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11 Free Tools to Boost Creativity in Online Assignments

Submitted by on February 25, 2013 – 3:21 pm2 Comments

If you’ve yet to explore new tools for your online courses, now’s a great time to start. We’ve peaked in on some neat tools in these categories: Storytellers and Image Editors, Open Software Suites, Video and Movie Makers, and Audio Editors. Check out this list of comprehensive, powerful, and free tools waiting to enhance your online teaching.

Storytellers and Image Editors

# 1 SketchUp

SketchUp is a fast, fun, and intuitive tool for making 3D (or 2D if you prefer) models. You can make your own model or download what you need. This program lets you model with precision, apply colors and textures, work on terrain, and even benefit from applying Google Earth (view all features). And this program is also ready to support its users with tutorial videos and the handy SketchUp Getting Started Guide.

For example: Rodney Kazenske remodeled this home with specific criteria, like ensuring the addition didn’t look like an afterthought and redesigning the roof to create shaded areas in the backyard.

Sketchup Photomatch tool

SketchUp helped visualize the final product in the exact context with existing surroundings; Click the image to view this project.

The ability to quickly analyze design changes and create various options in Sketchup led to some surprising discoveries and some creative solutions.”             # 2 GIMP Edit your photos with the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP), a freely distributed raster editor that competes with other raster programs like Adobe Photoshop, Jasc Paintshop, and Microsoft Paint. GIMP is an ideal program because faculty and students can access this program on campus or at home.

Gimp Sshot program

Screenshot of the GIMP interface.

  You can use GIMP as a simple paint program; or use its advanced features to retouch photos and compose and author images. GIMP can even serve as an online batch processing system, a mass production image renderer, and an image format converter.

Gimp before after building

Example of GIMP’s photo enhancement features perspective distortion and barrel distortion.

Read about GIMP’s features and find answers in GIMP’s user manual. GIMP runs on many operating systems, including UNIX, Windows, and Mac OS.               # 3 XMind XMind is open-source software for mind mapping and brainstorming. The program’s free version is great–granting access to XMind’s diagrams, Mind Toolbox, and the ability to share your maps (download it here). Review XMind’s features and get ideas from the Mind Map Library.

Xmind Sshots

Example of XMind interface and maps.

    # 4 Scribus Scribus is a desktop publisher–you can produce press-ready documents and benefit from the latest trends in page design. Scribus is open-source and works on Linux/UNIX, Mac OS X, OS/2 Warp 4/eComStation and Windows systems. What makes this publishing program great: Scribus has a friendly user interface with professional publishing features like color separations, CMYK and Spot Color support, ICC color management, and versatile PDF creation. After downloading the program, be sure to check for any help on Scribus’s forums, answer specific tech questions on Scribus’s blog, or access Scribus’s Manual.

Scribus shot

Screenshot of Scribus’s desktop publishing interface.


Office Software Suites

# 5 Apache OpenOffice Apache is open-source office software that includes word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, vector drawings and graphics, databases, and math function creators. Besides the price (free), what makes this office suite great is it can read and write files from other office suites, and it’s developed with a global approach (offered in many languages and for all common computers). Download Apache OpenOffice here. Read more about OpenOffice for Education, and find answers in OpenOffice’s Documentation Project, which includes resources like templates and user forums.   # 6 Google Drive Google’s version of an office software suite (like Apache OpenOffice above or Microsoft Office) includes apps like Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, Forms, Apps Scripts, Drawings, and Fusion Tables. You can also create, open, and share files from other apps in Google Drive.

Click the icon to read about Drive’s apps

Click the icon to read about Drive’s apps


Video and Movie Makers

Compiling videos and making movies is easier than ever. With a camera or cell phone, you already own the required equipment to make such visual content. You can create videos by shooting moving video or stringing along a series of still shots.   # 7 Windows Movie Maker Windows 7 and 8 users should start shooting their blockbusters by downloading Movie Maker.

Screenshot of Movie Maker interface.

Screenshot of Movie Maker interface.

  You can add photos and footage from your PC or camera into Movie Maker, then fine-tune your movie with edits like speed timing and adding audio. And so your movie looks polished, Movie Maker automatically adds transitions and effects. You can share your videos easily on social networks, YouTube, or by simply sending a hyperlink. Windows XP users should download Photo Story 3.   # 8 iMovie Apple OS users should use iMovie to create videos and share them. iMovie is a great editor as well as a full-screen video-watching interface that houses all your videos. As an OS product, iMovie already comes with a clean, simple-to-use structure. Plus, you can drag-and-drop your film, combine still shots with moving action, fix shaky videos, and even make movie trailers!

Screenshot of iMovie interface.

Screenshot of iMovie interface.


Screenshot of making an iMovie trailer.

Screenshot of making an iMovie trailer.

  # 9 Jelly Cam Here’s a simple video maker worth trying. With Jelly Cam, you create stop-motion films with snapshots from a webcam, stored images, or clay (yes, claymation!). You can also add music, and export for YouTube. Jelly Cam is for Windows or Mac. Watch this quick start tutorial for Jelly Cam.

Audio Editors

  # 10 Audacity Audacity is an easy-to-use and multilingual audio editor and recorder. With Audacity, you can record live audio, convert tapes and records into digital format, edit sound files, cut/copy/splice/mix sounds, and more (view all Audacity’s features). This program works on many operating systems, including Windows, Mac OS X, GNU/Linux.

Screenshot of Audacity program on a Mac.

Screenshot of Audacity program on a Mac.

    # 11 GarageBand GarageBand is an interactive experience to making and editing audio. Among its myriad features, GarageBand lets you plug in your guitar or keyboard to play directly into the program, access any instrument, write and share a song, record/mix/master your music, and export your songs into your iTunes library by various formats.

GB sshot

GarageBand’s interface and onscreen keyboard

  And learn to play music in GarageBand. Learn the basics, learn from your favorite artist, and get instant feedback on your own recordings.

GarageBand’s Artist Lessons (left) and a Chord Trainer during a guitar lesson.

GarageBand’s Artist Lessons (left) and a Chord Trainer during a guitar lesson.


Share Your Experiences

Tell us how you’ve used these tools in your course.  Have these tools helped your students express their work better than traditional paper or essay methods? Share with us in the comments section below.


  • Dolores P. says:

    Hi. I can personally vouch for Audacity and and iMovie, I have used them in the classroom and with teams; they are very simple to use and help me have a good experience because we don’t get bogged down with the technology; the learning curve isn’t bad. For diagramming, I’d like to add Lucidchart to the list because their mind mapping is as good if not better than other tools out there, and they integrate with google drive, microsoft visio, and gliffy.

  • Sarah Linden says:

    Dolores–I agree. I’ve used Audacity for several projects, and I’ve found the tool to be very user-friendly. Audio editing can be intimidating, but Audacity has done a great job at keeping the learning curve low. Thanks for sharing the link to Lucidchart! Another great tool. 🙂