much like a checkbook register or ledger.  An individual spreadsheet is referred to as a worksheet.  Columns are identified by uppercase letters, called column headers.  Rows are identified by numbers, called row headers.  An exact spot where a column and row meet (e.g. A1) is a cell.  An individual cell would be identified, as shown above, by putting the column and row headers together (e.g. A1).  When a cell is clicked on, it becomes the active cell, which is indicated by a bold outline around the cell.    While working with the cells of a spreadsheet, the mouse pointer turns into a rectangle with which individual cells can be selected, or multiple cells, when clicking-and-dragging.  Cells can be customized in terms of the data they contain (text, number, etc.) as well as in terms of physical appearance (font color, background color, etc.).

    While typing in a cell, the contents will appear in the formula bar below the menu and toolbar near the top of the screen.  Near the bottom of the screen are sheet tabs.  Tabs allow users to have multiple worksheets in one spreadsheet.  This is ideal for a subject in which multiple types of data are collected (e.g. homework grades, assessment scores,  etc.).  Simply click the + to add a new tab as needed.

    energize education,libreofficeYour first step is to determine what grades you are going to record.  This is important as it affects the labels for each column head, among other things.  A spelling grade book might just have a date that corresponds to each weekly spelling test.  A math grade book might include multiple worksheets (one for homework, one for classwork, etc.).  For the sake of this article, I chose to create a math grade book.  Put some thought and planning into your gradebook and you’ll get more use out of it.

    In regards to my platform, I’m using LicreOffice 5.0 on Xubuntu Linux 16.04.4.  You should be able to do what I’m going to show you in any spreadsheet application, not just Calc.  You may want to consult your application’s documentation in regards to formula syntax.  Let’s get started and open Calc (or the spreadsheet application of your choice).  At the top of each column, you will want a column heading that will serve as a label.  The first cell in each column is reserved for a label and is exempt from sorting by default (we’ll take a look at sorting shortly).  In the first cell of the first column, type “Student Name“.  I’m putting student names (last name (well. the first initial of the last neme for the sake of confidentiality), first name) in one cell so that they can be sorted alphabetically.  Thus, if I get a new student, I can add his or her name to the gradebook and re-sort the names alphabetically so the new student’s name will be sorted in with the others.  The next header depends on the subject for which you’re making the gradebook.  As this tab will be for homework grades, I’m using dates.

    energize education,energize education through open source,libreoffice calc
    Resizing cells is easy.

    If you look at my screenshot, you’ll notice that my “Student Name” label doesn’t quite fit.  Most spreadsheet applications allow for easy column-width adjustment, which certainly aids in legibility.  Positioning the mouse pointer between two column headers turns it into a double arrow.  Just hold down the left mouse button and drag to the right to resize the column (as shown in the screenshot).  Row height can be adjusted in a similar fashion.  Regarding legibility, I also increased my font size from the default of 10 points to 12 points.  To do this, click on the “button” to the left of the A, B, C,… column headers and above the 1, 2, 3… tow headers.  This selects all cells in a worksheet and works in every modern spreadsheet application I’ve used.  Once you’ve done this, any changes you make (e.g. font size) will affect the whole worksheet.

    energize education, libreoffice calc
    Click and drag to automatically fill in dates.

    In the first cell of the second column (B1), I typed the date (9/1/17) which is automatically formatted as 09/01/17.  Hit the Tab key, which moves the cursor to C1, and enter 9/8/17.   One of the cool things about electronic spreadsheets is that they can detect patterns.  Click on CI, drag over cell D!.  Now move the mouse pointer to the lower right corner of cell D1.  It should turn to a set of cross-hairs.  Click and drag a few cells to the right. and continue on to select cells EI, Fi and so on.  The dates will automatically be filled in.  Thus you can fill in dates for the entire semester/trimester/term).  For the last column (column I) of the semester/trimester/term, type in the heading of your choice (Average, Grade, etc.).

    energize education
    Look at the formula in the formula bar.

    In cell I2, type the following (also shown in the formula bar screenshot): =average(b2:h2). In human terms, this means that cell I2 will present the average for the numbers listed in cells B2 through H2, as seen in the screenshot.  As I look at my results, I see that my averages contain multiple decimal places.  This is fine for complex mathematics, but I just want to display to the average to the closest half point.  Right-click on the I column header and choose Format Cells....  In the Format Cells dialog box,  click on the Numbers tab.  Below the Category field are available Options.  From here, change the number of decimal places from the default (blank) to 2 or 1, depending on what your desire is, and click OK.  After having done this, you’ll see how much more approachable the numbers are (check out the screenshot).

    energize education, libroffice calc
    Our finished gradebook

    One more thing that I’d like to share is the ability to rename worksheets to help yourself and others navigate your gradebook.  Double-clicking on a sheet tab opens the Rename  sheet dialog box.  Simply type in the new name and click OK or press Enter.  It’s that easy to customize your new gradebook.  You should now be able to create a gradebook yourself using a spreadsheet application.  If you have any questions, please contact me.  Good luck creating gradebooks!



    LibreOffice Web Site

    WriteType -a word processor to help students write

    While looking for an open source technology to review, I came across WriteType, .an open source word processor geared towards school-age children.  I work in special education in a middle school and all too often I hear students lament about having to type out assignments.  WriteType through the combination of an accessible interface and valuable features, strives to be a word processor that students can readily use.

    writetype,energize education through open source,energize education
    The WriteType window

    Let’s start by checking out the WriteType window, shown in the screenshot at left.  As can be seen, the interface is WYSIWYG, offering a menu bar and the top of the window and simple toolbars below this.  WriteType offers only the most common word processing features, such as text and paragraph formatting.  Features can be quickly and easily utilized via either the menu or the toolbars.  Simply put, everything a user needs is here.  There are no tabs or complex menus offering features that can confuse new users and into which one could get lost .  This functionality is further enhanced by context menus accessed by right-clicking on the text or area in question.

    writetype,energize education,christopher whittum
    Note the Word Completion list on the right

    So, what makes WriteType ideal for students?  The integration of certain tools takes much of the pain out of writing.  One of these tools is word completion.  As the screenshot on the right shows, as they type, users are presented with a list of suggested words in the gray field on the right-hand side of the screen.  Simply click on the the desired word in the list, or press an indicated function key, and the complete word is inserted into the document.  Another useful feature is the fact that WriteType can read back what users have typed, which will help them to catch mistakes prior to proofreading or printing.

    writetype settings,energize education through education
    WriteType’s Se tings window

    If these features aren’t reason enough to give WriteType some serious consideration, other features include auto-correction and grammar checking.  Users can also add words to the integrated spelling list.  Text highlighting allows users to mark areas of text in need of attention.  Distraction-free mode allows users to work without the added distraction of a menu and toolbars.  Other customizations include adjusting read-back speed as well as changing the font size of the suggested word list.  WriteType also offers multilingual support.  WriteType can be readily customized further via the Settings option under the File menu.  Documents can be saved in either the native WriteType format (.wtd), as formatted text (.html) or as plain text (.txt)

    WriteType is available for Linux, Microsoft Windows and Apple MacOS.  WriteType teacher workshops are available for free to schools in the Minneapolis area.


    WriteType Home Page


    Documentation: a word processor to help students write.  (n.d.).  GNU General Public License.

    Shinn, M.  (2010).  WriteType [computer software].  GNU General Public License.

    Partimus: Educational Opportunities Through Open Source

    Arguably, one of the greatest strengths of open source software is that it can add new life to old hardware. For example, I have a Dell laptop built for the now unsupported Microsoft Windows XP. The lack of support from Microsoft doesn’t bother me, because that laptop is now running Xubuntu 14.04 LTS. With this in mind, I’ve chosen to take a look at Partimus, an organization that refurbishes computers, installs open source software on them and then distributes the computers to students and schools that need them.

    Partimus logo

    Partimus Mission Statement: Provide educational opportunities through open technology to educators and students.

    Partimus (Latin for “we share”) is non-profit and currently serves schools in the San Francisco Bay area. This project was co-founded by Cathy Malmrose and Maile Urbancic. These two ladies share a passion for helping children succeed and for open source technology. They also share a background working in education. The organization is now run by a board the members of which share the passions that led to Partimus being established.

    Students working in a computer lab.
    Students using the new computer lab at the ASCEND School.
    (Photo from Robert Litt of ASCEND School)

    So, what kind of projects has Partimus been involved with? One program that they implemented that is somewhat close to my heart (see my blog of February 25, 2015, An Old Laptop Made New) is the Laptops for Linux Users (LALU) program. They accept donated laptops (better they should go to people who need them than to sit on a closet shelf forgotten). The people at Partimus then talk to the person who needs the laptop and they install the free and open source software needed to meet the user’s requirements. For example, on the Partimus site, they mention helping an elderly Washington state woman, Sky, who was a retired system administrator. Sky likes to help others, especially elderly friends, get into computing. She could not afford a new computer, so the people at Partimus matched her up with a laptop that fulfilled her needs. Now Sky provides elderly friends with laptops running Puppy Linux and helps them get started in computing.

    Computer lab in a school library
    The new computer lab in the library at the International Studies Academy.

    Partimus has also provided used computers running the Linux OS to schools in the San Francisco Bay area. Partimus donated over 20 networked, standalone Ubuntu Linux desktop computers to the International Studies Academy in San Francisco. This school has 420 students in grades 6-12 who are pursuing the study of foreign cultures, languages and geography. These computers provide Internet access using Mozilla Firefox and productivity via OpenOffice. Other schools that have received Linux computers and ongoing support from Partimus include the KIPP San Francisco Bay Academy in San Francisco, the ASCEND School in Oakland and the Computer & Technology Resource Center in Novato, among others. All of these organizations are non-profit.

    So you’re thinking “This is a wonderful organization, Chris, but what can I do to help?” There are a variety of things that you can do to help Partimus bring technology to those in need. They accept the following hardware: flatpanel monitors, laptops and desktops with at least 1 GB of RAM and CPUs at 2 Ghz (at least), optical mice and USB/PS2 keyboards. You can also give the gift of funds through monetary donations or through the patronage of such companies as AmazonSmile and Boutique Academia. For more information about how you can help or to ask them to help your non-profit organization with its computer needs, check out their Web site (link below).

    Partimus Home Page

    Information for this article was taken from the Partimus Web site.
    All images are from the Partimus Web site.

    Three Open Source Web Development Appllications You Should Check Out

    If you’re a Web developer, you probably have invested in Adobe Dreamweaver, which is a powerful, proprietary Web development application. There are open source alternatives that you should consider. Why consider open source? The biggest reason is financial expense. For Dreamweaver alone, without additinal packaged software, the price is $249.00. The software that I address here is free. Another reason to give these programs a try is that each of these develpment tools is full-featured, providing everything you need, plus a few surprises.

    energize education,energize education through open source,open source educational software,open source web development,bluefish,bluefish edior
    Bluefish Editor

    Bluefish. Bluefish has been called a developer’s HTML editor. This is because, unlike the other two programs addressed here, users work entirely with code in an environment similar to a text editor. This may seem daunting to new-comers to Web design, but many developers feel that this gives you complete control over every element of your Web pages. Bluefish can be readily customized through several ways. Toolbars are divided by tabs, according to categories (Forms,Frames, CSS, etc.). The Quickbar is an empty toolbar to which users can add frequently used tools offered by other toolbars. A menu bar provides a ready alternative to the toolbars. Bluefish can be easily customized through Preferences, offered under the Edit menu. Customizations can be applied to appearance, default document formatting, output parsers and plugins as well as to many other aspects of Bluefish. The screenshot on the left gives a good look at a typical Bluefish session.

    energize education,energize education through open source, open source web development,christopher whittum,kompozer
    KompoZer in split screen mode

    KompoZer. KompoZer is a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get; pronounced whi-zee-wig) Web authoring tool. In layman’s terms, this means that users can create Web pages graphically (typing, dragging and drppping, text formatting, etc.). KopoZer also allows users to work directly with the code. Furthermore, KompZer offers a split screen view that divides the work area into two panes. The top pane displays the current page in WYSIWYG mode, while the bottom pane displays the page in HTML/text mode. In addition to these interesting features, KompoZer offers everything a Web developer needs. Features can be accessed through a toolbar or menus. This includes customization. One neat feature is a tool that allows users to validate their code (HTML/XHTML) through a direct link to the World Wide Web Consortium’s Code Validation Service on the Internet. KompoZer is supported by Mozilla, the people behind such open source programs as the Firefox Web Browser and the Thunderbird email client. Check out the screenshot to the right for a look at KompZer in action.

    bluegriffon,blue griffon, energize education,energize education through open source,open source web development
    BlueGriffon doing it’s thing (thanks to the BlueGriffon team for the screenshot).

    BlueGriffon. BlueGriffon is a WYSIWYG Web authoring tool that allowing users to work in either a graphical environment or directly with code. This application, like KompoZer, is supported by Mozilla. BlueGriffon utilizes Mozilla’s Gecko rendering engine, which is used by Firefox to display Web pages. This means that Web pages created and viewed in BlueGriffon will appear the same in Mozilla Firefox as they do when previewed in BlueGriffon, regardless of the operating system being used. BlueGriffon has all of the features you would expect to find in a Web authoring program. Customization is easily handled through the Preferences option under the Edit menu. There are also a variety of add-ons offered on the BlueGriffon home page to enhance functionality. These include a user’s manual, a CSS editor and an integrated FTP client. The screenshot at left shows BlueGriffon being used to edit a page in text mode (thanks to the people at BlueGriffon for use of this screenshot).

    In closing, I just want to say that technology does not always have to be expensive and that just because you have not heard of an application, doesn’t mean that it won’t work for you. There are other open source Web development programs out there, so if you find that these don’t meet your needs, I encourage you to do a little research and find something that will. A little time and effort can save you money and possibly result in finding an application that will make you wonder how you managed without it.


    BlueGriffon Home Page
    KompoZer Home Page

    BlueGriffon [computer software]. (2010). GNU General Public License.
    KompoZer [computer software]. (2010). GNU General Public License.
    Sessink, O. et al. (2010). Bluefish [computer software]. GNU General Public License.

    Energize Education Tip of the Day!

    GIMP is a very powerful, feature-rich and versatile image creation and editing tool. Better still, it’s open source. Users can do everything from simple photo enhancement to creating lively, eye-catching graphics. Among the tools built into GIMP are a wide variety of brushes, special effects for customization and support for layers. Web masters can even use GIMP to create image maps. In short, GIMP has every feature you would expect to find in a modern image editing application.

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    The author created this parody of a popular product using GIMP.

    Energize Education Tip of the Day!

    If you’re looking for a full-featured spreadsheet application that is light on system resources, you should take a look at Gnumeric. Gnumeric is an open source electronic spreadsheet program that is free, fast, light and stable. Users will find all of the tools one would expect to find in a spreadsheet -a sum tool, statistical analysis, cell formatting and graph/chart generation and insertion. These are just a few of the useful tools available. So check out Gnumeric and find your next spreadsheet application.

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    Could Gnumeric be your next spreadsheet?

    Energize Education Tip of the Day!

    It’s summertime again (at least in the northern hemisphere). You’ll no doubt be taking lots of photos to cpature some memories. If you want a cutting-edge application to edit your photos, you need look no further than GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program). GIMP is a powerful and versatile open source application for creating and editing images. GIMP is every bit as feature-rich as Adobe PhotoShop, but at none of the financial expense. So why pay big bucks to modify your summer photos, when a viable alternative is so readily available?

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    Summer fun viewed in GIMP.

    Energize Education Tip of the Day!

    If you’re concerned about Microsoft Internet Explorer’s vulnerabilities, I’d recommend that you try an open source alternative, such as Mozilla Firefox, Mozila Seamonkey or Chromium Web Browser. Open source Web browsers are stable, secure and just as user-friendly as Internet Explorer. Best of all, they’re free to download, use and share, so check out an open source Web browser. It might just change your Web surfuring experience.

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    Mozilla Firefox displaying information about Mozilla’s license.

    GIMP -not just a photo editor

    GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is a versatile and feature-rich image creation and editing application. Chris WHittum, the author of Energize Education through Open Source: Using Open Sorce Software to Enhance Learning, used GIMP to create the eye-catching logo below.

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    If Chris Whittum made this simple banner with GIMP, just think about what your students could create. (This image is released under GPL.)