By Andy Harris
This month’s theme is “homeschooling on a budget.” In my family, that’s the theme every month. Life is expensive enough, and this homeschooling habit we’ve all picked up can get pricey. This month I want to show you one area in which you can save real money without having to compromise quality at all.
Within the last few years, a new type of software development has been making a major impact on the computing world. In addition to traditional commercial software, teams of talented professionals often work together (sometimes with corporate sponsorship and sometimes out of pure love of creation) to build free clones of popular software packages. You may think these tools could not compete with the efforts of major corporations, but you might be surprised. The tools I recommend are extremely well designed, have been thoroughly tested, and have all the features of their commercial counterparts. They generally work on every major operating system, and they are entirely free. They do not have ads, and they will not require in-app purchases for full features.
Before you buy commercial software for your homeschool, look into these options:
Open Office/Libre Office
Perhaps the most important tool in a homeschool or business is the classic office suite. You won’t get far without a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation program. The standard software tools for these tasks are found in the Microsoft Office Suite. These tools are well known for quality, but they are expensive. The basic version of MS Office costs more than $119, with more advanced versions costing upwards of $300.
Open Office and a variation of the project called Libre Office are free office suites with all the functionality of MS Office. They contain all the basic packages (word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software), as well as some other features found only in the expensive professional package (a database and sketch program). The tools can load and save in multiple formats, including the standard Office formats. For example, the word processor can read and write .doc and .docx files. I’ve written entire books (including this column) in Open Office Writer, and the publisher can’t tell that I’m not using MS Word. Likewise, the spreadsheet program can do pretty much everything Excel can do, and certainly enough for most school uses.
Personally, I’ve found Open Office to be so powerful and useful that I don’t even install MS Office, even though I have free access to it at my office. You can find Open Office for free download at www.openoffice.org .
Libre Office is almost identical to Open Office. Either version will be suitable for homeschool use.
It is available here: www.libreoffice.org .
Gimp is an image-editing program comparable to Adobe Photoshop. It has most of the features of its commercial cousin, with a few features of its own. Gimp is a powerful image editor, with professional capabilities. It comes with a number of useful features:
• All the standard drawing and painting tools: brushes, pens, pencils, selection tools
• Support for layers, channels, and selection
• All the standard filters: blur and sharpen, color correction, and much more
• Support for dozens of file formats
Gimp is such a solid program that I’ve used it to create all the graphics in my books and games. It takes some effort to learn how to use it, but if you’re interested in professional-level graphics editing, you might not have to fork out the nearly $700 for the latest version of Photoshop if you choose to use Gimp. You can download Gimp for free at www.gimp.org .
In my book, I’ve written a chapter about using Gimp, and I’ve made that chapter available on my website. (There wasn’t room for it in my game programming book, so I’ve posted it online.) You can download that chapter for free here: www.aharrisbooks.net/pythonGame/Appendix_D.pdf .
The PDF format has become very popular in recent years, but the standard program for reading PDFs (Adobe’s Acrobat) has earned a reputation for being one of the most frustrating programs in modern computing. It updates constantly but never seems to add any new features and has limited functionality.
One of the first things I do on a new PC is replace Acrobat with a better-behaved PDF viewer. Foxit Reader is my favorite. It integrates directly with your web browsers, and it does everything you probably need without getting in the way. One of my favorite features is a typewriter mode that lets you fill in PDF forms to print them out. You can download this program from www.foxitsoftware.com/Secure_PDF_Reader .
Foxit reader is available for Windows and Linux users. If you’re using a Mac, you’ll need a different alternative, like Skim: skim-app.sourceforge.net.
Note that a PDF viewer doesn’t normally allow you to create PDF files, but Open Office and Libre Office do allow you to save your files in PDF format, so this isn’t really a problem.
Desktop publishing was a huge deal a few years ago. You don’t hear as much about it these days, but it’s still an important capability. Scribus is similar to Microsoft Publisher. It is mainly designed to be a page layout program, suitable for creating posters, brochures, newsletters, and other demanding layouts. It has more control than a word processor and better text handling than a graphics program. Scribus is our go-to program at science fair time or when making brochures or signs for the dance studio my daughter runs.
Today’s kids end up typing earlier than ever. There are many great typing games out there, but you may want to start by looking into Tux Typing (www.tux4kids.alioth.debian.org/tuxtype/index.php -Accessed August 2012). This is a fun typing game in which a player catches fish by typing words correctly. It also lets you customize the word list by adding your own words.
These are just a few of the many terrific free apps available to you. Drop by my website and let me know if you have any questions: http://www.aharrisbooks.net/websitebaker/.
Blessings to you!
Andy Harris is a homeschool dad, father of four great kids, and husband to the greatest homeschool teacher ever. He has taught all ages of students, from kindergarten to university level. Andy is the author of a number of well-known books, including HTML/XHTML/CSS:
All in One for Dummies, Game Programming—The L Line, PHP6/MySQL Programming for the Absolute Beginner, and Beginning Flash Game Programming for Dummies. For more information about his books, to see where he is speaking next, or to just say hi, please stop by his website: www.aharrisbooks.net.
Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.