Thanks to open source projects, the overall price of software is coming down and open source offers some viable alternatives to expensive proprietary software packages. I’m going to present a few of the more popular open source projects that are directly useful for elearning. This is, by no means, an exhaustive list or a definitive guide but just these few packages are enough to keep most people busy learning to develop rich, multimedia learning resources for a good few months, if not years.
What is open source?
Open source software is original software that is developed and released with the source code, free from any licensing fees, charges or restrictions. Anyone can make copies, edit and extend the software and redistribute it in any way they like. It’s free, as in free speech, and not to be confused with “freeware” or trial versions which often have restrictions, watermarks or are not fully functioning versions. With the growing popularity of open source software some unscrupulous vendors are trying to pass off proprietary software as open source or at least try to blur the distinction between them. For more details see the Open Source Definition and the Free Software Foundation web sites.
Why should I use free and open source software?
Have more control
You have as much (or as little) control as you can manage and want over the software. You can decide if you want to do everything yourself, outsource everything to a 3rd party service provider, or everything in between. It’s just a matter of shopping around. Moving forward, as your needs change, and/or you become more experienced and capable, you may want to take more or less control. If your current service and support provider can’t or won’t give it to you, you can find another provider who can and will.
Be part of a community
The more popular free and open source software projects have free and open online communities of users, administrators, designers, service providers, and developers. If you have a question or a problem, you can find answers, solutions, or people to help you quickly and easily. Most questions can be answered quickly by simply searching the documentation and/or searching the community forums. If you can’t find an answer, just post your question and wait for an answer. In the more active communities, you’ll more than likely get several helpful, informative answers from slightly different perspectives.
Have more choice available
When you use proprietary software, you’re also buying into that provider’s chosen business model. You have no choice over this: You can only get the services and support that they decide that they want to provide at the price and under the terms that they want to provide them. On the other hand, with free and open source software, anyone can set themselves up as service provider under whatever business model they like and under whatever terms and conditions they like. This creates a market place of service providers all working hard to provide the best services and support they can.
Extend and customise
Most free and open source software projects are highly extensible and customisable. This means that you can choose which features and functions to use or make available to your users, install plugins which provide more specialised features and functions, and customise the software layout, navigation, and look, all for free. You can even shop around and hire a 3rd party designer or developer to create new features and/or functions that you’d like and that aren’t already available. Extending and customising software can radically change its appearance and behaviour sometimes beyond recognition. You’d be surprised how many government agencies, institutions, organisations, companies, and corporations use customised free and open source software for their websites.
BTW, the world’s most powerful computers run on open source software (Linux) and the vast majority of web software is open source (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP, Mambo, Joomla, Drupal, WordPress, etc.). Today’s internet couldn’t have happened without open source software. The Free Software Foundation maintains a directory of open source projects.
Desktop software for elearning
OpenOffice is the free open source alternative to Microsoft Office. It has a complete suite of office software; word processor (Word), spreadsheet (Excel), presenter (PowerPoint), graphics editor (Picture Manager / Photo Editor) and database (Access). Unlike MS Office, it creates open format, W3C.org standard files that follow internationally recognised best practices, providing more consistent, stable rich text formatting that will work better across different platforms and applications. OpenOffice can also open, edit and save MS Office format files. Its presentation software can publish PowerPoint style presentations directly to Flash so that learners can view them directly on the web, and its word processor can publish directly to PDF without having to buy any expensive conversion tools such as Adobe Acrobat Professional.
LibreOffice: After OpenOffice was acquired by Oracle, some developers feared a conflict of interest and branched off a new version called LibreOffice which is included in many standard distributions of Linux including Ubuntu, Mint, Fedora and openSUSE. It is also available for Windows and OSX.
Tip: Some users have reported that both OpenOffice and LibreOffice can take up to 15 seconds to save documents, which is unacceptable. I also had the same problem but I found a solution. When I installed the Java Runtime Environment (JRE) from here: Free Java Download, and restarted LibreOffice and OpenOffice, saving files worked instantaneously. If you have this problem, I hope this solution works for you too.
Audacity is a free open source audio recording and editing application and the alternative to Adobe Soundbooth, Adobe Audition, Apple Logic Pro, Avid Pro Tools, Sony Sound Forge, etc. Audacity uses the best MP3 encoder available, the LAME MP3 CODEC, which is also open source. For elearning purposes, you’d usually use Audacity to edit and optimise audio recordings so that they’ll play well on the web or to include them in other multimedia projects. Common uses are podcasts and listening exercises.
CamStudio is a free open source screen recorder. Similar to Techsmith Camtasia and Adobe Captivate, it literally makes a video recording of your computer screen or a specific area of it. You also record your voice along with the screen (narration) and screen recorders are generally used for demonstrations and presentations. As with all screen recording software, video recording and editing requires powerful processors and a lot of memory so quality and results depend on the speed and capacity of your computer. A notable example of using screen recordings for elearning is KhanAcademy.org.
The Graphic Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) is the free open source alternative to Photoshop. For elearning purposes, you’d use it to optimise photos and create diagrams and infographics for learning resources on the web.
Pitivi is a free and open source non-linear video editor aimed at prosumers and professionals, with a strong emphasis on usability, that runs on Ubunutu (Lubuntu, Edubuntu, etc.), Debian, Gentoo, Fedora, and openSUSE operating systems. It supports hundreds of effects, transitions, and filters, it’s efficient and accurate and does many useful things that other expensive video editors do not, e.g. allows video clips with different frame rates to be edited together. It is not currently available for Windows or OS X operating systems. For an impressive list of features, please see: http://www.pitivi.org/?go=tour
Handbrake is a free open source video encoder and transcoder (converting video from one format to another). It’s useful for optimising video recordings for web distribution and playback. It has handy encoding settings presets that optimise your recorded video for a variety of different contexts, e.g. for media players, iPhone, iPod, the web or HTML5 playback, and it allows you to preview short sections of encoded video to check the output quality before you commit to encoding a long video.
Firefox is the free open source alternative to Microsoft Internet Explorer, Apple Safari and Google Chrome web browsers. It’s the second most widely used web browser in the world today (about 25%) and a favourite of web developers and elearning professionals due to its extensibility and the hundreds of extensions that are freely available, i.e. you can install extensions in it to give it more functions and features. Useful extensions for web development are FireFTP and Web Developer Toolbar. There are also lots of language, download and search tools available, and NoScript also makes general web browsing safer.
File Transfer Protocol (FTP) is the standard way to transfer files (software, documents, and media) from your computer to a public server. If your web hosting provider doesn’t provide a convenient one click install for your desired software package, you’ll need an FTP client to upload it and install it yourself. FTP clients are also a more convenient and often faster way to upload larger numbers of documents, images, audio, video, web pages, and animations or very large files, especially video, that your server’s HTTP (normal uploads) limits may not allow. FileZilla is a free and open source cross-platform FTP client and there is a FileZilla Server available on Windows only. Quick and easy installers are available for Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X. It supports FTP, SFTP, and FTPS (FTP over SSL/TLS).
NetBeans IDE 7.3 is available in English, Brazilian Portuguese, Japanese, Russian, and Simplified Chinese.”
If you’re an experienced software developer, used to working with IDEs such as Eclipse or NetBeans, and would like to get started in ActionScript and Flash/Flex development, there’s no need to buy an licence for Adobe Flex, Flash Builder, or Eclipse plugin. FlashDevelop installs easily from a binary self-installer file and automatically downloads the Apache Flex SDK and some useful ActionScript libraries. According to the project website:
“FlashDevelop offers first class support for ActionScript (2 & 3) and Haxe development. Great completion & code generation, projects compilation & debugging, plenty of project templates, SWF/SWC exploration etc. FlashDevelop is also a great web developer IDE with source-control support (svn, git, mercurial), tasks/todo, snippets, XML/HTML completion and zen-coding for HTML.”
Unfortunately, it only installs on Windows and doesn’t successfully install on Linux + Wine.
Tufts University have developed their own concept mapping software, VUE, and released it under an Education Community License v2. It’s the most sophisticated and feature rich concept mapping tool I’ve seen and it embraces external libraries and resources from the world wide web. It exports concept maps in a lightweight, shareable, editable XML format. I’m impressed!
There’s also a limited browser applet version, however, if users are used to the full desktop version, I think they’ll find it very limiting.
Calibre saves and manages ebooks, supporting a variety of popular formats. It can sort and search ebooks, PDFs, MS Office Documents, etc. in a way similar to iTunes and Windows Media Library. It can sync with a variety of popular ebook readers and can convert non-DRM ebooks between differing formats. It’s extensible so extra functions can be added as and when required.
Sigil is ePub ebook authoring and editing software. It supports spell checking, automatically generates tables of contents, edits metadata, and supports find and replace, all of which can save a lot of time and effort when authoring ebooks. It can create and edit non-DRM ePub ebooks that can be read using most eReaders except for Kindles. However, ePub books can be subsequently converted into Kindle compatible formats with Calibre eBook manager (see above).
eBooks offer a quick, cheap, and easily distributable way of publishing long form texts and references, which are more flexible and readable than the more widely used PDF format. eReaders are typically easier to read for longer periods of time than computer and tablet screens and are, of course, smaller and cheaper than most tablets. Additionally, most tablets have built in eReader software and there are free and open source versions for desktop computers too.
Ubuntu is free and open source operating system for PCs (alternative to Windows or OS X), tablets, and phones (alternative to iOS, Android, or Windows Phone). It is a particularly easy to install and use distribution of Debian Linux which has been adopted by over 20 million users as well as government agencies and departments. Click here for some examples listed on Wikipedia.org. Adopting Ubuntu (or other flavours of Linux) can reduce IT costs substantially since there are no more Microsoft or Apple Inc. licence fees and almost all the software you’ll need is also either included or available as free and open source; office suites (compatible with MS Office), multimedia playback, recording and editing, internet and email, etc. All of the software listed above has Ubuntu Linux distributions or Linux equivalent alternatives. MS Windows dependent software can also be installed and run on Ubuntu with Wine installed. I’ll leave you to work out how much you’d save for your organisation in licence fees.
There’s also an official Ubuntu Education Edition called Edubuntu which has been developed in collaboration with teachers and technologists in multiple countries. Edubuntu is built on top of the Ubuntu base, incorporates several education-specific applications and is aimed at users aged 6 to 18. It is designed for easy installation and ongoing system maintenance.
If you have an older computer that seems to be struggling with the newer operating systems and/or running software slowly, you can give it a new lease of life by installing a “lightweight” version of Linux. Lubuntu is a popular choice.
Server software (Internet) for elearning
The Modular Object Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment (MOODLE) is the most widely used free open source Learning Management System (LMS) in the world (Usage statistics). It’s the alternative and competitor to Blackboard Learning System. Thanks to Moodle and other open source LMS’, enterprise level elearning software is now affordable and accessible to individuals, small schools and organisations whereas only universities, governments and large corporations used to have the necessary budgets to license elearning software. If you want to manage and co-ordinate learning resources, activities, communication and collaboration for more than a handful of learners online, getting started as soon as possible with an appropriate LMS is essential. I run a Moodle 2 installation on this site.
Canvas LMS is the “new kid on the block” in the elearning world, and as a latecomer the developers and designers have had the opportunity to learn from its predecessors and try some new approaches to navigation, content management, etc. Being a newcomer cuts both ways, however, and so it doesn’t have the same support and community as more established LMS’ like Moodle and nowhere near the range of learning activities, 3rd party plugins, extensions, integrations, and service and support providers. Well worth a look if you want something clean, well designed, and simple.
Elgg is open source social networking software that provides individuals and organizations with the components needed to create an online social environment. It offers blogging, microblogging, file sharing, networking, groups and discussion forums, and a number of other features. Some people have described it as similar to Facebook but specifically optimised for learning.
Mahara is a free and open source ePortfolio and social networking web application that provides learners with tools to create and maintain an online learning portfolio. Additionally, it has social networking features to allow learners to interact with each other. It provides learners with blogs, a resume builder, a file manager and a view creator – a tool to help learners create arrangements and presentations of their work in a particular way for others to see.
Big Blue Button is a free and open source web conferencing platform. It enables organisations, academic admins, teachers, and learners to schedule online meetings between multiple participants. It supports multiple-way public and private audio and video (VoIP), text chat, screen-casting/sharing, uploading and downloading files, interactive whiteboards, presentations, etc. Organisations can download, install, and manage their own Big Blue Button system or they can use it as software as a service directly from Big Blue Button or from a 3rd party provider. It has integration plugins for a number of popular free and open source learning management systems and content management systems.
“The Opencast community is a collaboration of individuals, higher education institutions and organizations working together to explore, develop, define and document best practices and technologies for management of audiovisual content in academia. The community shares experiences with existing technologies and practices as well as identifying future approaches and requirements. The community seeks broad participation in this important and dynamic domain, to allow community members to share expertise and experience and collaborate in related projects.
The Opencast community also supports community-driven projects to solve common issues in management of academic audiovisual content as identified by the community.
Today, the prime example is the Opencast Matterhorn project, an open source software development project to develop video capture and management technologies that are of primary importance to the Opencast community’s mission. The project seeks participation from committers and contributors who engage to forward effective development of the project.”
ownCloud is a software suite that provides a location-independent storage area for data (cloud storage). The project was launched in January 2010 by KDE developer Frank Karlitschek to create a free alternative to commercial cloud providers. In contrast to commercial storage services, ownCloud can be installed on a private server at no additional cost.
WordPress is perhaps the best known free open source blogging software in the world and WordPress.com offers free easy to set up hosting to anyone. Blogs are particularly useful for learners to keep a personal record of their learning and reflecting on ideas and concepts. Blog posts can be public, only viewable by permission or private so learners can easily manage who can see what they’ve written. The Council of Europe and many other governments around the world are currently promoting portfolio based assessment and blogs are an ideal platform for learners to manage their personal learning portfolios, with the additional benefit that they can take their work with them from school to college to university to work and maintain an easily accessible, manageable and unbroken record of learning and achievement.
In 2012, I set up and ran a WordPress blog network for a blended learning project called English Language Learners’ Blogs.
BuddyPress is a plugin that can be installed on WordPress to transform it into a social network platform. It is designed to allow schools, companies, sports teams, or any other niche community to start their own social network or communication tool. BuddyPress inherits and extends upon the integral functional elements of WordPress including themes, plugins, and widgets.
MediaWiki is a popular free open source web-based wiki software application and an alternative to services such as Wikispaces, MS SharePoint and Apple Wiki Server. Developed by the Wikimedia Foundation, it is used to run all of its projects, including Wikipedia, Wiktionary and Wikinews. Numerous other wikis around the world also use it to power their websites. It is written in the PHP programming language and uses a backend database.
The first version of the software was deployed to serve the needs of the free content Wikipedia encyclopedia in 2002. It has been deployed since then by many companies as a content management system for internal knowledge management. Notably, Novell uses it to operate several of its high-traffic websites. Thousands of websites use MediaWiki. Some educators have also assigned students to use MediaWiki for collaborative group projects.
The software is optimized to correctly and efficiently handle projects of all sizes, including the largest wikis, which can have terabytes of content and hundreds of thousands of hits per second. Because Wikipedia is one of the world’s largest websites, achieving scalability through multiple layers of caching and database replication has also been a major concern for developers. Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects continue to define a large part of the requirement set for MediaWiki.
The software is highly customizable, with more than 700 configuration settings and more than 1,800 extensions available for enabling various features to be added or changed. More than 600 automated and semi-automated bots and other tools have been developed to assist in editing MediaWiki sites.
phpBB stands for PHP Bulletin Board. It’s a popular free open source software alternative to social networking services such as Facebook, Ning and Google+. When you run phpBB on your own server, you have complete control and accountability for all users on it. Admins and moderators have granular level access to messages and posts and can monitor users’ activities to avoid or prevent inappropriate behaviour. Additionally, all users’ data and contributed content remains on the host server, providing security and privacy for all users, in line with privacy laws and requirements of governments, education authorities and businesses.
StatusNet is free open source microblogging software that offers functionality similar to Twitter, Facebook and Google+. However, StatusNet seeks to provide the potential for open, inter-service and distributed communications between microblogging communities by adopting the OStatus microblogging communications standard. Enterprises and individuals can install and control their own services and data.
ATutor is an Open Source Web-based Learning Content Management System (LCMS) designed with accessibility and adaptability in mind. Administrators can install or update ATutor in minutes, develop custom templates to give ATutor a new look, and easily extend its functionality with feature modules. Educators can quickly assemble, package, and redistribute Web-based instructional content, easily retrieve and import prepackaged content, and conduct their courses online. Students learn in an adaptive learning environment.
ATutor is the first inclusive LCMS, complying with the W3C WCAG 1.0 accessibility specifications at the AA+ level, allowing access to all potential learners, instructors, and administrators, including those with disabilities who may be accessing the system using assistive technologies. Conformance with W3C XHTML 1.0 specifications ensures that ATutor is presented consistently in any standards compliant technology.
ATutor’s base in Open Source technology makes it a cost effective tool for both small and large organizations presenting their instructional materials on the Web, or delivering fully independent online courses. Comprehensive help is available through the documentation, through a number of support services, or through the public forums. Full language support is available through the ATutor Translation Site.
LimeSurvey is a GPL3 licensed online survey and questionnaire platform. It can be used to author, administer, and analyse data from surveys and questionnaires as response to intervention (feedback for teachers and curriculum developers), psychological tests, learner satisfaction surveys, research data collection and analysis, course enrolment applications, order forms, event management (What do attendees require?), etc.
Piwik is a free open source web analytics system written by a team of international developers, and runs on a PHP/MySQL webserver. Piwik is used by over 250,000 websites and is translated in more than 45 languages.
Piwik features a modern user interface, APIs to access all data (and also manage users, websites, scheduled reports, Goals, etc), Real time reports, a Plugins architecture, extended Privacy features, Mobile App (iOs and Android), and more than 50 other features. Piwik is released under the GNU/GPL, and its new versions are regularly released every few weeks.
One of the differences between self hosted Piwik and Software as a service (such as Google Analytics) is that with Piwik, all visitor interaction data stays under control and ownership of the webmaster or company. In Germany, 13% of .de websites use Piwik because it offers more privacy features and keep control over the Analytics data (Anonymize IPs, Purge logs, Opt-out feature, etc.).
OpenWebAnalytics is a free open source, self-hosted alternative to Google Analytics. Self-hosting is important for ensuring your teachers’ and learners’ privacy and personal data are protected (an important legal and ethical issue), since you have complete control over who can access it. OpenWebAnalytics can identify the geographical location (IP address) where users are accessing your site from, see their navigation paths, and DOM recordings show their mouse movements on the web pages. You can watch overall web traffic to your site and get an idea of when the busiest times are and how many users you might need to provide support for on any given day and at any given time. Web analytics can help teachers, IT support and course content developers by examining users’ actions on your site and seeing where services and resources can be improved.
“Zotero is a free and easy-to-use research tool that helps you collect, organize, and analyze research and lets you share it in a variety of ways. Zotero includes the best parts of older reference manager software — the ability to store author, title, and publication fields and to export that information as formatted references — and the best aspects of modern software and web applications, such as the ability to organize, tag, and search in advanced ways. Zotero interacts seamlessly with online resources: when it senses you are viewing a book, article, or other object on the web, it can automatically extract and save complete bibliographic references. Zotero effortlessly transmits information to and from other web services and applications, and it runs both as a web service and offline on your personal devices.”
“PSPP is a free software application for analysis of sampled data, intended as a free alternative for IBM SPSS Statistics. It has a graphical user interface and conventional command-line interface. This software provides a comprehensive set of capabilities including frequencies, cross-tabs comparison of means (t-tests and one-way ANOVA); linear regression, logistic regression, reliability (Cronbach’s Alpha, not failure or Weibull), and re-ordering data, non-parametric tests, factor analysis, cluster analysis, principal components analysis, chi-square analysis and more. Some very advanced statistical tests are as of 2014 not yet implemented. At the user’s choice, statistical output and graphics are available in ASCII, PDF, PostScript, SVG or HTML formats. A range of statistical graphs can be produced, such as histograms, pie-charts scree plots and np-charts. PSPP can import Gnumeric and OpenDocument spreadsheets, Postgres databases, comma-separated values and ASCII files. It can export files in the SPSS ‘portable’ and ‘system’ file formats and to ASCII files. Some of the libraries used by PSPP can be accessed programmatically; PSPP-Perl provides an interface to the libraries used by PSPP.”
- Open Source, Openness, and Higher Education by David Wiley (PDF)