New tools and software

It’s about this time of year that we look again at the software list for next year’s notebook image; what’s new and should be on student and teacher computers, and what is no longer doing the job. I keep a bit of a list on a page here called Essential Software, which I must update soon.

Meanwhile, in my thinking about software I’ve found several new things lately that I’ve begun to use on a daily basis. If you find a tool that you use daily, and does things better or more easily than you could before, then that’s useful. So, here’s some new things that I’ve found useful:

Free Commander

Free Commander is a freeware file management tool that replaces the explorer in Windows (did I mention that these are all Windows tools?) and featuring a split-pane for moving and copying files around, and a bunchof powerful functions including bulk-renaming of files. It’s on the desktop for good!


I’ve always resisted password management software because I’ve always feared losing the key! But it’s got to the stage now where every web 2.0 site out there requires logins and passwords and managing them becomes a chore. Keeping them in a text file somewhere isn’t secure. Imagine having your computer stolen with your password list sitting in a text file somewhere? Keepass is open-source, freeware and works beautifully and simply, with the ability to categorise passwords as well as copy from the program into the browser fields directly.


I’ve blogged about Evernote a couple of times, most recently HERE, where I talked about my fears of cloud computing. And I wasn’t convinced about the new version when it cam out.  I liked the old desktop version and was worried how the new version, with its online component, would distort that simplicity. However, after about six weeks of using it, it’s becoming THE place to gather snippets and fragments and notes, to ‘remember everything’ as they say.  It’s easy to have multiple notebooks in the one large ‘notebook’ so I’ve got notebooks for ‘curriculum’, ‘teaching’ ‘bikes’ etc. all of which can be easily searched and ‘tagged’ and which can be synched with an online site of your notes, accessible anywhere.

So, three tools, that are new for me, and that I now use daily.

The Tablet PC Journey

I realised this week that I hadn’t talked much here about one of the most significant technology changes we’ve made for students this year, that is moving to the tablet pc format for the notebook computers at our school.

A group of teachers, including me, trialled tablet pcs over the last year and have found them really useful. I still do most of my work via the keyboard but having the tablet pc functionality is great. This year all the new computers in the College were Toshiba Portege Tablets and apart from some issues with an over-high resoution that makes type incredibly small, they’ve begun very well.

Unfortunately, the class I’m teaching (Year 12 English) don’t have the new computers. They’re in their third year of the Fujitsu Lifebook they got in Year 10, and some of them are aging. A hard drive died in class on Friday, and that brought everyone in the class to that awareness about backing up!

Still, all the students did get the new verson of Office, so I’ve been pushing OneNote with them a lot, and they’re beginning to see how useful it is to organise notes, and how much better it is than having a folder full of word files. And, I’ve been able to use my tablet, plugged into the data projector, to handwrite on OneNote screens, and ink on PowerPoints, which is good fun.

I should mention that, while it’s been in the blogroll for ages, I did create a tablet pc wiki which chronicles some of our thinking and exploring with this format. And I must remember to post here what we discover this year as we go on.

Teacher Tech and Productivity

An interesting non-edublog post from a high school maths teacher talking about technology, productivity and what software schools should be supporting teachers with. There are a lot of comments and suggestions at the end of the post too. The post describes the multi-pronged problem as:

I have found it increasingly annoying to hear from on high that we need to integrate more technology in our classroom, yet most new teachers and old teachers are still using old standbys because we don’t have the time to use and troubleshoot our way through technology. Making worksheets by copying and pasting by hand. Building test questions from book programs that only work on PCs or OS 9 on macs. Wanting to use videos from the internet only to find they are blocked. Wanting to post information to a website or build my own website to find that FTP is blocked or that online-services are clunky, restrictive, and cumbersome. Granted that I am lucky enough to have a computer, a projector, and an ELMO (videocamera hookup to a projector.) But for the love of turtles! It seems that the industry ignores us!

The rest of the post, and replies HERE

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Windows Live Writer

I see that the Windows Live Writer is out of beta and into full implementation.  This is a blog writing tool. You set up your blog or blogs and then writer the entry in Windows Live Writer and publish it to your site, or multiple sites.

It IS nice to type your blog into a space that’s much bigger than the standard WordPress or edublog space, and works quite smoothly. I’ve used the Firefox extension Scribefire for some time for just that reason. It’s odd to have to open another application to write your post; Microsoft is still SO application centred.

However, Live Writer also allows you to write your posts offline and publish them later. Of course you could do that by writing your post in WORD or a text editor and pasting it in later, but it’s nice to have the formatting too. It links with Windows Live Messenger and Mail but you can download it by itself, when isn’t always Microsoft’s way.

I would have thought that inserting images and tagging would have been a little easier but the free download might be worth having a play with if you’ve got some time over the summer.

Open Office

OpenOffice 2.0! (seagull image by Olly Clarke)

I’ve been working recently with some other teachers on the software tools to be loaded on student notebook computers for next year and in that process I was reminded again of Open Office, the multi-platform, multilingual office suite produced as part of an open-source project.

I was reading an article earlier this week about all the online applications becoming available (No More Hard Drive!), and maybe that will be the future if broadband access can become ubiquitous or if online/offline tools like Google Gears become commonplace.

In the meantime, Open Office is beginning to become a real and viable alternative to proprietorial software.  Two years ago I couldn’t imagine a school dumping Microsoft for the vagaries of the open platform, but things are changing. I can imagine it now.

Like the Linux system itself (I installed Ubuntu on an old machine at home, but more about that some other time) the idea of open-source is appealing for more than the financial considerations, and the software has come a long way.

I’ve two daughters studying at university, one with an ACER laptop computer, the other with a glossy white Macbook that makes me jealous, and they’re BOTH using Open Office for all their university work and have been for some time. One rang me the other day saying that she couldn’t export a document into a word file for some reason, but I reminded her that Open Office also outputs to PDF, which worked fine. For them, researching and writing in undergraduate courses, Open Office is fine.

I don’t know whether I could live without OneNote on my computer, but I think I could do without some of the other gigantic applications that are perhaps the last and most monstrous evolutions of their previous selves. Do we need a meteorite to strike to realise that they’ve probably gone as far as they can go? I remember when the whole of Microsoft Word fitted on a 3.5 floppy disk, with room for a couple of documents as well! I’m not sure if Microsoft Office will become extinct but, like video stores and CD makers, perhaps making expensive, gigantic, proprietorial software is not a good market to be in about now?

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