THEY HAVE STRANGE LOOKing names like "Picnik" and "Zoho," and you've probably not heard of many of them before. But growing numbers of free online tools are becoming available for tasks such as e-mail, word processing, photo editing and more. And they are becoming serious alternatives to heavyweight software programs such as Photoshop, Outlook and Office.
The Web is now becoming an application location, where software on our desktops can reside online. And while these apps may not yet have the power or functionality of their out-of-the-box relatives, they are good enough to consider as alternatives, which is great news for stretched technology budgets!
Google is leading the way in many of these areas with alternatives to e-mail, word processing and spreadsheet programs. For example, K12 educators across the country are using GMail, Google's e-mail client. Similarly, Google Docs & Spreadsheets provides the basic functionality of Microsoft Office with a collaborative environment that is tough to match.
Any number of people can share the same document, and every change is tracked and captured for review. I'm a long-time user of GMail and Google Docs & Spreadsheets, and I love them both.
Other Office alternatives are Thinkfree and Zoho, both of which have PowerPoint like presentation tools that are extremely easy to use. Thinkfree, for example, offers up to 1 GB of free space and allows users to run and publish presentations right from the Web.
So what does all this mean for school districts? First, it means that it may be time to see how online software solutions can take pressures off the bottom line. But while "free" has a nice ring to it, many administrators and school boards struggle with new concepts of Web-based tools. Unless school administrators and school board members understand their benefits, change will be difficult to effect regardless of savings.
But the more important outcome has to do with preparing students for work environments in their futures, where Web applications will be prominent. One of the great advantages is the myriad of choices users have to construct personal toolboxes, so to speak, to serve unique needs and learning styles. That's something that students need to learn how to do.
If you believe this is "bleeding edge" thinking, it's not. Consider the commitment of the Plano, Texas, school system, for instance, where within five years none of the more than 52,000 computers in the district will run any proprietary software.
It has been estimated that there are free and Web-based alternatives for up to 80 percent of the major computer applications used by K12 students, and many work cross Mac, PC and Linux platforms. Still, a myth in circulation is that "free software can't be any good, or else people would charge for it!" The fact is that many of these programs are labors of love with development and support teams that track down and fix bugs reliably. Many contributors also see themselves as part of global movements to bring computer-based tools to people who need them, no matter where they are or what they can afford. Another myth is that free software tools require learning curves that waste time. In reality, most are as easy to learn as their proprietary counterparts, and massive user communities are in place to provide support.
Collaborative and remotely served free online applications give staff and students new power and flexibility, and the time to prepare for that reality in schools is now. Is desktop software on the way out? Finally?
Will Richardson is a contributing editor for District Administration and The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate, www.districtadministration.com/pulse.