Disc drivephoto © 2006 Louise Docker | more info (via: Wylio)
In this time of budget crunches in the world of education, I have learned to be creative in how I choose what to pay for and what to find for free when it comes to computer programs.  Here are some free alternatives that serve as good substitutions for their more costly peers.

1.  Tux Paint => Kid Pix     For years my school has struggled to keep using a very outdated version of Kid Pix because we just couldn’t afford a site license for a newer version.  Yet every time QuickTime updated, our version wouldn’t work any more.  Finally, it just became too much of a hassle to support.  This year I found Tux Paint and discovered it had many similar bells and whistles as Kid Pix.  No, it isn’t identical, but it does the job of providing an easy-to-use, easy-to-learn drawing program for younger students.  Plus, the creators openly encourage you to install it on as many machines as you want.  So this year I took the plunge and introduced Tux Paints instead of Kid Pix.  Not surprisingly, the kids were thrilled and they loved that they could download it to use at home as well.

2.  BBC Dance Mat Typing => Type to Learn   What leads to success in learning keyboarding skills?  Frequent repetition and practice are the usual answers.  Well, the easiest way to get students to practice a skill is to make it easy to access and fun to do.  Enter BBC Dance Mat Typing!  Our 3rd and 4th grade students love the British accents of the animals, and the humor and colorful graphics keep them coming back.  With a simple link on our Media page, students can easily find the program and pick up at home where they left off at school. 

3.  Starfall => Raz Kids    Reading programs for beginners are a great way to encourage the more reluctant students to practice (they love to play with technology!), and they provide a painless way to let children do as much repetition as they need to build their skills.  Up until this year, we only used Starfall, which provides stories that specifically emphasize sounds that children are working on—for example, short “e” sounds.  Children can listen to the stories, read the stories, and practice to their heart’s content.  This year my school also paid for a Raz Kids account, which gives a teacher more direct control over what students are doing and gives them data to analyze.  It also provides testing for comprehension.  While Starfall does not provide such controls, it does enable beginning readers to practice and play games related to their reading.

4.  Electronic Library of Minnesota => Library Databases     Okay, this one only works for schools in Minnesota, but I have seen other places that have similar access for their residents.  The Electronic Library of Minnesota (ELM) provides all residents of Minnesota access to a variety of databases for free.  Some access requires a user to put in a valid public library card number, but many geared toward children do not.  Again, since my school has an extremely limited budget, we cannot afford to pay for databases.  Rather than having students resort to their first inclination (“I’ll just google it!”), I can link them to the ELM databases so that they can get grade-appropriate material.  Some of the articles are even available in a format that “reads” the article aloud.

All in all, technology is helping small schools like mine to provide wonderful programs for students without the subsequent costs.  If you are creative in how you think about what resources are available, you too can provide your students with great access to the learning opportunities around them.  And, you can encourage your teacher peers to think before they spend, so that the limited resources we all have go toward things we can't already get for free.