Linuxing Liverpool Online — Part 5: The Tools

gedit screenshot

There are many great Free Software tools you could use for studying at Liverpool. Among other things, I use Dia, OpenOffice.org and LaTeX. But what’s surprising is that my most-used tool is a simple text editor: gedit (see above).

Why gedit? You take part in a lot of discussions using FirstClass, a proprietary BBS client that Liverpool/Laureate chose to set up their virtual classroom in. gedit, or any text editor, is something you could use to write your answers offline and on your own machine, with full control over where the resulting text goes. One of FirstClass’s problems is that once you’ve posted your responses, it’s not easy to get them out of the system again for backup. There is a download option that can download entire discussion folders, but it’s not ideal as it will stop the entire process as soon as it encounters any item you have no privileges to view. So unless you want to exclude your homework answers (which are in a write-only folder) from your backup, using FirstClass’ download option is.. err.. not an option.

Editing things offline in a text editor has the advantage of giving you full control, and you can use a versioning system to keep versioned backups of your work. I’m using Subversion for that right now. FirstClass, being a BBS client, has no versioning and only rudimentary draft functions in its text editor.

A disadvantage of using your own text editor is that there is no formatting you can use. FirstClass seems to use some proprietary way of formatting text. If I ever have the time, I might want to start reverse engineering the most important aspects (bold and italic would be enough to keep to Harvard referencing rules) and perhaps I can find out how to inject this information via the clipboard. Then I could write plain text entries in my files that would copy/paste with formatting into FirstClass. Of course Liverpool’s switching away from FirstClass as a non-free solution and picking one that adheres to established standards would be better, but I can’t see that happening soon.

My subversion repository is organized like this. I simply make one directory per module (such as MASSHR-SE-080110-01) and then one subdirectory per seminar in that module. The subdirs then contain the DQ questions and the week’s assignment, as well as any group assignments. This way I can simply fill in the answers to the DQs and do my homework even offline, if need be. Any changes are checked into my repository.

I hope this shows that very simple and effective tools are sometimes all you need, and all of them are available as Free Software. I’m sure I’ve already spent more than 200 hours in gedit, it might be well over 1500 once I’m finished. It probably took less time to develop that piece of software. Efficient!

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