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Open Software Solutions for Online Students


One way to cut down on school expenses is to shop around for software purchases. In an online course you submit your assignments electronically, so finding software that works for you is essential. First, a couple of basic definitions:

  • Open: is often used to indicate "free" or available for use without a fee under certain conditions. Creative Commons, as an example, provides a way to make products open and available with specific licenses.
  • Open source: is used to describe the availability of the source code of a program or application. If the code is available you can modify the function of the software by altering the programming.

While you may be interested in open source programming and web development (you may even be enrolled in a online program to study these topics!), this post focuses on open (free) applications to help you with typical course assignments such as papers and presentations. It's possible for an open application to also be open source.

What you'll need to consider…

Platforms and Operating Systems

Are you a PC or Mac? If you're using Windows is it XP, Vista, or Windows 7? On a Mac you might be using OSX Tiger, Leopard, Snow Leopard, or Lion. Identify the kind of hardware and operating system you are using before downloading anything new. You'll want to make sure what you download is compatible with (will work) on your machine. And don't forget mobile, if you want to use your smartphone or tablet.

Download vs. In the Cloud

There are new ways to access the functionality you need without downloading full versions of software applications. You may be able to access what you need in the cloud. Programs that are web-based allow you to connect with them online and store your work online without having to download anything. Mobile apps are providing this kind of access via your smartphone and tablet computers. If you need to easily share or collaborate on projects, using a web-based application can simplify the process of moving files and tracking changes.

File Types

This is a consideration of both input and output. What kind of existing files will you need to edit with the open software? What kind of files do you need to create for your courses? There may be requirements set by your school, program or instructor. File extensions help you determine what type of file you are dealing with (e.g. .doc, .ppt, .pdf, .mp3). Most open applications will allow you to export files in different formats. Make sure the products you choose will let you create the kind of files you need to submit in your classes. 

Support and Training:

One of the challenges of using open software is the lack of formal support and training. While some of the companies that created these programs post tutorials and help guides online, many do not. Finding options that work for you, and are intuitive and reliable, will be important. Look for community forums – where product users help each other out with troubleshooting and questions. Some of the open and open source options have very active user communities. You can also look at reviews of open software before committing. Search for product comparisons, like IdealWare.org's review of MS Office and OpenOffice. In addition, there are technology sites, like CNET, that include software in their product reviews. 

School Requirements:

Find out if your school or program requires you to use a specific software application in your courses. If this is the case, an open option might not be appropriate, and you'll need to shop around. When a commercial system is required look for education discounts. Your school may have arrangements with required vendors for student discounts. Check with your school's bookstore and with your academic advisor. Software companies also offer student pricing – Apple, Microsoft, Adobe, and Dell are just a few examples. Your employer may also offer discounts on purchases of hardware and software through specific vendors. Ask for more information!

Finding the Right Tool for the Job

When selecting specific software, your first consideration should be function. What do you need to do? Writing a paper and recording a presentation are very different tasks that require different functions. There are a lot of popular options out there to help you get your work done.

OpenOffice and Google Docs are just two options that offer collections of applications similar in function to Microsoft Office. You can create documents, presentations, spreadsheets, and forms with either of these packages. OpenOffice is something you download to your computer, while Google Docs lives in the cloud – different delivery but similar output. In addition to these common requirements, you may also need to find more specialized software. Several options are listed below, but use the directory links to expand your search.

Open Software Directories

Several suggestions for specific programs and applications are listed above, but there is much, much more to choose from. Take a look at these directories and explore the possibilities. Note that you'll find many of the same software titles on all of these directories, but the sites themselves are organized differently. One may be more useful to you or just easier to use.

  • JISC Digital Media: "A first port of call for those looking for free and/or open source applications on the internet", this site organizes software titles by function and provides a table to compare compatible operating systems.
  • OpenEducationDisc: This site is focused on "meeting educational needs of students of all ages." It provides a suite of software for Windows, but some if the individual programs work on Mac as well as Linux.
  • Open Source Software Directory: Another list of over 800 software applications. This site is categorized by primary use: Home, Business, Administration, and Development. You might find the Home list the most relevant. You can also check the "most popular" programs.
  • SourceForge: This is a widely used source of open and open source software that boasts over 3 million downloads! This site also has an active community forum where you can find answers to frequently asked questions, and pose questions of your own for members/users to help answer.

Explore the options available and test a few. Find the ones that work for you and deliver the formats you'll need for your online course work. Don't buy what you don't need!

Have you discovered software alternatives that you would like to share? Let us know about them here.

June 30th, 2011 written by Staff Writers

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