What software do you install on teacher laptops?

27 04 2008

We are currently working on next year’s image for teacher laptops. Part of this process involves installing software programs that we feel would be valuable for teachers to have, as well as removing as much proprietary software as possible (trial Internet services, bloated image editing and scanning software, crippled CD burning software, software update managers, time-limited anti-virus programs). Other than the MS Office suite and anti-virus software, I usually look to freeware or open-source programs for additional functionality. Some of the software I have included in images in the past includes:

  1. Fox IT PDF Reader
  2. Adobe/Macromedia Flash Reader and Shockwave player
  3. Audacity
  4. Firefox
  5. JRE
  6. Skype
  7. Google Earth
  8. Codec packs to allow teachers to view and listen to divX, mp4, ogg, etc…
  9. GIMP or another photo editor
  10. VLC player

I would really like to hear what others are including on teacher laptops. Do you use freeware programs? Or do you prefer to use commercial products? What software could your teachers simply not live without? And what software causes you (and your teachers) the most frustration?
Jason

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Untangle – Open-source network gateway

20 03 2008

Always on the lookout for great open-source products, I stumbled across Untangle on Christopher Dawson’s blog on ZDNet. Untangle is a network gateway product that brings together a number of popular open-source security and network applications into one package.

I have been a Watchguard Firefox supporter for years, but Untangle’s feature list gives Watchguard a run for its money. It offers just about everything my Firebox did, including spam filtering, web filtering, protocol control, virus and phishing blocker, intrusion protection, reporting, as well as remote access functionality. Best of all, as Untangle is an open-source product, it is freely available and can be downloaded and installed on regular hardware. A similar feature set on a Watchguard Firefox would cost thousands in yearly subscription fees.

I have put together an old Pentium 4 box with 2 network cards, downloaded the ISO, and I am up and running. I am done with most of the configuration, and so far, it was relatively painless. My current firewall/spam/intrusion solution is still in place, but a number of computers in my test environment are also routing through the Untangle box to test its functionality without compromising security. If it lives up to its claims, Untangle would be providing a feature set that Watchguard charges thousands of dollars for on a yearly basis.

I would recommend trying it out.

Jason





Running Moodle on Windows

6 03 2008

Part of what I love about Moodle, when compared to other VLEs, is the active developer community. Users from all over are constantly adding new modules (registration required) that help extend the functionality of the base Moodle package. When investigating a new module, I need a quick way to test its functionality to determine if the module is stable and works as intended. Only then would I consider installing it to my production box.

Moodle for Windows to the rescue! Moodle.org provides a complete installer package using XAMPP. XAMPP is basically a all-in-one program that installs PHP, MySQL, and Apache and provides a simple interface that can be used to stop and start the database and web server, configure PHP extensions, and edit configuration files. It takes about 10 minutes to install.

I try to keep the setup on my production server and my Windows box as similar as possible. It is very easy to dump the data from the production server and import it into my Windows test instance to ensure that my data is in sync.

Although you may be tempted to use a XAMPP/Moodle set up for your production server because it is so easy to use, there is one caveat. Most would say that this set up is not secure enough to run on a server that is accessible on the Internet without some tweaking.

Jason





OpenDNS for school web content filtering

27 02 2008

OpenDNS

In an effort to help improve web content filtering to remove objectionable material, I am testing OpenDNS. The setup was done in about 5 minutes, and required little more than creating an account with OpenDNS and then pointing our DNS servers to forward any requests not handled by our internal DNS to OpenDNS servers.

What are some of the features offered?

  1. Custom pages that are shown when a user attempts to access a blocked web site or page. Users can choose to send a message from the blocked page if they feel it should be unblocked, and an email will be sent to the account administrator with the details.
  2. The ability to block categories of sites (i.e. gambling, tasteless) or individual sites.
  3. The ability to add specific sites to a whitelist.
  4. Detailed statistical reports showing how many requests were received by OpenDNS servers, at what time, and which blocked sites have been accessed.
  5. Typo corrections. If I accidently type in http://www.wikipedia.og instead of http://www.wikipedia.org, OpenDNS will correct the error and forward the request to http://www.wikipedia.org.
  6. Network shortcuts. I can add a shortcut called “gmail” so that users simply have to type “gmail” into their web browser, and the request will be forwarded to http://gmail.google.com.
  7. Anti-phishing checks. If a site is labelled as a phishing site, OpenDNS will block access to it.

So far, I am very impressed, and we will continue to test the system to determine if it is a viable long term option for the school.

Jason





Vista vs. XP vs. Ubuntu on my M1330

24 02 2008

ubuntu-logo.jpg

My M1330 came pre-installed with Vista, but as someone who is never happy with the OS they have running on their computer, I wanted to try out a few different OSs before settling on just one (or two!). After a few days of using Vista, I had had enough. It was slow, buggy, and simply did not feel as snappy as I would have expected from a machine that had 2GB of RAM and a dedicated video card. Following instructions from Notebookforum, I quickly removed Vista and had Windows XP installed on the laptop. Now that was better! The interface looked old, especially compared to Vista or Leopard. But reliability trumps looks, so it was an easy decision to pack away the Vista recovery CD.

All was well for a few weeks, but then I decided to give Ubuntu a try. I had used Ubuntu on many different machines in the past, but always ended up moving back to XP on my primary machine, usually because of problems with hibernation or poor peripheral support. I installed Ubuntu in a dual-boot configuration, and with a few exceptions, everything worked right away. Hibernation was a bit tricky, but eventually I had it working.

Over the next few days I found I was spending more time working in Ubuntu, but I still had the need to occasionally use Windows XP for a few reasons, namely Office applications when working with students and teachers, as well Internet Explorer when configuring or posting to Sharepoint. Rebooting into Windows was a pain, so I settled on VMware as the best solution, as it would allow me to run a Windows virtual machine from within Ubuntu. Not leaving well enough alone, I didn’t want to have to create a new Windows image, so I used these instructions to run my existing Windows partition in VMware Player. After some issues (I had made a mistake in the cylinders calculation), I was able to run my Windows partition in VMware Player from within Ubuntu. It wasn’t easy, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who doesn’t like tinkering, but now I have a setup that allows me to boot into Windows or Ubuntu, or alternatively access all of my needed Windows applications when running Ubuntu if I need to do something quickly and don’t want to reboot.

I think I have found the best configuration for my needs… at least for now!

Jason