What’s in an App? Apps for Student Computers

On Twitter the other night a few people were asking about applications we use on computers or to achieve various things. It got me thinking – what do we have installed on our computers at school and what uses do these apps serve? I thought it might be useful for other teachers to see and hear about the apps we use at school, so here’s a summary and brief description of each of them. I’ve only listed the Apps we run on our Macs – we run all of these Apps on Windows as well, but the Windows computers don’t get overhauled as regularly because its a lot more effort and I’m reluctant to spend the time updating our WinXP image when we’ll be rolling Win7 out shortly.


(Open-Source / Free)

The ubiquitous audio editor. We find very few students actually use it on the Macs (they tend to prefer GarageBand), but having it available cross-platform means they can work on projects in all of the labs regardless of OS choice. Great for recording and manipulating audio in various ways.


(Open-Source / Free)

A cross-platform, open-source 3D modeling and animation suite. There is a wealth of information online about how to use it, complete with tutorials in PDF, Video and HTML formats for students to follow. For most students, there’s nothing 3DS Max or Maya can do that Blender can’t. Perhaps some of your senior students require the advanced features of the proprietary packages, but it’s hard to justify a huge $ spend for one class when there’s a limited amount of  $ in the budget.

Camino / Firefox

(Open-Source / Free)

Firefox is one of the most popular browsers around and we install it on all of our Windows systems. The Firefox implementation on the Mac, however, is a bit tedious – it doesn’t integrate nicely with the OS preferences which can be problematic with some network configurations. Thankfully, the Camino project simply takes the Mozilla (Firefox) Browser engine and wraps it around a native OSX Application that uses the system configuration – so you get the firefox experience with the OSX configuration. You can’t extend it with plug-ins the same way, but the majority of users at school tend not to extend the functionality through plug-ins anyway.


(Open-Source / Free)

Interesting app that allows students to explore Space. You can see the Earth and the position of other celestial bodies relative to it at any time of the day (I opened it up now and sure enough, Australia is in the dark), and can get information about how far away various planets, stars, suns etc are. A bit specific in terms of where it could be used, but it’s open-source and relatively small, so the cost of installing it is negligible. Some kids just enjoy playing with it in their spare time, and that’s a positive thing.


(Open-Source / Free)

A movie production suite – built in storyboarding, script writing and planning tools that would be familiar to any media or film teacher. Definitely worth a look if you do any movie production stuff with your classes.



One of the very few applications we pay for, ComicLife is a must for any classroom and any year level. Easily create comics using photos and the built in tools. Plasq have also created ComicMagic (available on OS X only) and it looks even better, but we’re yet to decide whether we want to go there yet.


(Limited Use Shareware)

A simple program for stitching images together into panoramic shots. The algorithm it uses to determine where photos should be placed does an excellent job, and it even has the feature built into it to create QuickTime VR movies (where you can create 360 degree images that you can pan and rotate around). The unlicensed version watermarks the images you create, so it’s worth considering paying for the license to get rid of the Watermark. We’ve chosen not to at this stage, but it’s relatively cheap and under consideration.



A geometry package that accepts both graphical and algebraic input. Great for any graphing and geometry exercises you would use in Mathematics and related subjects. Cross platform and easy to use.


(Free / Open-Source)

The Gimp is an Open-Source bitmap image editor – like PhotoShop but without the price tag. The interface is similar (although there are differences) and there are some powerful features from PhotoShop that are lacking, but like Blender above, for the majority of students every feature they need is there. Our digital photography and imaging units use Gimp and after a period of adjustment for those kids used to PhotoShop, they find they can do everything they need for their class in the package. It can be extended using various plug-ins too.

Google Chrome


Google’s browser is new to the browser wars, but students and staff like it so we figured we’d let them use it. Good performance on both OSes, and integrates with system settings on the Mac (unlike Firefox – see above). Having a number of web browsers on the computer is beneficial for student who publish information on websites – it allows them to see how their page displays on different browsers and/or platforms.

Google Earth


Google’s all-in-one mapping and geography tool – every school should have this installed on their computers. No excuses.

Google SketchUp


The free version of Google SketchUp is a very easy to use and provides powerful tools for creating 3D images and models. More like a 3D CADD package than a Modelling and Animation Package (like Blender), it is very useful in Tech Drawing and Technology classes for having kids plan and prepare their jobs. Kids can even drop their models into Google Earth and, with the installation of an Augmented Reality plug-in, can use webcams (such as the iMac’s built-in iSight) to “hold” their models in their hands and rotate them to see them from various perspectives.


(Free / Open-Source)

A powerful video ripping/conversion tool – great for converting videos into formats for use on mobile devices, or for extracting videos from DVDs. I know we’ve used it many times to extract school performances from DVDs that have been made in the past when a version has been needed for use on the network.


(Free / Open-Source)

Inkscape -> Illustrator what Gimp -> Photoshop. A vector-graphics program that complements the Gimp nicely in digital imaging and design classes.

MS Office

(Licensed – no cost to the school)

We wouldn’t be running Office 2007 if it wasn’t paid for by the ACT DET – before the recent contract with Microsoft we were migrating to OpenOffice due to the costs associated with licensing on a school-basis. The new agreement means the school has licenses on every machine for Office 2007 (2008 for Mac). Install Ribbon Hero to turn learning Office into a fun activity. Our package also includes Visio, which is great for diagrams and charts.



Developed by MIT, Scratch is a graphically-driven programming interface. Used in IT classes in Years 6-8, it’s a simple yet effective introduction to computer programming, scripting and object-oriented concepts. It removes the difficulties associated with learning a programming syntax or language, but provides students with the tools they need to make both simple and complex games and stories using structured and logical approaches.



Explore the skies above earth from anywhere in the world – a great way to show kids how different the night sky can look depending on where and when you are. Pick any moment in time and see what the sky looked (or will look) like. You also have the option to overlay constellations to help the kids understand how they’re named, as well as various other features to explore the sky.



Used in our IT classes, TextWrangler is a text editor with advanced features like syntax highlighting and FTP capabilities. Great for programming and web development classes where kids are using multiple languages and syntax.


(Free / Open-Source)

The all-in-one video player solves the issues we have with multiple codecs in videos developed by students and brought into school. If you ever end up in a situation where your computer just will not play a video file, it’s a safe bet that installing VLC will allow you to view it. It’s also required for HandBrake (see above) to work some of its magic.


(Free / Open-Source)

A cross-platform mind-mapping application that includes various mind-mapping layouts such as organisational charts, fishbone diagrams and other brainstorming maps. There are packages out there that are a bit more powerful, but the cost attached to those packages doesn’t necessarily justify the benefits associated with the extra feature set. We find that XMind provides our students with a useful tool for mind-mapping and brainstorming activities, and its simple to use and easy to learn.

Naturally we have the iLife Suite installed on all of the Macs too (iPhoto, iTunes, iMovie, GarageBand, iWeb) and students use all of these apps for most of their multimedia work. We find that classes that want to do things like podcasting and movie making tend to favour the Macs anyway, so we haven’t invested too much effort attempting to find applications for Windows that achieve the same purpose. PhotoStory and Windows MovieMaker have been installed on the Windows systems, but are rarely used.

You’ll also notice that we’ve cut down our licensing costs significantly by relying on open-source products. This has the added bonus of creating an environment where kids don’t “learn the application”, but rather learn how to create or learn with it. Too many schools install the well-known apps without thinking about how alternatives can not only save them money, but give them a tool to educate kids such that they develop a greater understanding of user interfaces and application design.

This leaves much more money in the budget for buying hardware and peripherals, so we’ve got plenty of headsets, digital cameras and video cameras for our students to really take advantage of the tools we provide for them.

6 thoughts on “What’s in an App? Apps for Student Computers”

  1. Audrey Nay

    Great summary
    Love the alphabetical order-the TL in me 🙂

    After reflecting on this list do you think there are other apps that you consider should be added?
    Got me thinking….

    Do you have a school policy on how you decide which apps are added and which are not?

    What are the most important factors in deciding for/against?

    Cheers 🙂

  2. Bruce

    There are always more to add – I think when I get in to work tomorrow I may find I’ve left a couple out. If that’s the case, I’ll come back and add them tomorrow.

    As for policies on what to add – I guess as the IT Admin it’s largely up to me whether or not something gets installed. The reality is that if staff request an App and its open source or free, we’ll generally install it with little argument.

    The biggest issue we might deny an app for is if the benefit can’t justify the cost. The budget makes it hard to say yes to a $3000 application suite if only one class of 20 will benefit. If every kid will get benefit from it it’s usually a no-brainer, but even then we need to consider the ongoing costs if the license requires regular maintenance.

    The other thing is that if a staff member requests a paid app, we’ll investigate Open-Source options first to see if there’s a cheaper alternative. Improves the cost/benefit ratio immensely.

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