Open source alternatives to proprietary applications

I thought I’d take a moment to briefly mention a few open source alternatives to popular computer applications. The following programmes are all:
  • Open source – the source code is freely available, which usually means more stable and more secure.
  • Free – as in no cost and free from restriction.
  • Cross-platform – they run on multiple operating systems, including Linux and Windows.
  • As good as, if not better than, their proprietary counterparts.

So, here goes (by the way, this list is by no means complete):

Firefox – A very popular web browser that offers a more secure, more intuitive and faster alternative to Internet Explorer. – An entire office suite of applications for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, databases and drawing. It uses the OpenDocument format by default and as such, it’s use is encouraged, especially in academia and governments.

Thunderbird – An email client that is a fast, secure and stable replacement for Outlook and Outlook Express, especially if you just need something light to manage your email.

Pidgin – An single instant messaging client that allows you to use all of your IM accounts at once, including IRC, MSN, Groupwise, AIM and ICQ.

Miro – An Internet TV application to subscribe to RSS feeds of free content from a host of providers, including TED, National Geographic and the Discovery Channel.

GIMP – The Gnu Image Manipulation Program. A free alternative to Photoshop that, while lacking some high end, professional features, does more than enough for most of us.

Flock – Social web browser…if you use Facebook, Flickr, Digg, or any other social networking service, this is for you.

Ubuntu – Not a software application but an entire operating system, Ubuntu is a Linux distribution based on Debian. Click here for the Wikipedia article.

Another great application to run, although once it’s set up you’ll hardly ever notice it, is BOINC (click here for the Wikipedia article). After installing the software, register with various projects and join millions of other users who donate their computer’s idle time to solving complex medical, scientific and mathematical problems. I can suggest the World Community Grid to begin with.

And while I’m at it, here’s a link to a post that discusses some of the problems with using Microsoft Word. I personally don’t mind receiving Word documents and understand that many institutions don’t give their employees a choice, but the first step is realising that you actually have a choice.

Patient safety: keynote from SAAHE conference

I finally got around to typing up some of my notes from the SAAHE conference. Here is the first keynote address I attended. It was a presentation by Professor Ara Tekian, the Associate Professor of Medical Education at the University of Illinois, entitled “Medical errors and patient safety: teaching and assessing at undergraduate level”.

While there is clearly a strong emphasis on the issue of patient safety among medical students, I think that the principles discussed could just as easily be applied to physiotherapy students.

Although these are only rough notes scribbled down during the presentation, I did try to incorporate more content, so it’s not exactly the same presentation that was given.

Click on a link below to download the notes in the format of your choice:

OpenDocument (.odt)
PDF (.pdf)
Microsoft Word (.doc)

Note: If you don’t know what the above formats mean, choose Microsoft Word.

Innovate (a journal of online education)

I just came across Innovate, an online journal published by the Fischler School of Education. It has some really great articles on the use of new technologies in education.

If you register (it’s free, although you do need to provide some occupational information), you get full access to all the articles.

Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education

While working on the literature review for my Masters thesis, I came across a paper presented at the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education (ASCILITE) 2004 conference and made a note to return to the site once my thesis had been submitted and I had more time to browse the other papers.

I’ve just gone to have a look and was blown away at the wealth of fantastic content here for anyone interested in the use of computers and the Internet to facilitate teaching and learning. If this is something that you’re even vaguely interested in, you must visit this site. It contains not only the full papers presented at each conference dating back to 1995, but also has podcasts from the 2007 conference.

Here are some direct links to the most recent conferences:



Index of conferences from 1995 – 2008
Look for “Papers and proceedings” at each conference home page.

Pubmed: past, present and future

I came across this article discussing the past, present and future of the Pubmed database. I was browsing through the Medicine 2.0 blog and thought that the article may be relevant for some of us who use Pubmed.

The article doesn’t give a detailed review of all the possible tools available to more effectively use the database but it does provide a few extra ideas for those of us who probably only ever used the Search bar. It also discusses some of the more frustrating problems that I’ve certainly come across, most notably the return of abstracts completely unrelated to my search query.

Here is the direct link to the article:

To err is human: building a safer health system (free book)

While typing up my notes from the SAAHE conference (see previous post), I came across To err is human: building a safer health system, a book that had been mentioned by one of the keynote speakers. It looks at the medical community’s historically poor track record on accepting responsibility for mistakes made by healthcare professionals and discusses the alternatives. It was published in 2000 by the National Academies Press (NAP) and is available in hardback for about $40.

However, when the site identified my country of residence as South Africa, it suggested that by registering, I could download the PDF for free for personal use. The file is only 2.3 MB, which is a quick download even on dial-up. Obviously, the NAP makes certain publications available to residents of certain countries who they feel would benefit from those books but may not be able to afford the fee.

I’d definitely recommend registering on the site to see what else they have available. I’ve had a quick look through To err is human and although I’m not a huge fan of reading books on my computer (and this one is 312 pages long), I think I’ll give this one a go. Hopefully at some point I’ll be able to put up a short review.

The direct link to the Table of Contents for the online book is (if you’re registered with the site and live in South Africa, you should also have the option to download the PDF of the book for free).

SAAHE conference, 2008

Yesterday, I attended the first national Health Sciences Education conference hosted by the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Stellenbosch. It was quite inspirational, especially the talks given by two of the keynote speakers, which I found both informative and thought-provoking.

I was there to present the results of my Masters thesis, which I had someone video with the intention of posting it here. Unfortunately, the microphone on my camera didn’t capture the audio, so there’s no real point in putting the video up. However, I will be posting my presentation slides in case anyone is interested.

I’ll also be posting my notes from the conference, as well as a few comments on one or two of the other presentations. It’ll take a few days to work through though because I’m trying to catch up on some other things that are part of my “job”. I hate it when work takes precendence over the things I really want to do.

Textbooks and other resources

I’d like to begin a system of publishing reviews of academic textbooks for physiotherapists and physiotherapy students. This could eventually be expanded to include journal articles, websites and other useful sources of information. Ultimately, I’d like to get the students themselves to take part in this process, informing their own learning through a deeper interaction with the content, rather than merely through the passive reception of information.

I’ve come to realise that very few of the students in my department actually make use of textbooks. The principle reason is that they’ve come to think that the course readers provided by the department are sufficient for their academic requirements. However, I believe that course readers should be seen as providing only an introduction to the subject, a basic foundation upon which further knowledge can be built.

Another reason students are reluctant to buy textbooks is that they are prohibitively expensive for the average student, especially at this particular university. By providing not only lists but reviews and summaries of the most recent and relevant textbooks, I hope that students can be guided to making informed choices regarding the textbooks they purchase. Reviews of individual chapters can also guide students as to where they should direct their focus for a particular module.

On a side note, the high cost of access to information is one of the reasons I have such high regard for the concept of open content i.e. the idea that knowledge (or at least, information) should be free or placed under reasonable constraint e.g. by using Creative Commons licenses. I’ll be returning to this subject in more detail during the course of this blog.

An experiment

I’ve tried to blog a few times in the past and have lost interest every time. I think it’s because I never really felt that I had much to say. I still don’t think I have a great deal to say, or at least, anything that’s of any real importance but I do think that I often come across many others who do.

This blog is at attempt to direct those who may have similar interests to the people who motivate, challenge and inspire us in whatever we do. While I’ll try to keep it focussed on a few general themes (education, healthcare and tech), I may throw in a few other things that I personally find interesting.

Nothing exists in isolation, especially ideas, and so it’s important that when we look at our own projects and passions, we inform them not only from within their own narrow fields but in as much as possible, from the entire spectrum of human creativity and innovation.

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