Home » Technology » Open Source Technology (Page 2)

Category Archives: Open Source Technology

QGIS -An Open Source Geographic Information System

energize education, qgis
The QGIS logo

Today I want to take a look at QGIS, a free, open source Geographic Information System. So, what is a geographic information system? The U.S. Government Accountability Office (February 2015) defines a geographic information system as “a computer system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on Earth’s surface. GIS can show many different kinds of data on one map, such as streets, buildings, and vegetation. This enables people to more easily see, analyze, and understand patterns and relationships.” Imagine the kinds of classroom activities that you could develop for Science and Social Studies classes with this kind of software. It’s comparable to ESRI, but without the rather hefty expense that often comes with proprietary technology.

QGIS is actually comprised of several components. The first is the QGIS Desktop. This component allows users to create, view, analyze and share geospatial information. The QGIS Browser allows users to review and organize their data. QGIS Server allows users to share data and to choose which aspects of the data are viewable by others. The QGIS Web Client makes publishing maps online a breeze. They can also be enhanced with symbols and labels. The final component, QGIS on Android, is at the beta level of development, but experienced users are welcome to try it out.

qgis,energize education
A QGIS session

So what can you do with QGIS? You can create, edit, manage and export data using a variety of tools such as OpenStreetMap integration. There are digitizing tools that support OCR and GPS. Spatial data can be analyzed in terms of vectors, geoprocessing and geometry, among other criteria. QGIS also integrates 400 tools from GRASS GIS. Additionally, QGIS can share your work online as a WCS (World Coverage Service), a WMS (Web Map Service) or as a WFS (World Feature Service). In short, virtually anything that a user would want to do with a map, he or she can do with QGIS. Imagine the projects students could complete.

QGIS owes much of its functionality and versatility to the wide variety of plugins that are available. The core plugins installed by default include, but are by no means limited to, GPS Tools, Raster Terrain Analysis, interpolation and a Road Graph plugin. Furthermore, a real strength of this software, especially in terms of expandability, is the integration of the Python programming language. Python has been used to develop many of the external pulugins available through the QGIS community. As part of this integration, QGIS offers a Python console through the use of which new plugins can be developed. How’s that for growth potential?

qgis,energize education,energize education through open source
QGIS displays information about the habitat of the Asian Lynx.

Python and QGIS combine with OpenLayers, an open source mapping library, and APIs (Application Program Interface) to create some incredible maps. Maps can be generated that, with a click, can move from one location to another. Maps can be developed that zoom in and out as needed with a mouse click. Users can even toggle between different types of maps for the same regions. For example, QGIS was used recently by undergraduate students to analyze the habitat of the Asian Lynx in the Carpathian mountains. you can view some of their findings in the screenshot at left.

energize education through open source,qgis
QGIS running on Linux in GNOME

You’re thinking, ‘This is great! But how long does it take to learn to use QGIS or become proficient in it enough to teach my students?” The good news is that there is a large amount of documentation available to help new users install and learn to run QGIS. Most of the literature is available on the QGIS Web site and I have provided links directly to some of them below. Regarding the Python programming language, it is fairly easy to learn to use and there are plenty of free tutorials available online. As to using this application with students, you could argue that, because of Python integration, QGIS will grow with your learners.

QGIS is available for Linux, Microsoft Windows and MacOS X.

Thanks to Charles Cossé for suggesting this topic. All images have come from the QGIS home page.

Resources

QGIS Web Site

A Gentle Introduction to GIS

References

Dichte, A., Ehrminger, L., Garcia Travesi Reyes, S., Hoppe, T. and Winger, D. Gnilke, A., Hiltunen & Mund, J.P. (August 2015). Lynx habitat analysis in the Southern Carpathians. Creative Commons. Retrieved from http://www.qgis.org/en/site/about/case_studies/europe_lynx.html.

QGIS user guide. Release 2.8. (14 November 2015). The QGIS Development Team. GNU Venereal Public License. Retrieved from http://docs.qgis.org/2.8/pdf/en/QGIS-2.8-UserGuide-en.pdf.

U.S Government Accountability Office. (February 2015). Progress Needed on Identifying Expenditures, Building and Utilizing a Data Infrastructure, and Reducing Duplicative Efforts (Publication No. GAO-15-193). Retrieved from http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/668494.pdf.

Pharo -The Immersive Programming Experience

I’d like to focus on computer programming in this installment.  Towards this end, I’d like to take a look at Pharo, a software development environment released under the MIT License (similar to GPL, see link below).  Pharo provides a graphical way to utilize the Smalltalk programming language, the programming language used to write Dr. Geo, one of my favorite geometry exploration programs.

phaor logo,energize education
The Pharo logo

First of all, Pharo’s development team refers to Pharo as an “immersive programming environment.” What does this mean? Dictionary.com defines immersive as an adjective “noting or pertaining to digital technology or images that deeply involve one’s senses and may create an altered mental state.” Techopedia defines a programming environment as “a collection of procedures and tools for developing, testing and debugging an application or program.” Another name for such an environment is Integrated Development Environment or IDE. What this means is that Pharo provides a graphical interface for Smalltalk that is so intuitive, full-featured and graceful that it allows you to code without getting in the way.

Before I go further, I’d like to share a few things from Pharo’s mission statement.  The Pharo team seeks to provide an accessible and innovative free, open source programming environment.  These people strive to keep Pharo small, stable and equipped with excellent tools key for software development.  Finally, Pharo seeks to foster a healthy ecosystem of contributors who strive to maintain and enhance this application.

pharo, energize educaton through open source
Pharo at work.

Smalltalk is an object-oriented programming language, which, in layman’s terms means that it focuses more on objects and data rather than on commands, or actions, and logic.  Keeping this in mind, Pharo is designed to be very straightforward to use and to provide prompt feedback.  Pharo also includes an IDE (Integrated Development Environment), from which it draws its simplicity.  Furthermore, Pharo offers a high level of diversity through a large library and a set of external applications.  Pharo also includes strong support for business use in the form of organizations, such as the Pharo Industrial Consortium and an association of users, the Pharo Association.

pharo,energize education
Pharo works its magic.

I’d like to take a look at Pharo’s interface as this is key to Pharo’s ease of use.  How often have you launched a new program with some trepidation, wondering with what will I be presented?  How intuitive will the interface be?  How long will it take me to figure out how to make this thing do what I need it to do?  Arguably, Pharo’s interface, or lack thereof, is not just one of its strengths.  It’s also aesthetically appealing.  No need for a menu bar or tool bar, as Pharo relies on context-sensitive menus for its functionally.  Simply click in the main window to open the World Menu, which is a general menu, from which you can select Workspace.  A Workspace is like an artist’s sketchpad upon which you create your application.  Once a Workspace has been opened, you can use contextual menus to perform desired tasks.

So, what’s the best thing about Pharo?  It could be that it is free to download.  It could be the number of free books about Pharo available online.  It could also be the extensive support community.  I leave it to you, the reader, to download and install Pharo.  Then start using it and find out for yourself what you think is the best thing about Pharo.

Pharo is available for Microsoft Windows, Apple MacOS and GNU/Linux.

Resources

The MIT License

Pharo Website

References

Thanks to the people at Pharo for permission to use their screenshots for this article.

Black, A.P., Ducasse, S., Nierstrasz, O., Pollet, D., Cassou, D. & Denker, M.  (2009). Pharo by example.  Switzerland: Square Bracket Associates.  Retrieved http://pharobyexample.org/versions/PBE1-2009-10-28.pdf

Immersive. (n.d.). In Dictionary.com. Retrieved from http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/immersive?s=t

Pharo [computer software].  (n.d.).  GNU General Public License.

programming environment. (n.d.). Techopedia. Retrieved from https://www.techopedia.com/definition/16376/development-environment

Unizor -Creative Mind through Art of Mathematics

Unizor is an open source mathematics and physics Web site that seeks to promote intellectual strength, creativity and analytical abilities.  Unizor’s founder, Zor Shekhtman, does this through a series of lectures on mathematics and physics designed to help high school students exercise the mind just as one would exercise his or her body in a gymnasium.  The abilities strengthened by using Unizor can readily be applied to real life.  Another great strength of Unizor is that parents and other responsible adults are placed in charge of their students’ education.

energize education,energize education through open source,unizorf
Zor discusses Permutations.

So, how does Unizor do this?  A parent/supervisor goes to Unizor’s Web site and creates an account for him or herself.  The parent/supervisor then has two roles.  The first is to enroll his or her students into instructional programs.  The second is to manage the learners’ progression through the programs.  Each student has an account created by the parent/supervisor which makes this possible.  From here, students’ progress can be monitored, including exam scores, and they can be passed on to the next level within the course.

energize education,energize education through open source,unizor,christopher whittum
Zor discusses possible outcomes of a given set of options.

How does Unizor work?  Each topic is presented by Zor Shekhtman as a video lecture.  Far from being dry, Zor conveys his enthusiasm for the curriculum through his instruction, which makes the lectures very engaging.  Zor also utilizes visual aids and examples to enhance the learning experience.  The educational experience is further augmented by the use of other media and materials.  Furthermore, teachers are not left out.  To quote from the Unizor home page, “The function of a Unizor teacher is to provide quality educational materials. Control over educational process is not a function of a Unizor teacher, this is supposed to be provided by parents/supervisors.”  Teachers can modify both instructional content and exams as well.

Unizor has a very different approach to mathematics education than the more prevalent  principles utilized by many schools.  These principles have an emphasis on formulas and procedures and the memorization of these.  The problem with this is that students, not finding immediate real-world application for this information, will soon forget it once the assessment is passed.  Unizor focuses on a logical and analytical approach to mathematics education, encouraging problem-solving, proving theorems, axiomatic foundation and rigorousness of educational material.  This approach is conducive to the development of students’ minds, something that will be of value in any occupation.

Unizor is ideal for learners who have been identified as gifted and talented.  The opportunities for academic and intellectual growth abound here.  Be aware, that Unizor is a work in progress.  However, there are more than 400 lectures available with more to come.  You should also know that the physics component is still predominantly under development.  So take control of your student’s learning and create a supervisor account on Unizor’s Web site today.

Resources

Unizor Home Page

References

http://unizor.com/

Gibbon: Open Source School Platform

What would be better for your school system: a Student Information System or a School Management System?  How’s about having both tools in one software package?  In this installment, I’d like to introduce you to Gibbon, an open source suite that can be utilized to organize your facilities and to record and analyze data on students.  In short, Gibbon is a SIS, a SMS and VLE functionality all in one place.  If you are involved in your school district’s decision-making, you should really check this suite out before shopping for proprietary software.

energize education through open source,energize education,gibbon,school platform,open source school platform,sis,sms
The Planner window

The secret to Gibbon’s functionality is modules which can be added to make it do what you need it to do.  There are a set of core modules that are installed by default.  I’m going to take a look at some of those now.  The first of these is Planner.  Planner is a lesson planner that allows you to incorporate multimedia integration into your lessons.  Because these lesson plans are stored on a server, they can be readily shared with parents and students.  Homework can be assigned and collected online.  These lesson plans can even be organized into units and used to generate curriculum maps.  Assignments can be graded and the grades recorded.  Other cool features include students being able to comment on peers’ work, guests being able to take classes and students being able to “like” lessons by awarding them gold stars.

energize education,gibbon,open source school platform,sis,sms
A planning session with Timetable

Timetable allows for the creation of timetables for students and faculty alike.  Resources is a database which allows users to catalog and share resources school-wide.  Library empowers users with the capacity to catalog, lend and track items such as books, movies or even electronics.  The Individual Needs module allows for the creation of lessons designed to meet the needs of individual learners.  These can be archived as the student progresses and used to measure progress.  Activities facilitates the creation and management of school activities, including Web-based notifications and registration as well as attendees lists.  Markbook allows educators to record and track students academic progress.  This data can, if so desired, be easily shared with students and parents.  The Rubrics module not only allows teachers to create rubrics, but the rubrics are actually interactive via mouse-clicks.

energize education through open source,gibbon,open source school management systems,open source student management systemrs
You too can track student performance using Gibbon.

There is one aspect of education that I haven’t addressed yet and it’s the most important component -people.  Students is the SIS module.  Student information from across the system can be accessed here.  Academic, behavioral and medical alerts can be generated and accessed by those who need them.  Students’ attendance history can be tracked in Attendance and behaviors, both positive and negative, can be tracked and analyzed using the Behavior module.  Data Updater assures that the right people, parents for example, have current data on certain students.  Other modules in this category can empower users with the ability to easily create groups of staff and students alike as well as to generate staff directories.  Finance is a tool for the tracking of finances, for example in a fund-raiser. Messenger, an internal messaging system that can be used to set up groups of specific recipients and supports such formats as email, SMS and Message Wall.  The last of the default modules addresses administration, both in terms of school and in terms of the system as well as user and timetable administration.

What could be better than having all of these components in one suite?  Being able to add to them.  There are far more expansion modules than I could possibly address here, but they include, and certainly are not limited to, assessment administration, query building, Moodle integration, an integrated Help Desk and Free Learning integration as well.   There are also proprietary modules available, should the open source modules not meet your needs.

As an experienced educator, I can tell you that if your school or district is looking for a school platform, the search should begin, and will end, here.

Thanks to Ross Parker for permission to use the screenshots and for his work on this extremely worthwhile project.

Resources

Gibbon Home Page

References

Parker, R.  (2011).  Features – Gibbon. Retrieved from https://gibbonedu.org/features/.

 

 

OpenShot: Open Source Video Editor

It’s been a while, too long in fact, since I’ve written anything here. Hard to believe that the summer is winding down. You probably have lots of photos and videos taken this summer. What better way to share them than in a movie that you’ve made yourself? You don’t need Microsoft Windows Movie Maker either.  Let me introduce you to OpenShot, the open source alternative to Movie Maker.

energize education,"energize education through open source,open source educational software,open source instructional software,free educational software,free instructional software,open source educational technology,open source instructional technology,free educational technology,free instructional technology,christopher whitttum,christopher d. whittum
OpenShot logo (copyright 2014 OpenShot Studios LLC)

Upon initial launch, OpenShot bears a striking resemblance to its proprietary counterpart and it works in a similar fashion. What I find extremely appealing about this software, personally, is the WYSIWYG interface. The interface is very straightforward, which is a big deal to me as I believe new users will have a tendency to return to an application if they have a pleasant first experience. ( I’ve just discovered another strength of this software: the user’s manual jumps right into using the software via a piece entitled Learn OpenShot in 5 Minutes, rather than to present the application and its features. The manual addresses these topics, but after guiding the reader through initial use of the software. How cool is that?)

energize education,"energize education through open source,open source educational software,open source instructional software,free educational software,free instructional software,open source educational technology,open source instructional technology,free educational technology,free instructional technology,christopher whitttum,christopher d. whittum
OpenShot ready to go.

Looking at the screenshot at left, the Main Toolbar is at the top of the window, under the menu. Below this are the Function Tabs, which allow users to toggle between files, transitions and effects. The Project Files pane below this shows all media files that have been added. The Preview Window to the right displays video playback. Just below these two panes is the Edit Toolbar (left) and the Zoom Slider, which allows users to tweak the time-scale. Below this is the Play-Head/Ruler. The Ruler displays time-scale and the Play-Head shows the current position of the movie on the time-scale (appears in red when in use). Finally, the Timeline is at the bottom of the window and displays each component of the movie.

energize education,"energize education through open source,open source educational software,open source instructional software,free educational software,free instructional software,open source educational technology,open source instructional technology,free educational technology,free instructional technology,christopher whitttum,christopher d. whittum
OpenShot at work

Adding media is easy. Once you’ve added media to the Project Files pane, simply click and drag them to the Timeline. You can add a wide variety of audio, video and image media to your video.  Once media has been added to the Timeline, it can be repositioned by clicking and dragging.  You can also add effects, such as transitions, special effects and sounds. Finished videos can be exported to such video formats as AVI, MOV, MP4 and MPEG,  If you really want to see something cool created using this software, let your kids or students run wild (well, not that wild) with OpenShot.  They’ll show you what thinking outside of the box is all about.

OpenShot is available for Fedora Linux and Ubuntu Linux and also as a Live version run from DVD so that you don’t have to install it to try it.

Resources
OpenShot Home Page

References

OpenShot Video Editor Manual 1.3.0.  (2013).  OpenShot Studios, LLC.  Retrieved from http://www.openshotusers.com/help/1.3/en/.

FisicaLab: Solve Physics Problems

energize education through open source,open source educational software,open source instructional software,free educational software,free instructional software,open source educational technology,open source instructional technology,free educational technology,free instructional technology,christopher whitttum,christopher d. whittum

One of the great benefits of mailing lists is that you have the opportunity to learn about new things. In this case, the new thing that I have learned about via the schoolforge-discuss mailing list is FisicicaLab, an open source educational application developed to solve physics problems. FisicaLab handles all of the mathematics related to physics, giving the user the ability to focus purely on physics. So, without further adieu, let’s take a closer look at this thought-provoking piece of software.

energize education through open source,open source educational software,open source instructional software,free educational software,free instructional software,open source educational technology,open source instructional technology,free educational technology,free instructional technology,christopher whitttum,christopher d. whittum
FisicaLab running on the MATE Desktop Environment.

The graphical interface is similar to that of GIMP, incorporating multiple windows. Unlike GIMP, FisicaLab utilizes only two windows initially. The main window is called the Chalkboard and the other window is entitled Modules and Elements. The Modules and Elements tool enables users to add items to the Chalkboard and to modify those items. Buttons at the top of the Modules and Elements window allow users to toggle between different types of elements. (See the screenshot for a typical session). Additional windows open as needed.

FisicaLab allows users to manipulate virtual objects such a blocks, pulleys and forces. These can be handled and allowed to interact in a variety of ways, including, but not limited to, relative motion, collision and explosion. Other factors that can be adjusted include friction and force, among others. FisicaLab gets a high level of expandability via additional modules which users can install. These modules include, but are not limited to, kinematics of particles, dynamics of particles and calorimetry, ideal gas and expansion.

This brief article is written merely to inform and cannot do this wonderful application justice. If you teach physics, FisicaLab is designed with both instruction and learning in mind.

FisicaLab is available for Linux, Microsoft Windows and Apple MacOS.

Resources
GNU FisicaLab Home Page

FisicaLab Manual

Schoolforge.net

References
GNU FisicaLab Manual. (n.d.). GNU General Public License. Retrieved from http://www.gnu.org/software/fisicalab/manual/en/fisicalab/index.html#SEC_Contents.

All images are from the GNU FisicaLab Web site.

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).

Resources
Partimus Home Page

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

AutoTeach: Schoolwork at Home without Drama

I’ve recently come across a piece of open source technology that will not only take the struggle out of getting your kids to do schoolwork at home, but will also put them in control of this work while helping them to self-monitor and develop independence at the same time. AutoTeach will do all of these things. So, what is AutoTeach and how can it do all of this?

energize education,"energize education through open source,open source educational software,open source instructional software,free educational software,free instructional software,open source educational technology,open source instructional technology,free educational technology,free instructional technology,christopher whitttum,christopher d. whittum,autoteach

With AutoTeach Parent Tool, students earn credits which can be used to “purchase” time on the Internet. There are three components that make this happen. the first is the Credit Meter. The student logs onto this via his or her wi-fi device (tablet, game system, etc.). While this is running, the student can access the Internet. The next component is a Raspberry Pi. For those unfamiliar with Raspberry Pi, they are open source palm-sized computers consisting of a motherboard with a CPU and RAM, as well as audio, video, SD card (used as hard drive), USB and LAN ports. In short, they are fully functioning computers. The Raspberry Pi serves as router, Credit Meter and firewall. By default, the firewall only allows the students to access the third component of AutoTeach, the Credit Reader Web site.

energize education,"energize education through open source,open source educational software,open source instructional software,free educational software,free instructional software,open source educational technology,open source instructional technology,free educational technology,free instructional technology,christopher whitttum,christopher d. whittum,raspberry pi,autoteach
Raspberry Pi mini computer

The AutoTeach Web site allows parents to set up school-based work for their young academicians, as well as a schedule for completing this work. This site, by default, is the only one white-listed on the Raspberry Pi firewall, so it’s the only one kids can access until they have credits. Topics covered include reading, mathematics, music, vocabulary building and research. These are all available as JavaScript plugins to be loaded onto the user’s Credit Reader account.

energize education,"energize education through open source,open source educational software,open source instructional software,free educational software,free instructional software,open source educational technology,open source instructional technology,free educational technology,free instructional technology,christopher whitttum,christopher d. whittum,autoteach
AutoTeach Student Meter

The activities are just as engaging as they are educational. By completing activities to a predefined skill level, students can earn credits toward free Internet time. You may actually find your kids begging to do schoolwork. A really neat feature of AutoTeach is that credits can be awarded manually. This means that you could use it as a reward for completing chores or other activities that you would like to encourage. In terms of personal growth, students will have greater control over their learning and a greater enjoyment of it. Through monitoring their own progress and working independently, young people will develop a sense of independence as well as one of self-reliance.

energize education,"energize education through open source,open source educational software,open source instructional software,free educational software,free instructional software,open source educational technology,open source instructional technology,free educational technology,free instructional technology,christopher whitttum,christopher d. whittum,autoteach
TuxMathScrabble via AutoTeach

Arguably one of AutoTeach’s greatest strengths is its capacity for growth. Developers will be constantly creating new plugins. There is also a development suite available, AutoTeach’s Development Sandbox, which will allow developers to create plugins on their own. The result is that potential for more plugins is limitless.

As you can see, I am very enthusiastic about this technology. So how do you acquire AutoTeach? It is available as a subscription. To learn more, check out some of the resources below to which I’ve provided links.

References

Cossé, C. (n.d.). AutoTeach your kids, advance education software development.

Thanks to Charles Cossé for permission to use the images that appear in this article.

Resources

AutoTeach Asymptopia Web Page

AutoTeach Resources

Convert Media Files with WinFF

I’d like to look at a nifty little media converter entitled WinFF. WinFF bills itself as an open source video converter. I refer to it as a media converter as it is capable of converting audio files as well. Truth be told, WinFF is actually a graphical front-end program for FFmpeg, which is a program run from the comand line that does the actual converting. WinFF simply allows users unfamiliar with the command line to run conversions using a graphic interface.

Before I begin, I want to say that I am running WinFF in Ubuntu Linux. Although WinFF is available for both Linux/UNIX and Microsoft Windows, the screenshots in this article will show WinFF being run on Linux and will also show a file manager, equivalent to Windows Explorer, displaying the contents of a CD, or as Linux refers to them, an Audio Disc, which is similar to a CD’s/DVD’s folder in Windows. That having been stated and without further adieu, let’s get to the point of this blog: converting media files using WinFF.

energize education,"energize education through open source,open source educational software,open source instructional software,free educational software,free instructional software,open source educational technology,open source instructional technology,free educational technology,free instructional technology,christopher whitttum,christopher d. whittum
The WinFF window

When initially launched, you will be presented with a window that should look like the screenshot at left. WinFF’s interface is WYSIWYG and you can see from the screenshot that the buttons on the toolbar (referred to as the Buttons in the WinFF documentation, which can be downloaded from their Web site) offer tooltips to provide more information about their function. Above the Buttons is a menu bar. Below these is an empty field where information is displayed during the conversion process. Below this are tabs pertaining to various types of media and a place to specify your output, or destination, folder.

energize education,"energize education through open source,open source educational software,open source instructional software,free educational software,free instructional software,open source educational technology,open source instructional technology,free educational technology,free instructional technology,christopher whitttum,christopher d. whittum
Let’s convert these .WAV files on this CD to MP3s.

I will be converting the CD shown in the screenshot at right. It was a gift from my niece (Love you, Ayla) and I’m anxious to add it to my MP3 collection. Place the audio CD in your DVD drive. A window will open asking you what to do with the disc that has been placed in the drive. Choose to open it in file manager. This way you can view the files on the CD. WinFF and FFmpeg support WAV files, but not CDA (Compact Disc Audio) files. Your CD is likely to have files in either format. Once you’ve checked the contents of the CD or, as WinFF refers to this type of media, Audio Disc, you can start WinFF.

energize education,"energize education through open source,open source educational software,open source instructional software,free educational software,free instructional software,open source educational technology,open source instructional technology,free educational technology,free instructional technology,christopher whitttum,christopher d. whittum,winff
The Select Video Files window

Once WinFF has opened, click the Add button. This will open the Select Video Files window (shown at left), which looks like a file manager. Select the files that you wish to convert (Tip: You can press the CTRL and A keyboard keys simultaneously to select all pf the files) and click the Open button. This window will close and return you to the main WinFF window.

energize education,"energize education through open source,open source educational software,open source instructional software,free educational software,free instructional software,open source educational technology,open source instructional technology,free educational technology,free instructional technology,christopher whitttum,christopher d. whittum
The video conversion process

Now, set your desired conversion format and preset. For this type of action, Convert to should be set to Audio and the Preset to MP3. Next, choose your destination folder. This is important as it will make finding your converted files easier if you place them in a precise location. Clicking on the ellipsis () will allow you to select a more specific location than the default, which in Linux/UNIX is your home directory. When you are ready, click on the Convert button and the process will begin. The actual conversion process occurs in a terminal window as shown in the screenshot at right.

When the process is completed, you will be instructed to Press Enter to Continue (as shown in the screenshot above), which will close the terminal window and return you to the main WinFF window. The process is complete and you can now close WinFF. You may still want to rename your new MP3 files as they will still possess the generic name (e.g. “Track 1.mp3”) that they had while on the CD, but that can be done in a file manager at your leisure.

Resources

WinFF Download Page

References

Ballard, F. (n.d.). FFmeg [software]. Lesser GNU General Public License.

Weatherford, M. (2013). WinFF 1.5 English Documentation.. GNU General Public License.

Weatherford, M. and Stoffberg, I. (2015). WinFF [software]. WinFF.org.

An Old Laptop Made New

I’m going to walk you through the process I followed to update an old laptop into a useful computer. My thinking is that if I could do this, so could anyone else, especially educators in poorer school districts or even homeschoolers.

"energize education through open source,open source educational software,open source instructional software,free educational software,free instructional software,open source educational technology,open source instructional technology,free educational technology,free instructional technology,christopher whitttum,christopher d. whittum
IBM ThinkPad T40

A friend of mine gave me an old IBM ThinkPad T40 (shown at right). It has an ebay value of around $40 (U.S.). It was built for Microsoft Windows XP and worked decently, save for the outdated software and hardware and the fact that the onbooard wifi didn’t work. I decided to make it into something a little more useful for today’s computing.

Here are some specs:

  • Intel Celeron M processor at 1.5 GHz
  • 512 MB SO-DIMM SDRAM
  • 80 GB ATA Hard Drive
  • BIOS Date: 2006-06-02
  • 6x DVD-ROM
  • 2 USB ports
  • 1 video out port
  • 2 Sound Ports (1 in, 1 out)
  • On-board modem, NIC and wifi
energize education,"energize education through open source,open source educational software,open source instructional software,free educational software,free instructional software,open source educational technology,open source instructional technology,free educational technology,free instructional technology,christopher whitttum,christopher d. whittum
The panel covering the RAM module.

As I saw it, the best and easiest course of action was to upgrade the RAM. This can arguably be said to be the most approachable upgrade for any laptop or desktop PC as it’s a fairly easy procedure and a fairly inexpensive one as well. I bought my 200-pin SO-DIMM SDRAM replacement module on Amazon, but there are many other places online where this can be procured. For those of you thinking “Chris, I’m not a computer repair technician. It’s too complex. I can’t do this,” I say “Yes, you can.” Internally computers are compartmentalized and therefore easy to work on, so long as you’re careful about electricity. Laptops are no exception. If you turn the laptop over, you will see various panels held in place with Phillips screws. The screenshot at left indicates the panel we need to open.

energize education,"energize education through open source,open source educational software,open source instructional software,free educational software,free instructional software,open source educational technology,open source instructional technology,free educational technology,free instructional technology,christopher whitttum,christopher d. whittum,ibm thinkpad t40,ibm thinkpad t40 upgrade
T40 RAM module

Once you have removed the panel (after taking out the screw, I had to use a small knife to lift the plate up), you will see the RAM module. You will notice two clips, one on the right of the module and one on the left (if you look at the screenshot on the right, you can see that the right clip is just to the left of the screw hole). These are simply pulled out away from the RAM module. The module will pop up and can then be slid out. Make a note of its positioning to make sliding the new RAM into place easier. For my RAM update, I chose a module offering 1.2 GB of RAM, which is a tremendous upgrade as well as being the maximum supported RAM for this system. Slide the new RAM module into place, push down on it until it lies flat in its cavity and the clips will lock it down. Put the plate back on and we’re ready for the next step.

I chose to install Xubuntu Linux 12.04 LTS (Long-Term Support) 64-bit as Xubuntu 14.04 LTS presented a warning during installation stating that Celeron M processors do not support PAE (Physical Address Extension). If you have the time and the interest, I have provided a link below to an article on working around this problem. In either case, I have provided a link to Xubuntu’s download page. Once you have downloaded the ISO file, you’ll need to burn it to a DVD as an image then place the disc in the DVD-ROM drive. You’ll also need to enter the T40’s BIOS and set the DVD-ROM as the primary boot device. To enter the BIOS, you’ll need to press the Access IBM key (located in the upper left corner above the keyboard) when you first turn the laptop on and choose Start setup utility from the menu. When done, save your settings and restart the computer. Installation will begin on reboot.

energize education,"energize education through open source,open source educational software,open source instructional software,free educational software,free instructional software,open source educational technology,open source instructional technology,free educational technology,free instructional technology,christopher whitttum,christopher d. whittum
IBM ThinkPad T40 running Xubuntu Linux

The reason I chose to install Xubuntu is that it is lighter than Ubuntu in terms of hardware demands, which makes it an ideal OS for older computers. You will be guided through the installation process. When it is completed, you will be prompted to remove the disc and restart the computer. When it restarts, enter the BIOS and restore the default boot settings.  Save your settings, reboot and when the computer finishes booting, you can log in using the account created during installation. If all goes as it should, you should be greeted with a desktop like the one shown in the screenshot at left..

Regarding the on-board wifi, you will find many discussions online about this topic. Rather than try to resolve it, I went on to Amazon and purchased a Panda Mini Wifi 150 Mbs Wireless-N 24 GHz USB Adapter. It plugs right into one of the USB ports and starts working immediately. It provides a reliable connection and after a year and a half, I still have no complaints. You may want to install additional software, depending on your needs, but other than that, you now have a perfectly good computer for education, Web surfing, productivity, gaming or whatever your needs may be.

Resources

Xubuntu Linux Download Page

Lubuntu Fake PAE -Community Help Wiki