Monday, January 9, 2017

Open Source Software for an International Distance Education Student

In 2013 I enrolled as a distance education student in a Masters of Education at Athabasca University Canada. One of the requirements was to be able to submit assignments in Microsoft Word format. However, as a Linux user I normally use Libre Office, in place of Microsoft Office. So I decided to see how far I would get with this. In three years of study I created dozens of assignments in Microsoft Word (.DOC) format using Libre Office, without much difficulty.

Athabasca's website says:
"AU's standard computing platform is a computer running Microsoft Windows with MS Office, so this is the primary system supported by AU's IT Help Desk. Only very limited assistance for other hardware and software platforms is offered. ... software capability to submit assignments as Microsoft Word (.doc) documents. "

From "Student Computer Requirements", IT Help Desk, Athabasca University 

There were some problems where I tried to use the newer .DOCX  format. I found it better where I was given an assignment template in .DOCX, to save it as .DOC and submit in in that format. In three years of submitting assignments no one seemed to notice that I was not using Microsoft Word.

For a statistics course I was required to carry out calculations using data supplied in a Microsoft Excell spreadsheet, enter my results in the spreadsheet and submit that. Some of the instructions for using the spreadsheet, did not apply, but I was able to carry out the calculations using Libre Office Calc and pass the course.

For some group assignments I would with other students to prepare documents using Google Docs.  This worked remarkably well, with us able to each make contributions to a joint document, along with comments, asynchronously. Shortly before the assignment was due we would have a synchronous session, using Skype for audio and editing the document jointly on screen. This was something like a real time video game with the text moving around on screen as others edited and I tried to find where I was to make my changes.

Occasionally I had to use Libre Office Impress to view a Powerpoint file. Often the formatting of the resulting slides was not elegant, with text out of aliment. However, overall the presentations were readable. I did not have to submit any Powerpoint files, so don't know how acceptable Libre Office would be.

A program which caused more difficulty was Adobe Connect, for web conferencing. Most of the Athabasca courses used asynchronous communication via the Moodle Learning Management System. I would post to a text forum and read replies the next day. This was convenient as where I was in Canberra, was in a very different time zone from Canada. However some courses would have a synchronous session every few weeks using Adobe Connect. There were usually two sessions run one at a time to suit Canada and one for the rest of the world (which tended to suite Australia).
I found that Adobe Connect would not work with Firefox for Linux, but did with Google Chromium. However, additional software needed to allow me to run a webinar, not just be a participant, did not work with Chromium. This only became important during the Capstone e-Portfolio Presentation, at the end of the program, where I had to give a presentation. For this I borrowed a Windows computer. In retrospect it would have been better to find a workaround, as the windows computer did not work particularly well.

Some changes would make being a student much easier. A work processor which rigidly enforced style sheets would be useful. Students (and academics generally) are required to use specific fonts, heading sizes and layout. Most students try to manually replicate this format, rather than use the styles built into the word processor. It would be useful to have an editor which enforced the styles.

Better webinar software, which works with Moodle would be useful.

However, overall I managed to get through three years and complete a Masters without using Windows (almost).

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