By Jill Gordon
Many Open Source software projects were either started in colleges or started by recent college graduates. Whether it's a coincidence or not, a lot of the available open source software is ideal for college students, either pursuing a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree.
Free and Open Source Software Tools for Students
With the widespread use of the Internet and the growth of web-based applications, there are also a lot of hybrid forms of software available – free software with APIs (Application Programmer Interfaces) but not truly open source. The following list covers some of the best free and open source software from an average student's perspective. (The list is arranged by software category, with recommended applications and the occasional short list of alternative or supplemental apps.)
1. Web browser.
If you're currently in school, you probably can't imagine a time when there was no Internet. Now, it's probably an intrinsic part of your studies, whether you are just starting out or a graduate student earning a master’s degree. So you need a good browser. Recommended: Mozilla Firefox. This is hands down one of the best web browsers available regardless of what your major is. There are many hundreds of useful add-ons for writing, researching, design and web development as well. Alternatives: Google Chrome, Opera, Safari.
There's no one software tool that will satisy all your research needs, but start with some of the following:
- Ottobib for research paper bibliographies. In particular, students completing traditional or online liberal arts degrees could benefit from this tool since their assignments regularly consist of research papers.
- Google Reader for subscribing to your favorite web feeds.
- Spreeder to help you do all your reading faster.
- Dictionary.com to look up definitions.
- SpellJax to make sure you're speling is grate.
- Google Video and even YouTube for some learning via web video.
3. Learning and Brainstorming
Research is useless if you're not actually learning anything. An ideal way to learn new material is by using concept mapping or mind mapping – which are similar but not exactly the same. Recommended: XMind and FreeMind. Alternatives: Mindomo, Mindmeister, Cmap, Comapping. (Comapping offers real-time mind map editing from multiple users, which is ideal for virtual team brainstorming.)
4. Communications: Email and IM/ Chat
These two subcategories are the mainstay of Internet-based communication. Both give you advantages over a phone communication, including the ability to attach information and especially to respond in your own good time. Recommended email client: Thunderbird. Alternative: GMail. If you want to combine your email client with newsgroups, IRC, a web browser and HTML editing, try Mozilla SeaMonkey for an "all-in-one Internet application suite." Recommended Chat/IM client: Adium (Mac OS X) or Pidgin (Windows, Mac). Both allow you to manage multiple chat accounts from different networks. Alternative: Meebo, for a web-based interface to manage multiple accounts.
5. Collaboration Tools
Collaboration goes beyond project management software such as GanttProject and into chat combined with real-time document browsing and editing, amongst other features. Recommended: Campfire. (Has both free and paid options.) Alternatives: Scriblink (web blackboard) and Skype (VoIP, chat and filesharing). Skype allows you to have an IM or voice chat with one or more classmates while simultaneously passing files to each other.
6. Visualization, Graphics and Diagramming Tools
7. Document Editing and Management
There probably aren't many students who don't have to write a term paper or essay, even those who are enrolled at accredited online colleges. This is pretty much a given for most students. When it's time to aggregate all that research you've done in the library (or online), you have numerous software options for writing and producing a finished paper. Recommended: OpenOffice suite, which includes a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation tool, is compatible with MS Office. Get all your assignments done, manage your finances in the spreadsheet. And it even converts documents to Adobe PDF format for when you have to submit term papers. Alternatives: Google Docs + Spreadsheets, Zoho. Supplemental: PDF Creator to produce a finished document that you can email or upload to your class' teaching assistant.
8. Presentation Tools
9. FTP/ File Transfer/ File Storage
Need to share those documents and presentations with your study/ project team? You can FTP (upload) to a team website or use a filesharing service. Recommended FTP: FileZilla. Alternatives: FireFTP (runs in the Firefox browser as an addon). Filesharing: There are far too many services to make a recommendation. However, if you have a Google Mail (GMail) account, you can save files online by attaching them to a draft email. (Note: Some filetypes may not be allowed.)
10. Productivity and Task Management
There is a huge market for productivity and task management software, and an accordingly large number of applications and subcategories to fill the niche. This includes to-do lists, calendaring and hybrid forms for both mobile and non-mobile platforms. Recommended: Google Calendar, Remember the Milk, Tada List. Supplemental: Jott, if you want to manage tasks from your phone.
11. Mathematics and Modeling
Mathematica and MathCad are great packages, but besides the expense, they're often more than the average student needs. Open source software will probably suit you unless you're planning graduate studies in mathematics. Recommended: Gnu Octave. Alternatives: Sage Math, Mathway, Open Source Physics, POV-Ray (and additional modeling add-ons).
12. Programming/ Coding/ Web Development
If you don't already know it, the Linux operating system is the breeding ground of an immense number of open source projects – having taken the mantle from its predecessor UNIX. If you want to take full advantage of the numerous open source coding tools, you might have to install Linux on your computer. (Or you can install the cygwin environment for MS Windows, but you miss out on a lot of true Linux features.) Even if you don't want to/ can't use Linux, you have a number of options for coding and web development: Perl, PHP, Python, Ruby and Ruby on Rails – all of which are good for relatively fast prototyping of code. If you need an open source IDE (Integrated Development Environment) for code development and testing, try Eclipse, which has components that cover Java and many of the languages above. If you're using Java only, you can also try Ingres Cafe. If you want a multi-platform web authoring tool comparable to FrontPage or Dreamweaver, try NVu. Finally, Microsoft's Dreamspark program also allows students to download and use their developer and design tools for no charge.
13. Blogging, Microblogging, Content Management, Info Repositories
Start a blog, make it popular by publishing great articles about your topic of study, drive traffic with Twitter and Facebook, make money in click ads, affiliate ads, or even tutoring (possibly via Skype). Okay, that's a bit oversimplified, but if you're good at blogging and find your niche, you might be able to pay some or all of your WordPress. Alternative: Drupal, wiki software. Microblogging: Twitter.
14. Forums/ Social Networks
Need a custom social network for team/ class/ department projects? BuddyPress gives you that ability by installing over a WordPress Multi-User (WPMU) installation. Alternative: BBPress or Vanilla forums.
15. Personal Finance
You might be a starving student trying to earn your bachelor degree but you probably still have to manage your finances. If you're comfortable using the web for such private information, then you have a number of options – some of which let you pay your bills online. (Most options below are either free or have a free component or trial.) Recommended: Wesabe. Alternatives: DimeWise, Mint, Moneytrackin'.
If you're looking for more Open Source desktop software, visit the Sourceforge repository. Just search with a suitable keyword, and browse through the options. You can also check the following references, which were used in building the list of free and open source tools above.