Back to School with Open Source Software

Note: This article was originally posted on, Red Hat’s community hub for all things open source.

For parents: Shopping for back-to-school supplies, textbooks, clothing, and other accouterments can be frustrating and expensive. To help take the sting out of this ritual, students and parents might consider turning to free, open source software and tools in preparation for a new year of study.

For students: Beyond cost savings, open source software empowers students to take ownership of their work and be free of software licensing treadmills. And, perhaps the ultimate educational opportunity is the ability to examine, analyze, and contribute to open source software and tools like these.

For teachers: Turning theory to practice, students can learn by doing as they help with documentation, quality testing, bug review, or even code contributions. Teaching is not simply the delivery of content, via lecture-taxi, to passive minds. Participation and collaboration ignites powerful learning, and empowers students to engage in thoughtful, meaningful scholarship. And open source can be the catalyst.

Here are five great open source applications for learning:


Annotation, journaling, and note-taking apps are incredibly popular on tablets and smartphones.Xournal brings these capabilities to the Linux desktop. Students can utilize Xournal to annotate PDF files and capture ideas. Alternately, teachers might use Xournal to grade submitted papers. Extra credit: Use Xournal in conjunction with GfxTablet, an app that allows you to draw on your PC via your Android tablet.

Kazam Screencaster

Forget Kahn Academy; put students in the driver’s seat and let them teach the class. Screencasting is a powerful tool for demonstrating student mastery of concepts and ideas. Inspire students to become teachers, trainers, and digital experts with Kazam Screencaster, a simple desktop video and audio recorder.


Microsoft may offer a reduced cost student edition of Office, but who needs it when LibreOfficecan handle your productivity tasks with vigor and vim. LibreOffice is a flagship open source product and continues to set the bar for other collaborative projects. With the ability to handle standard Office documents plus Publisher and Visio files, LibreOffice is a personal productivity powerhouse and a big step toward student document liberation.


Unleash your inner Mozart with MuseScore, a high-quality music composition and notation program similar to commercial software such as Sibelius and Finale. MuseScore boasts an impressive list of features and runs on Linux, Mac, and Windows.

Kojo Learning

Play with math, programming, music, and art in the powerful Kojo Learning environment. Based on ideas derived from innovative programs such as Logo and Geometers Sketchpad, Kojo offers a rich platform for students to explore the synthesis of mathematical ideas, coding, creative thinking, and learning.

What applications are loaded into your open source backpack? Are you already using some of these applications in the classroom? If so, tell us how in the comments below.

Back to School Apps For The New Nexus 7

As the sultry days of summer rolled by, Google introduced a hefty refresh to their already solid Nexus 7 tablet. The new Nexus 7 (2013) sports a resplendent HD display, faster processor, upgraded ram, better power efficiency, and a sleeker design. Also included is a rear facing 5MP camera, which should satisfy those who longed for a camera on the first edition.

Google continues to keep the price significantly lower than the obvious competitor, the iPad Mini. Consider that at a cost of $269, the 32GB Nexus 7 is $160 less than the $469 32GB iPad Mini. Importantly, the Google Play store continues to offer a mammoth selection of apps for Nexus 7 and other Android tablets, many of which are free or ultra-low cost.

Based on performance, price and apps, the new Nexus 7 is an outstanding device and continues to be my top recommendation for students, parents and staff seeking an affordable yet powerful tablet.  Check out a detailed Nexus 7 2013 hardware review on Anandtech.

Image via Google
Nexus 7 Image via Google

Show me the apps!

Last year, I posted a few Android app recommendations based on our teacher and student experiences with Nexus 7. Here is an updated list of ten interesting education and classroom apps. Note that these apps will run on various Android tablets, not just the Nexus 7.

Duolingo – Learn and practice Spanish, French, German or Italian on your Android tablet. Duolingo is a fun and free language app to help develop conversational fluency. Simple and addictive, Duolingo provides language learning tools for Android and via the Duolingo website.

Evernote – Replace your paper notebooks with Evernote, the king of personal note-taking and archiving apps.  Notes may be organized into folder-like notebooks, tagged with keywords and later searched. Your notes are stored in the cloud and automatically synchronized everywhere you access Evernote, be it the web, your phone or tablet. The Android app is a super organizational companion for students and teachers.

Lecture Notes – Annotate, draw, sketch and write in style with this versatile note-taking app. The feature list is long; PDF import/export, a wide pallet of pencil/pen customization, drawing tools… there are too many to mention. Plus, you can easily export your written notes to Evernote. The full version is $4. However, the free trial includes two notebooks, which should be sufficient for casual note-taking.

Writing Prompts – Chop writers block with 500 inspirational prompts to help your students launch the next great novel. Prompts are organized into category topics such as Animals, Crime, and Fantasy. One of my favorites: “Write a love letter from Peanut Butter to Jelly.”

Groupboard – Draw, chat, and collaborate in a virtual whiteboard space with Groupboard. The app and companion website offers a dynamic workspace for group projects or remote tutoring. Organize your students into small teams and let the brainstorming begin; the free version allows up to 5 participants per board.

MyScript Calculator – A great tool for checking homework or tutoring, this app truly needs to be seen to be believed. Write a mathematical expression on the screen and MyScript Calculator will convert your script to numbers and solve the operation in front of your eyes.

Graphing Calculator – MyScript Calculator is great for simple equations. When your studies reach the next level, you’ll find useful Algebra, Geometry and Pre-calculus tools inside Graphing Calculator by Mathlab.

Moodle Mobile App – Connect to your classroom Moodle course while on the move! The Moodle app provides access to course content, messages and notifications. Note: This app requires your school’s Moodle server to be running version 2.4 or above and Mobile Web Services to be switched on.  

Socrative Socrative is a free web service and mobile app that turns any laptop, Android or iOS device into a clicker response system. An innovative upgrade to traditional test review, Socrative continues to be a favorite of educators. 

Extra Credit for Linux: Check out GfxTablet, an app that allows you to draw on your PC via your Android tablet. Pair this app with GIMP and you have a natural drawing slate. Note: This app is still under development and may be a little rough around the edges.

Nexus 7 Classroom Launch

A mini one-to-one tablet project recently powered up at Penn Manor High School. Students in Mrs. Rottmund and Mrs. Sheerer’s Family and Consumer Science have begun using Google’s Nexus 7 in support of financial literacy, nutrition and child development instruction. The Nexus 7 tablets were funded via a Discover Pathway to Financial Success grant. Using grant funds, the department was able to purchase two full classroom sets of Nexus 7 along with tablet cases and financial apps.

Beyond the Family and Consumer Science project, two additional classrooms will receive Nexus 7 tablets courtesy of Penn Manor Education Foundation grants. Students in Mrs. Ennis’ 8th grade science class at Manor Middle School will reach for a Nexus 7 when conducting lab experiments. Plus, Penn Manor High School students working with Mrs. Lyons and Mrs. Martin will leverage the Nexus 7 to build math skills and increase reading fluency via online journaling.