From commonly used productivity tools to the most complex modeling and graphics applications, software is what makes computer hardware useful. Two major types of software, or computer programs, are of interest here, operating systems and applications. Operating systems are programs that coordinate all the hardware components such as memory, disks, and display, and make them operate as a unified system. The major examples are Microsoft Windows and the Apple Macintosh OS.
Application software comes in many types. While there are many highly specialized software packages, such as those addressing specific functions, occupations, recreation, or other needs, the most widely recognized programs in general use can be organized into the following categories:
Productivity: These include word processing, spreadsheet, database, and presentation programs. These support many different functions of creating documents, storing and sorting information of both numeric and text forms, and displaying information in useful ways. Web browsers and search engines are the latest forms of software that support general user needs.
Communications and Collaboration: In this category are programs that facilitate interaction between individuals or groups instantly or over time. Such programs may send and receive and display video and sound, and share and edit text documents. Some programs are designed for specific types of interactions, such as conducting discussions or teaching classes. Electronic mail and chat programs are included here, as well as VOIP (voice over Internet protocol).
Publishing: This type of software supports the creation of professional quality materials combining text, graphics and photos typically published as magazines, books and brochures. Publishing may also take the form of slide shows, films, and other kinds of presentations.
Students can make use of all these types in reaching lifetime goals. They can learn to use software tools that they are likely to use in further education and vocations, and the specific tools of a discipline such as physics or a profession such as medicine. They can learn to use software to enhance their own creative or organizational talents, and software that helps them learn from distant sources of instruction and information.
Most software is now developed and sold commercially, and the code is proprietary to the developer. Of growing importance is Open Source software, which is developed and provided to users free or inexpensively, in a manner that allows the user access to the program code, and which operates on any hardware platform. Prominent in this category is Linux, an operating system, but application software of this type is also available.
To use software well, define your needs based on the learning outcomes you plan for your students. Here are strategies to make software use more effective.
enGauge is a resource for educators using technology provided on the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory Web site. http://www.ncrel.org/engauge/
The North Central Regional Educational Laboratory Web site published a resource that helps teachers select and use software. http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/thepoint/soft.htm
The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) has developed standards for the use of technology in education. http://www.iste.org/
The Impact of Technology on Learning: Making Sense of the Research published in 1999 by the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning. http://www.mcrel.org/PDFConversion/PolicyBriefs/PB_ImpactTechnology.html
Firefox is a free, high-quality browser and runs on any platform. It has a number of built-in security features that cut down on spy-ware, viruses, and pop-ups. It also has extensions you can install to enhance its capabilities. http://www.mozilla.org
For more information on open source software in education, visit Open Options provided by the Northwest Educational Technology Consortium (NETC). http://www.netc.org/openoptions/
The Open Source Initiative is a clearinghouse for more information on a wide variety of open source software. http://www.opensource.org/