The best is free

27th June 2008 at 01:00
Wouldn't it be great to be able to use your own software on a locked- down school PC? Jon Tarrant explains how to do it

Wouldn't it be great to be able to use your own software on a locked- down school PC? Jon Tarrant explains how to do it

Personalised learning is the buzzword for pupils, but when it comes to computer programs for teachers, schools seem to favour a one-size-fits- all approach. The chances are that your school's PCs offer only Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer even though at home you might prefer to use alternatives, such as Open Office and Firefox. Fortunately, all is not lost.

The most efficient solution is to load your preferred software on to a USB flash drive and run the programs from that source.

It is far more usual for software to be installed on the PC, but that can normally only be done by a network administrator, whereas the USB solution is available to all users.

Purchasers of SanDisk U3 flash drives will find the appropriate host software preloaded and are able to add their own programs simply by visiting the U3 software site: ( A lot of this software is available free of charge. You will know if you have a U3 flash drive because it will be listed as such (U3 System) when you view the My Computer window. It will probably also auto-run its start-up software and place a U3 icon in the bar at the bottom of your screen; another icon, labelled Cruzer, will appear on your desktop.

Clicking on either of the icons will open a U3launchpad window, from which it is possible to learn about how U3 works (via help and support), manage existing programs (via settings) or add new programs. The only problems you are likely to encounter are with programs that access the internet, such as Firefox and WeatherBug, which may fall foul of the school's network security settings. There are ways around this but if you do not already know them, you are best advised to ask for help from your network manager.

Similar programs can be installed on any other brand of flash drive using the PortableApps service. This is not currently as slick as SanDisk's U3 system, but it is universal and all of the software is free. Start by visiting http:portableapps.comsuite and either download your preferred package, or choose the Base Edition and then add your own selection of programs on an individual basis. As well as Open Office and Firefox, consider Audacity (for recording sound files) and VLC (for playing most types of video and audio media files).

The PortableApps launcher (which resembles SanDisk's) can be set to open automatically when your USB flash drive is inserted.

My own USB memory stick is a SanDisk U3 type and I have my PortableApps launcher and programs in a sub-folder so that I can run it on demand to avoid potential conflicts with the automatic U3 launcher. There have also been some reports of older versions of the U3 software not being fully compatible with Windows Vista.

The fact that all the PortableApps software (and a lot of the U3 software) is free may cause concerns about its quality. In fact, most of these programs are not just equal to, but actually better than, some of the paid-for products with which you are probably more familiar. For once, thanks to the efforts of the free and open source software movement, the best things in life really are free.

Programs that are run from a USB flash drive can take longer to start up, but that is a minor inconvenience given the ability to use the programs that you want, wherever you want

Jon Tarrant is head of physics at Hautlieu School in Jersey and is the island-wide VLE co-ordinator for Jersey's secondary schools.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today