Educational programs in GNU/Linux

[ Sunday, 13 April 2008, axio ]

What does education have to do with Linux, or free software in general, you ask? In this article, I am going to answer this question and describe available open source educational programs for your kids.


Author: Karol Kozioł

Part I – General reflections

By referring to an ‘educational program’, we define this as an application that aids the ‘normal’ learning process, either by helping to absorb new information, or as a support for recalling information already learned. Educational programs, especially those for the youngest students, are often designed with the idea of ‘learn through play’. Such applications are most commonly being divided because of the age of the target user (and of course by the subject concerned). So programs for the youngest have to teach new abilities under the pretext of playing, whereas programs for older users (that are conscious enough to realize how knowledge is important, but remaining under h4 influence by their parents, and carrying out the constitutional duty of learning until 18 years old) don’t pass time with visual tasks, but are concerned with having to prepare a student for a mature exam, test, or other type of knowledge test, in relatively fast, and pleasant way. A separate class represents educational applications in the field of foreign language teaching (invariably the most popular is English, then German). From the simplest, that can be treated as elaborate thematic dictionaries, to the more complex, with human speaker and speech recognition systems, they all skillfully support children and youth with the difficult task of learning a foreign language.

But children become easily bored. For an educational program expected to fulfill its task, it’s important to maintain an appropriate balance between learning and playing. If the child views an application as boring, it will just put it away, paying no attention to it. Today, programs have come into existence that found the “golden mean” between learning and playing and are eagerly used by children. But some applications require an overabundance of tasks to be completed and while playing is an aspect of the learning, it becomes secondary and soon becomes yet another neglected learning tool. I believe that it would be a good idea to create an adventure game that offers various stages that would require completion before graduating to the next stage (such applications for Windows already exist). Another idea is an arcade racing game, one which would exchange knowledge from a given subject for (additional) power-up’s for our vehicle. While for older kids, perhaps some FPS in which access to a location will require the student to provide correct responses to questions in math, physics, geography, or biology. Perhaps even some easy RPG in which the development of a character will be dependent on assimilated knowledge.

The approach of students to educational programs in middle and secondary schools is changing.The tactic of “solve a problem about fractions, and you will see a beautiful animation” is no longer sufficient. Today, students are knocking at the door of the Land of the Internet more and more often, where the king, Google, and queen, Wikipedia, reign. The majority of information needed to pass tests, if it isn’t assimilated with help of textbooks and the like, can be found on the Internet. If educational programs are to compete with the Internet, they must have either a bigger cognitive value (which can be difficult, because on the Internet you can find literally everything: from mathematical theorems and dissections of frogs, to descriptions of chemical experiments and solutions of physics problems) or must be a more interactive application. As an example, let’s review the Kalzium program. It’s functionality in comparison with a paper periodic table is unrivaled. Also, there is no static subsection of Wikipedia that will be as functional as a program in which, with a few mouse movements, we can find out not only the boiling temperature of titanium (that can be found in every chemical table, or in Wikipedia), but also the fact as to how many elements will become a liquid in 1000 C, or how many elements were known in year 1885. The other examples we could look at are Celestia or KStars because no static star chart will rival their dynamism nor arouse so much interest that allows one to freely wander among the constellations.

PART II – Descriptions of educational programs

Educational programs can also be divided into groups according to a few other indicators. The most commonly used division (except for the target age bracket) is that of:

  • branch of the teaching knowledge (mathematics, chemistry, geography, etc.)
  • method of teaching, and here we can distinguish subsequent types of applications:
    • introductory – those that familiarize users with a topic, present new ideas, and deliver knowledge
    • encyclopedic – presenting everything about the given subject matter
    • exercise – to teach by repetition of the material, often in the form of text, sentence, or fact

In this article, I will primarily use thematic criterion.
I also emphasize that I will not describe any specialized scientific tools that are used for a specific goal, such as Chemtool, which is a program for drawing molecular formulas, or gnuplot, an application that is used for making graphs (in fact, both programs were described in Dragonia Magazine).

Multifunctional programs designed for children

[1] GCompris – Is a set of educational programs and games for children between the ages of 2-10 (ages are developmentally dependent). This program is divided into different categories (e.g., computer, maths, games) in which there are various tasks. Performing these exercises not only broadens dry knowledge, for example by learning the addition of numbers. Many of these tasks have a practical purpose, such as explaining the mechanics of a sluice or by teaching how to use money at a grocery store. The program’s interface responds to the visual need of the target age bracket so it’s colorful and full of big icons. Good answers are rewarded by an animation, such as with the happy face of a clown. Though the program is still under development, it currently contains approximately 80 exercises. GCompris is the part of a project named Friends of the World Treasures, under the patronage of UNESCO.

GCompris in action

[2] Childsplay – Similar to GCompris, Childsplay offers tasks and games designed for the youngest students. Most of them are oriented for learning either math or a language, however it is available only in English because it has not been localized (but this may be a good thing because we now have a good program to assist children in learning English). There are games that teach language, such as Pacman, where by eating letters in the correct order, we make a proper word. Audio-visual layout of Childsplay is nice for the eye and ear, and in many tasks, we are assisted by animals (their sounds recorded in nature). Some of games’ tasks train memory, for example where you must remember positions of two cards and match them into pairs. Despite the application having fewer tasks than GCompris, they seem to be more refined. Unfortunately, the big drawback, as mentioned earlier, is lack of a Polish localization.

Childsplay in action


[3] KBruch – This is a program designed for learning about fractions. The exercises are divided into 4 groups: easy operations on fractions (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division of two fractions), comparing fractions: (larger/smaller), conversion of decimal fractions into vulgar fractions (also decimal with infinite expansion) and factorization of numbers (that is, finding the product of the smallest divisors).

[4] KmPlot – This application enables making a lot of functional graphs on one coordinate system (you have a free choice: graphs of ordinary and parametric functions, as in Cartesian, or polar coordinates). Additionally, except for drawing graphs, there is an option to determine the extrema of a function and its integral in the given range.

KmPlot in action

[5] Kig – With a focus on interactive geometry that gives you opportunity to draw circles and ellipses (without specifying parameters of the function, only determining its focuses), parabolas, and hyperbolas. We can modify, rotate, calibrate, make mirror images, and do many other operations of created figures. The program is so easy that even a pupil from elementary school is able to use it, however it’s primarily meant for students from secondary schools that can work with topics such as conic sections.

[6] KPercentage – This provides exercises that train in the usage of percentages: calculation of percentage from the given number, calculation of what percent of X is number X, or a combination of these tasks.

[7] OpenEuclide – This software helps with drawing geometrical figures (circles, vectors, triangles, etc.) and their dynamic modifications. Making a triangle with just two mouse clicks – it’s not a problem.

[8] Lybniz – An easy to use program used for drawing functional graphs enabling you to place a maximum of 3 function graphs on one coordinate system.

[9] Dr.Geo – This is another program designed for interactive geometry, meant for making various geometrical figures and their free modification.

[10] TuxMath – Mathematics for the youngest. It teaches four basic operations in the game and would normally deserve to be called an arcade. If an operation is done correctly, we destroy asteroids that are heading for us. If not, the asteroid destroys our city.

TuxMath in action


[11] Kalzium – A second to none periodic table. Besides the typical table with elements and dry facts about their number and mass, we also have additional information (e.g., ionization energy, image of an element in free state) and, to some degree, interaction with the program. With the proper scroll bars we can mark on the periodic table only those elements that match certain parameters (there is a scroll bar that is used for specifying the year of discovery and state of matter in the given temperature scroll bar. The program also contains a module that can work out the mole mass of a compound from its formula.

Kalzium — learn chemistry!

[12]Gperiodic – This is an application that is the equivalent of a periodic table, a bit less complicated in its complexity than Kalzium, but scientifically complete.


[13] KGeography – A program for learning geography from KDE-EDU package. Selecting one of the almost 20 maps, we can try our hand at tasks in which we find a given country on the map, or we can match the country/region to the capital/flag or vice versa. Admittedly, I think this program is very cool and find that it truly tests your knowledge (who knows the capital of Djibouti? or what does the flag of Afghanistan look like?), but it has also some drawbacks. Magnification of the map is far from perfect where you can check your answers by finishing the requested amount of questions and reviewing a “report card” of sorts.

[14] GoogleEarth – Admittedly, this application was not designed as strictly educational, but it certainly poses a good educational tool for all geography enthusiasts. The programmers at Google created this program that combines both maps and satellite photos to take total landscape images. While using this application we can not only see every area of the world, but also search through data by name (ah, that Google’s searching engine…), find hotels or restaurants all over the world, or find the closest connection between two locations. This application is still undergoing development and getting new elements all the time. Initially it offered 3D views of some cities and now additional modules for searching the sky have been introduced. Open source alternative to GoogleEarth is Marble from KDE.


[15] KStars – KStars is a simulation of a planetarium. It shows a chosen segment of a celestial chart and the associated stars, planets, galaxies, and planetoids. Additionally, it contains a lot of nice tools, such as a time calculator and a solar system diagram.

[16] Stellarium – This is a sky simulator. It shows not only stars in the point forms, but also views of the sky in close to real time. There are options that allow for fog effects or change in sky illumination during the day. The sky is shown not as an independent creation, but as a background for a chosen location, and this gives it a more real impression.

[17] Celestia – This is a 3D simulator of outer space. Not leaving home, we can see how various objects in the universe, from the closest to us, the Moon, to a nebula far away in the cosmos appear in the sky. This application possess a rich database about many celestial bodies and I believe the best way to view them is moving inside the 3D environment. Maybe it’s a good time for a ride towards the Andromeda galaxy?

[18] Sun Clock – This application is a map of the world that shows it lighted and unlighted by the Sun as it travels across the earth. The map is very scalable so we can see how the dawn starts in any corner of the globe in every detail and watch as night falls in another part of the world at the same time. Additional options in the program allow us to show the local time in different cities, their coordinates, and the time of sunrises and sunsets.

Foreign languages

[19] Programs from the KDE-EDU package (KAnagram, KHangMan, Kiten, KLatin, KLetters, Kverbos, KVocTrain, KWordQuiz) – this is a set of applications that support the learning of foreign languages such as English, German, Japanese, and Latin. The programs are very different; some are just easy games that extend the vocabulary, others are language quizzes, and some are large thematic dictionaries or programs that help review the material.

[20] Anagramarama – An easy game in which we have to make an anagram (word that was created by reordering letters or whole syllables) out of a set of letters. Finding new anagrams will certainly encourage children to learn new words in English (and maybe assist with recalling old anagrams).


[21] Little Wizard – An application that teaches the youngest the difficult art of programming, in particular things that use variables, loops and conditional instructions. The whole program is provided with visually pleasing icons designed with children in mind(so not just dry commands), and the effect of how programming works in things like building a house from jigsaw elements, etc…

[22] KTurtle – A program designed with the aim of sparking an interest among children in programming. It is based on Logo (a dialect of Lisp, considered an educational language invented in 1967 and introduced recently in middle schools on information technology lessons). Programming in Logo is based on easy instructions (moving the turtle the given number of steps in any direction, rotating it, etc…) by which we control the turtle. By moving it, we can also draw various easy geometrical figures.

Other programs

[23] TuxTyping – A program for kids aimed at teaching fast typing on keyboard, with a nice “penguinish” audio-visual style.

[24] GNU Terminarz Ucznia – An application that supports planning school duties. It helps with organizing classes, writing school timetables, dates of tests, etc…

[25] KTouch – Application for learning fast typing without looking at the screen.

[26] TypingTrainer – Another program that supports the learning of fast typing (as you see such programs are in demand).

The above listing of educational programs (for sure not completed) is not in any way a thorough description of the applications (therefore, for each program I devote only a few sentences at most). Instead, my aim is to create interest among readers with this type of software. I encourage you to test these applications and to form your own opinion about them. I hope everyone will find in that recital something interesting either for yourself or for your children :-) I encourage you to also visit the School LUG’s website [27]. There you will find a list of educational and scientific applications (some even with descriptions), as well as some articles about how to use Linux in school.


About the Author

Karol Kozioł

Born in 1984. Studies chemistry on Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, Poland. Major in X-ray atomic spectroscopy. Non-academic interests include... chemistry (strange, isn't it? :P), GNU/Linux (more...)

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