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Our software journey

You may notice that we have used a number of different file formats in producing our materials. We started off using Publisher as that was what the people we were working with had on their computers. But over time as the project has expanded into other language groups it became necessary for us to change to using freeware as some NGOs and language groups can not afford to purchase page layout software. So we are currently developing all new materials or shell books in Libre Office Draw and we look forward very much to the relase of the new BLOOM software. For people starting out in literacy projects in the poorer communities of the world we would strongly recommend that you use software that is freely available to the local people. Then when the opportunity arises they can take over the keyboarding and developing of their own materials really easily.

Draw has its problems but it is far far better than using Word or Libre Writer to make literacy materials. We are really looking forward to Bloom's release and the developers are working on incorporating our Solomon's story primer templates so that will be fantastic!

To date we have used Draw for our complex story primer book, which includes, primer pages, some cartoon layouts, word finds and even a game board. You can see examples of the different page layouts we have used:

reading and word work page

cartoon and soccer game

story telling and word find

The advantages of Draw over Publisher is that it is free, easier to learn and the files are much much smaller which is useful if you are working over email with groups.

We have also used Draw for an alphabet book shell, several picture story book shells, and two scripture primers.  The Mark scripture primer on our website was constructed in Draw. And the shell book Raskol Rat is available as a Draw file on our shell book page of the Literacy Materials tab. We develop everything as a shell so that other languages can use them because we are helping two organisations in the Solomons, and thus far have worked with people from approximately 16 languages.

We used Draw templates with the Solomon Islanders in the materials production sessions of our 2012 July and August workshops (each 2 weeks long) for the first time. The vast majority of participants handled them really well. A few people even created their own books from scratch - after about 5 computer training sessions. In these sessions we they learned how to use a computer, how to type and how to use Draw templates. Draw is a very easy program to teach. Its not really intended for books and there's a few quirky annoying things in it, but you learn to avoid those after a while!!

My preference is to use a page layout program to layout books rather than a text document program. Ultimately I think it is much easier for nationals to learn and I don't have to jump through a set of complicated hoops to set up the template. This can be done very comfortably with Draw. A disadvantage is that Draw doesn't allow you to flow text from one text box to another, but I'm prepared to do the cut and paste needed and its not a problem for the kinds of books I produce. (If you were producing books with pages and pages of text then this might be a problem.)

In Draw it is easy to add pages to an existing shell and adjust text boxes or picture sizes if you need to for a different language. You can do authomatic page numbering too. Also, once items are located on a page, they don't jump around or push things on to another page when things are added later. We either put the cover in a separate file or put it at the end of the document with no page number on it, then it doesn't mess up the automatic page numbering.

There are two ways you can do 'automatic' page numbering. The way I do it is to set up the page number on one page: go insert, fields, page numbers and then adjust font and position for the text box that is supplied. Then I copy and paste this box onto each of the pages in my file. It automatically adjusts to the correct page number. A second way to do the page numbering is to put the page number in at page two when I make the template. (The first page is usually a title page and doesn't have a number.) From then on I always insert a duplicate slide for my new page. The new slide will always have its correct page number on it. Then I adjust thecontent of the rest of the page to what is needed.

It is sometimes a bit of a fiddle to get things set up in Draw because it is not really a page layout program. But it is a good alternative while we wait for Bloom. But once Bloom is available,  we will use Draw to do any non standard layout pages that can't be done in Bloom. Then save them and import them into Bloom pages as a picture.

There are some problems with Draw. It was not designed to be a book layout program so it sometimes burps, complains or looses things if you are doing complicated layouts. Some of these problems have been noted by the programming community but have not been solved to date. We have found the problems come when we push the boundaries of the program - e.g. when we use heaps of illustrations in a document, some of them will disappear and you have to re-import them. We have increased the memory for the files, memory per object and increasing the number of objects in the cache to see if this makes a difference. (Go >Tools >Memory) I've changed mine to 100MB, 2Mb per object and 100 objects or more. So far so good.

Another problem happened on one of our shell books when we thought it might be good to fix the text position in boxes and height and width settings for these. From then on we had to undo these settings on every single box - it seems to have become the default setting and we can't work out how to change that. It tthen takes multiple procedures to undo the settings and is very annoying. So we would advise against doing anything like that. If you just keep you shell simple, Draw seems to go better.  But if you do have the same problems we had, right clicking on the text box allows you to access the settings and take all the settings off that you don't want.

Our story books are anything from 10-20 pages or so. Our primers are 52 or 56 pages and Draw copes with both types of books easily. Given our experiences we'd both say it's definifely a useful program for developing literacy materials.

blog | by Dr. Radut