Learning to use Inkscape

I have been dedicating my Winter Break to learning some new things and have been successful with Inkscape thanks in large part to a great online book. The book itself is called Inkscape: Guide to a Vector Drawing Program and was written by Tavmjong Bah. The book is available online (with a well organized index of hyperlinked chapters and sample files to download), as a PDF file, or even in good old paper from Informit.com, Amazon.com, or BarnesAndNoble.com.

The book is full of terrific, step-by-step directions for creating SVG images using versions 0.46 and 0.47 of Inkscape. The retro-compatibility to 0.46 has been terrific because my old Apple OSX (10.4) can’t handle 0.47. Where the two versions vary, there are descriptions of the differences and similarities. All of the example lessons that I have completed thus far work just fine in my slightly older version of Inkscape.

I have created the first three images from Chapter 1: QuickStart. Shown here they are a Swedish flag, an EU flag, and a logo for a hiking club. Thus far the directions have been thorough enough to help me understand what Inkscape does without getting bogged down in details. There are screenshots of each step that help me to be sure that I am getting the correct result as I work my way through the exercises.I look forward to continuing to learn more about this week and hope to use what I learn here to overhaul the EuroMoodle website at the end of the week.

Critique: Scratch

scratchScratch is a colorful, visually-appealing programming tool for children and teenagers. It was developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab, “with financial support from the National Science Foundation, Microsoft, Intel Foundation, Nokia, and MIT Media Lab research consortia.” With this impressive pedigree, it is impressive that Scratch is also free software. Scratch is built on Squeak, a free, open-source tool which uses SmallTalk.

Scratch is currently in version 1.3.1 with updated versions released roughly semi-annually. The software can be downloaded from the Scratch website at MIT. The download screen presents you with an optional form for some personal information but a link to the Scratch privacy policy states: “You do not have to tell us anything about yourselves to download the Scratch software. When you download the Scratch software, we give you the option of telling us some things about yourself, but you do not have to fill in any of this information if you don’t want to.” Every item on the form is optional, so you could choose to disclose your country but not your city or school.

Students can use Scratch to make simple (or complex) interactive programs like games, cartoons, simulations, and much more. I have used Scratch in my work with 8th graders for three years now and it never fails to capture their interest and creativity. Scratch programs are saved in a .sb format which is small and easily emailed or up/downloaded. These cannot be opened by other software, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem thanks to the Scratch website. With a simple click on the Share button, your Scratch programs are uploaded to the Scratch website and turned into Java applets which can be played right there on the page or embedded into other webpages.

The shared Scratch files also have a kid-friendly Creative Commons license applied to them automatically. Called a License to Play, this agreement attempts to ensure that credit is given for using others’ ideas and also to develop an awareness of sharing in general. In addition to the cc-license, remixing of projects is encouraged and enabled through easy downloads of the original .sb file. Sharing a remix up to the site automatically creates a notation for the project with the name of the original programmer and a link to her/his program. The overall user experience is friendly and open.


Freedom: There is only one version of Scratch and it is free of cost and encumbrance. Scratch is therefore both freely available and freely distributable.

Privacy: Users are not required to disclose any personal information to download and enable the software. Teens and adults are asked to provide an email address in order to create an account on the Scratch website. (The email address is only used for password recovery.) Children are not asked for email addresses and all other information (name, location) is optional.

Openness: Scratch’s underlying source code is freely available and “unofficial” customizations have popped up here and there (most notably a scrolling background extension). The Scratch website is an excellent resources and includes support forums which any member can use. Individual Scratch programs are cc-licensed when they are shared to the Scratch website.

Control: The software is “officially” developed by the MIT folks and although user input is frequently sought and incorporated into updates, the development itself is closed (i.e. you cannot join the development team). The Scratch team develops and shares this software is a highly visible, public manner and encourages individual initiatives provided that the Scratch “branding” remains pure.

Scratch scores very well in the catagories of Freedom and Privacy but could do a bit better inĀ  Openness and Control. It does, however, meet the criteria of all four catagories, earning it a Platinum rating here on OSED.org.

Critique: Jing

jingSeveral of my colleagues recently returned from a Middle School conference where they were inspired by teachers and guest speakers to think more creatively about their use of IT. This has resulted in a noticable uptick in interest in some of the things I have been sharing at school. I am excited that many of the ideas that I have been struggling to bring to the proverbial table are suddenly on everyone’s mind.

Many of the questions involve “free” things that were waved tantalizingly in front of conference attendees, leaving them starry-eyed and optimistic about our students learning and their own teaching. I think OSED.org is a perfect place to respond to some of these inquiries with an honest assessment and some thoughts about freedom and openness.

We will start with a question about Jing. My colleague Michele is interested in creating motion captures (rather than a static screenshot) and is looking for a “free” tool. She writes: “An easy Online one we learned about at [the conference] is Jing.”

I went to the Jing website and downloaded the Jing desktop application and dropped it into my Applications folder after reading all 2405 words of the Software License Agreement. The Jing SLA is very clear that this individual copy of Jing is licensed to one user and that one user may not share Jing with other users. Jing comes in a “vanilla” and a “Pro” version, placing Jing firmly in the “free sample” column. The Jing website is peppered with ads for Jing Pro…and so are all video clips made with vanilla Jing!

jing-registerWhen opening Jing for the first time, I was prompted immediately to create a user account…starting with my own “valid email address.” Not one to give up my email address lightly, I read the 2227 words of the Screencast user agreement to see what the good people at TechSmith might want to do with my email address. Although they assure me that they will not send spam, they will be sending me offers for related products. Last time I checked, that is pretty much the standard definition of spam. The surrender of a working email address is required to use Jing and one account cannot be shared among multiple computers.

picture-5Jing works as advertised, creating screenshots and motion captures with ease. Screenshots can be marked up with tools similar to the Crop and Annotate tools in Apple’s Preview. Motion captures are saved as .swf files and contain both a “splash” for Jing and also a live link to purchase Jing Pro, which contains additional features not available in vanilla Jing. Beyond the simple Preferences choices, Jing is not customizabe or extensible, nor is it interoperable with any other software.

Not Free
Not Free

Freedom: Jing software, Jing captures, and the Jing support website are peppered with ads for Jing Pro licenses (misleadingly refered to as “buying”). These additional features cost money.

Privacy: Using Jing requires not one but two restrictive service agreements and the disclosure of a working email address.

Openness: Jing files are created in formats that are editable and viewable with other tools, but the software itself is not extensible or customizable.

Control: TechSmith owns the software, the development process, and the means of distribution.

Although Jing may be a fine piece of software, it fails to meet any of the four criteria: Freedom, Openness, Privacy, and Control. Jing is not free.

Thoughts about Scratch@MIT

After months of anticipation, I arrived yesterday for the Scratch@MIT conference here in Cambridge, Massachusetts (USA). The conference is being held in the MIT Media Lab building, which is only a block away from my hotel.

DSCF0227The morning started with a keynote by Mitchel Resnik, who introduced the Scratch Project itself and the ideas behind it. His spiral of learning stages reminded me of the MYP’s design cycle, but there were several features of Mitch’s spiral that I really like more.

  • The spiral has a “bias toward action”, with learners beginning to create almost immediately.
  • The spiral breaks the “evaluation” phase of the design cycle into three stages (play, share, reflect), each of which has its own purpose.
  • Play is situated right after create in the spiral, making this test and explore phase the intrinsic reward to the learner.
  • Share is now an overt part of the design cycle rather than simply an evaluation option.

DSCF0236After his opening remarks, Mitch introduced four Scratch users who are well known within the Scratch online community: JSO, MyRedNeptune, SonicPops, and Wodunne. The four of them discussed their involvement with Scratch and how they have produced excellent programs of their own and helped other Scratch users. The self-confidence that they all exhibited was really amazing as they answered questions from our diverse audience.


Created from Scratch – MIT News Office

The MIT News website has posted a preview article about the Scratch conference this week. Written by David Chandler, the article offers a nice overview of both the Scratch software itself, a brief introduction the larger Scratch Project, and a great quote by Mitchel Resnik.

“‘It’s grown beyond our greatest expectations,’ says Media Lab professor Mitchel Resnick, who leads the Scratch project. The three-day “Scratch@MIT” conference, being held July 24 to 26, is a chance for “sharing experiences, people talking about new initiatives they’re starting, and what worked and what didn’t,’ he says.”

Follow the link below to read the entire article online!

Created from Scratch – MIT News Office.

Notes in Moodle 1.9

One of the coolest new features in Moodle 1.9 is the notes tool. Notes are available to any teacher when viewing an individual student’s profile page. Clicking on the Notes tab for a student lets the teacher create a small block of text fot that student (i.e. the note). This text can be private (for the teacher only), for the course (other teachers in the course can see it), or even available to teachers throughout the site.

I think this feature could be really valuable as we work in our teams with the 8th grade. Posting a note about a student’s progress or performance is a great way to “keep tabs” on each of them as they work and would be an invaluable collaboration tool, too. I plan to share this tool with some colleagues this year to see what we can make of it.

Followup on Pencil

PencilSeveral weeks ago I wrote about my discover of and interest in Pencil, a multi-platform FLOSS animation tool. My 8th grade eStories students downloaded Pencil and installed it into their PHD Applications folder and prepared to begin creating animations. We had all reviewed the basic principals of frame-by-frame animation, the differences between vector and bitmap images, and the basics of working with layers.

The students quickly mastered the basic tools of Pencil and began to create their planned animations. The assignment was not large (a 30 second scene of their chosing) and they we prompted frequently to save their changes. They were somewhat hesitant to work in this “traditional” format rather than using a tool like Flash, so I felt some pressure to ensure that their experience with Pencil was rewarding.

As the work progressed, it became apparent that Pencil was not yet the tool I had hoped that it was. There were several glitches, major and minor, that became recurring problems in our class.

  • There seems to be a default-to-bitmap-layer bug in Pencil that caused students to repeatedly find that their carefully rendered vector images were in fact bitmaps. Each student who found this to have happened swore that they had chosen the correct layer and I actually experience this frustration myself.
  • Saved Pencil files actually consist of a file (with no file extension) and a folder (with a .data extension). Students could not double-click on the file to reopen their work (no file extension) and the two objects had to be moved together so that the movie would not break. I know this sounds simple, but file management is a big issue for Middle School students.
  • Pencil simply crashes too often. It either quits without warning (and without saving) or freezes until the student force-quits (also without saving). We lost quite a bit of work due to these crashes and lost work is lost time.

I remain interested in Pencil and will continue to follow its development on the Pencil website, but I will discontinue its use in my classes until it is sufficiently stable. The interface and general ease of use make me hopeful that Pencil will, one day, return to my classroom.

Moodle nudges forward | E-learning | EducationGuardian.co.uk

GuardianThe Guardian reported yesterday that Moodle continues to move ahead in the U.K. despite the efforts of vendors to slow this movement. The article cites a Tim Clarke of RM who does an admirable job of trotting out the usual, tired FUD arguments:

“The costs of implementing are more than a licence cost. What are the costs of hosting, managing and running it? What does it cost to tailor it to what you want it to be? Moodle is very ‘tailorable’ but it can have slightly higher configuration charges. You have to sit down and do it yourself or every teacher has to, and that has a cost.”

Tim sure can pose those rhetorical questions! Anyone who is familiar with Moodle (or FLOSS in general) is likely to find this FUD amusing but uninspired. The concern I have, however, is that these vacuous statements can be effective in creating uncertainty within schools and departments that are considering the option of adopting Moodle for their teaching and learning. Unchallenged statements about “hidden costs” and “lack of support” can derail decisions.

Thankfully this article balances these troubling statements with examples from two UK school districts that are using Moodle and having great success with it. The school authorities of West Sussex and Buckinghamshire have sizable Moodle installations already and with the vocal support of Ian Lynch, spokesman for the Open Schools Alliance, it looks like Moodle is well on its way to becoming THE international standard.

Moodle nudges forward | E-learning | EducationGuardian.co.uk