On Twitter, I followed a link to a blog post provocatively titled Are Expats More Creative? This post mentioned some research suggesting that people with deep experience abroad came back as more creative people–in a way measurable on tests of creativity–but it didn’t cite or link to the actual research. I was able to find a couple of papers by the researcher mentioned in the article, as well as a Youtube interview with him. It’s very interesting stuff, and while the studies are somewhat artificial, they’re very thought-provoking. It may be a good argument for teaching abroad and studying abroad, but the research team found that you can’t just travel abroad or live in an expat enclave/not get out into the culture or learn the language. You really need to have that integrative motivation to benefit.
To my surprise, a recent paper was downloadable for free, although it looked as though it would be behind a journal’s paywall. I don’t know if it’ll work outside of the US, but check the righthand column to see if you can download it.
If you’re traveling and using internet cafes, using library or school computer labs, using a computer in an adjunct office in a classroom, etc., you may be exposing your personal information to hackers or risking the chance of getting a virus on your USB stick.
Here are a few articles I’ve found that may be helpful. You don’t have to drive yourself crazy with these precautions, but follow as many as you reasonably can. I’ve found that most people don’t realize either how easy it is for even casual miscreants to swipe passwords from wifi networks (in certain situations), or that things such as keyloggers (which record everything you type–like your usernames and passwords) even exist.
- Given a choice, if a machine is running any browser other than IE, use the other browser (e.g. Firefox, Chrome, or Safari). For one thing, Internet Explorer tends to have the most security flaws at any given time, and Firefox, Chrome, and Safari tend to have fewer (see this page for a comparison of the up-to-date versions only. Never use a really old version of IE or any other browser, which is likely to have a variety of well-known security flaws. Another reason is that IE tends to be a popular target for people who want to exploit security weaknesses.
- Given a choice, if a computer lab or library lets you choose between Mac and Windows machines, and you can get your browsing or other work done on a Mac, choose the Macs. This is not necessarily because of any inherent properties of the Macs, but because the Windows machines (being more common) are more likely targets for casual hackers. (The only drawback is that in a few school and library labs, the Macs are poorly maintained because the lab staff doesn’t understand them, but you’ll soon realize if that’s the case.)
- If there’s a website that does not use https:// or SSL to log you in with your password, just don’t use it on a public machine or public wifi. If you really must use it–like a WordPress-based blog that you want to update from the road–look for solutions. (For example, you can add the Semisecure Login plugin to your WordPress installation, which adds some level of security.)
- If you use public computers frequently, consider keeping a USB drive that only has your own copy of Firefox and other Portable Apps on it (no personal information). (Or you may wish to consider a “secure USB drive” that is meant to resist having its data altered, to keep personal information safe and to avoid introducing malware back onto your own system.)
- Keep these suggestions in mind when borrowing friends’ computers, as well. Many people are surprisingly lax about updating their browsers, running and updating antivirus and antispyware, etc.
If you have other suggestions or further reading, please leave a comment!
If you are stuck desk-warming* or just have a little time to kill at your computer, but your network doesn’t support IM programs or won’t let you install them, Meebo is a nice web-based alternative alternative. You can log in to any or all of your instant messenger accounts–AIM, MSN/Live, Google Talk, Facebook chat, etc., at once. (It’s also very useful in internet cafes.) This doesn’t mean that I can use my Yahoo account to talk to someone on AIM, though–you still have to be on the same system to talk to each other. It just puts everyone in the same window.
I suspect the website is blocked by many net-nanny programs simply because it means you can get around restrictions on IM services, but perhaps you’ll get lucky if you need it.
Meebo also has an iPhone app, although it’s a bit annoying because you have to log out and press the home button every time you’re done with it, or you’ll get logged back in.
If you can use IM software on your network, check into Pidgin (Windows/Linux[?]) and Pidgin Portable (if you can use IM software but can’t install anything on your work computer) or Adium (Mac OS X). Both handle multiple accounts, letting you stay in touch with friends, family, and students across the world who are on different systems, and letting you keep various groups separate–for example, when I use Adium I can have two Yahoo! IM accounts logged on at the same time, such as “teacherclarissa” and “ffordefangirlccs”, for different purposes. (Not my real account names!) Just as with Meebo, you still have to have an account on that system to talk to someone using that system. (But at least you don’t have to have 2 or 3 different programs running and using up system resources.)
These “client” programs, as they’re called, are also not prone to the ads and other annoyances that the proprietary programs produced by the companies themselves are. The drawback is that there are occasionally glitches when trying to transfer files, if you often use your IM program to do that.
All of the above programs and services are currently free to use.
*This doesn’t happen as much to teachers in the US (I don’t know about other places), but in K-12-equivalent schools in Japan and Korea, at least, foreign teachers are often required to stay on campus when they don’t have class and are done with lesson-planning. It’s not easy to spend time in the teachers’ room if you’re not fluent in the local language yet, so they often remain at their own desks or in their classrooms (some teachers don’t have another desk or office). It doesn’t seem like the most efficient use of teachers’ time, but I can’t comment on it in detail because I haven’t experienced it firsthand.
I swear I’m not a cheerleader for Google, but they consistently bring out free products that are of interest to the international community, and they’re often or usually cross-platform. Google Earth is a program that I think everyone should try, especially if you’re curious about other parts of the world, you live overseas, or if you may be moving. (I think most English teachers fall into one or two of those categories!) One note though–a very old computer won’t run it, and I doubt netbooks will either, though I could be wrong.
“Isn’t Google Earth the same as Google Maps?” said a friend, wondering what the point was. No, it’s completely different. Google Earth lets you zip around the planet in a really natural way, the way you may have twirled and spun a globe as a kid. (Although you may feel a bit like Superwoman as you dive toward the roofs of Paris and then glide across Beijing–whee!) Similar to Google Maps, you can also zoom in and view satellite imagery, which I’ve heard has higher resolution in some areas than Google Maps will show, due to some countries’ privacy concerns about Google Maps. (For some reason, maybe due to the lack of directions or its lower popularity, Google Earth is perceived as less of a threat. I don’t know if that’s true.) More importantly, as you zip around, the map lights up with markers for photos, videos, descriptions, restaurant reviews, hotels, convenience stores, volcanoes, parks, World Heritage sites, and whatever other “layers” you’ve turned on. You can see photos of a train station from many angles, a panorama of a lake, and “step into” a spherical photo of a park or a shopping neighborhood that lets you tilt the camera in all directions. There are brief Wikipedia summaries and so on that can be viewed from inside Google Earth, while video links and other links may take you out of the program and into your web browser. It’s a very rich, multi-layered experience that can really help you get to know an area–and yes, there really is extensive coverage for places outside North America. You can get very familiar with neighborhoods in Taipei, Seoul, Hokkaido, Cuzco, and other places in which you may be considering teaching.
Naturally, popular tourist sites have the most info, but Google Earth is widespread enough that there’s information on a lot of places. The more you browse around, the more you see–and it gets updated periodically, so more things will pop up. In addition, there’s user-created info that you can download according to your specific interests, such as these Google Earth bookmarks for Korea from ZenKimchi. There’s a strong Google Earth community working to add interesting stuff all the time–here’s the Google Earth Gallery with just some of the things you can view once you’ve installed Google Earth. I haven’t played with these kinds of extras much though, because I can already spend a lot of time just looking at the photos and such that are included already.
Google Earth also winds up serving as a kind of geographical IMDB–when you’re driving down I-5 and you see some weird dirt formation off the highway, just note the next exit and look up that area on Google Earth when you get home. Chances are good that there’s a photo and a note explaining what you saw.
You can put together tours in Google Earth, which is a feature that has some potential in the classroom; students are sometimes interested in where you’re from, or there may be some other theme you want to present. You can even record audio if you want to get it done in advance. There are existing tours you can download, too.
Some caveats: sometimes Google Earth only has information on a location in the local language. This can still be of use even if you can’t read that language; if you click on a restaurant icon in downtown Kagoshima, you may not be able to read the reviews that pop up, but the URL that shows in the window often includes a romanized version of the name, and about half of the time there’s a photo of a characteristic dish that the restaurant serves. So that’s better than nothing. In addition, Google Earth often doesn’t handle Asian addresses well, I’ve noticed. Sometimes it can go directly to a specific street address in Taiwan, Korea, or Japan, but sometimes you have to try alternate spellings or go up a level or two (to the ward or even the town/city level).
Anyway, there are a lot more features (and there’s also a surprisingly nice free iPod Touch/iPhone app). They also have an Outreach area aimed at nonprofits, for example. Give it a try and see what else you can discover in your neighborhood, old neighborhood (I found where I used to live in Taiwan!), or potential new neighborhood!
Oh, and in case your teacher-brain is percolating, yes, teachers are teaching with Google Earth. Even math teachers are using it! If you’ve used it with English-language learners, please comment and tell me how–I’ve only used it casually, to show individual students where I used to live, in Arkansas, and how different it is from California.
EDIT: Here’s something else useful! Clicking on the little ruler icon lets you create and measure paths, so you can figure out how far it is “as the crow flies” from one point or another–which Google Maps will not let you do–and you can also figure out how far it is, say, on foot from the closest subway station to the school you’re considering working at. Google Maps will calculate walking routes for some cities, but not all, and certainly not worldwide. Although it’s a rough estimate since you can’t necessarily see sidewalks (or the lack thereof), etc., it’s still a potentially handy tool–especially when you can’t travel to check out a location yourself. Just click on the ruler, choose your unit of measure, and start clicking each point (corner/turn) of the route. The distance will be shown in the ruler box.
(By the way, if you’re on a Mac using 10.4, stick with Google Earth 5.0 and disable automatic updating. 5.1 doesn’t run on 10.4 :/)
On the fifth day of Christmas we’ll be taking a break from education again, sort of. Photography is a favorite hobby of many EFL teachers and teachers in general, but relatively few of us have huge amounts of money to spend on our equipment or taking classes. So, how to upgrade our photo skills? Keep reading–and if you don’t like to take photos but you do like to use them in your classroom, skip to the end.
Photojojo is one of several photography how-to sites, but it stands out from the others because of its combined focus on photography techniques and DIY instructions for everything from “tripods” to photo Christmas ornaments. Here are a few stand-out articles:
Fun with Food Photography: Food photos are a favorite of EFL teachers, serving to make those of us who are are not overseas hungry and jealous. This article has several quick ideas for upgrading your food photo-taking skills.
Camera Dogtag: A great idea for any photographer, and one I plan to implement ASAP!
Erase Tourists from Your Vacation Photos: This probably won’t work in overrun sites like the Forbidden City, but two out of the three websites recommended in the article are still functional for those excursions where there is somehow always, ALWAYS one stray schoolchild or other lingering tourist in your shot
Of course, there’s more where those came from. You can subscribe to their blog or dig through the archives on the site. They do periodically flog items for sale, but it’s not much to put up with in return for the content.
Finally, if you just need photos and clip art to use in class, I’ve previously recommended several resources for free images, but here are two more on Flickr: Creative Commons – Free Pictures and Creative Commons. The photographers have Creative Commons-licensed their photos, usually so that you can use them as long as you follow whatever rules are part of the license. For most of them, the licenses just require attribution (putting their name/username wherever you use the images) and noncommercial usage only (don’t sell it or put it in something you’re going to sell, etc.). So to use the photos for class projects, slide shows, illustrations, and so on, all you need to do is discreetly caption them with the photographer’s username. (Hey, it’s a good opportunity to model attributing sources!) Many of the photos are excellent, and there are a lot to choose from–34,753 as I write this. Just put your keywords into “search this group’s pool.” From photo definition activities to sparking conversation, serving as writing prompts, or playing a part in a game, photos have lots of potential classroom uses–and I feel a lot more comfortable when I’m using images that I’ve acquired completely legitimately.
(EDIT: By coincidence, Lifehacker just posted a link to an article from MakeUseOf.com about an image search engine called Sprixi. Sprixi lets you search images that are free to use under various licenses such as Creative Commons–many from sites I’ve mentioned before. It tries to sort them by relevancy, and it lets you embed credit into the image and download that if you want. You might want to give it a try.)
Hello, and welcome to Day Two! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
I think this one of the best things I have for you; even if it’s not something you need right now, you may make a friend’s day if you know someone who needs it. PortableApps.com lets you install small, “light” versions of free programs for everything from word processors to web browsers, audio editors to IM programs, utilities to games. It can solve four big problems for ESL and EFL teachers:
Using an office computer that won’t let you install applications? No problem–these apps can run from the Documents folder, which you usually have access to, or from a USB stick.
Using an office computer running non-English Windows, but not comfortable in the other language? Just snag some English apps from the site.
Using a lot of different adjunct office computers or internet cafes? Stay safe and comfortable by keeping your personal information and preferred settings in portable apps on a USB stick and running them from there, especially a web browser and a word processor.
Deskwarming for hours, days, or weeks on end? Create amazing materials for class, write a textbook or a novel, chat, play games, watch video files, and more with a variety of apps to help you pass time productively and/or pleasantly. (EDIT: Naturally, I wouldn’t suggest anything doing non-work-related unless part of your job simply entails being at your desk, and you’ve already done all you can do to be prepared–which is unfortunately all too true for many teachers.)
Just to repeat the main point: these programs are small and “light” so that they don’t have to fully install themselves on the computer. Although the PortableApps.com touts the idea of running them from a USB stick, you generally don’t have to–if you use the same work computer every day, you can usually install them wherever you like inside the Documents folder, if that’s the only folder you can change on your work computer.
EDIT 7 July 2010: Flash Drive Reminder is a small, freeware program that will alert you if you start to shut down or log out of a Windows computer without removing your USB stick (flash drive) first. Great idea! Here’s an explanation with a screenshot on Lifehacker.
PortableApps.com’s applications are meant for Windows environments since few people find themselves in a Mac-only work situation (particularly one where they can’t install their own software), but if you are in that situation…uh, do tell us about it! Especially as a teacher–that’d be a new one on me. But if that’s you, there’s an option for you too: FreeSMUG Portable Applications. (Yes, as a Mac user I agree that “SMUG” is not a good choice of acronym!)
You can still nominate a great free resource for the Twelve Days of Christmas, and I’d really love to get feedback if you find any of these useful!
Especially when living and working overseas, it’s easy to plan to blog and then fail to, whether because of too much pressure or not enough opportunities to get online or an increasing backlog of photos and excursions to write up or too many options when it comes to the actual blog itself.
I think I’ve run across a couple of solutions that would have been really useful to me when I was briefly abroad in Taiwan and even more briefly in Japan; I had a lot of trouble getting organized enough to post even though a lot of people were waiting on me to.
Primarily, Posterous. It’s still under development (and very responsive to suggestions), but it’s great. Here is someone else’s explanation of Posterous. It’s a blog itself, but more importantly, a kind of blog/info management service. Imagine it: Sicily, 1945 Somewhere in East Asia, mid-afternoon. You’re required to be in the office at your conversation school, but not doing anything in particular. Prep is all done. You have photos on a USB stick, but hopping onto Facebook and your Blogger site and whatnot might not look too good. No problem, if you’ve set up Posterous.
Open an e-mail message to email@example.com, write the subject you want for the post, any text you want in the body, and attach your photos. (I send from Gmail, since it handles attachments so well.) Depending on how you have your Posterous set up, it’ll automatically format and post the photos and text to the services you’ve set up, such as Facebook, Blogger, WordPress, Livejournal, Flickr, and Tumbler, as well as a Posterous page itself (with the URL of yourusername.posterous.com). It’ll even post to Twitter (using the subject line of your e-mail/title of your post up to 130 characters, and then it adds a Posterous shortened url [post.ly], which I presume goes to the Posterous page).
If you only want something to post to specified services, you send your message to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, or both (and not everything else) by sending it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your Posterous page itself won’t look fancy; Posterous allows few options in terms of templates, but that’s fine. It’s probably not the main way people will be viewing your content, after all. Here’s a Posterous post and the same post on Tumblr, which I posted to using Posterous. I can’t show you the posts on other services because after the posts appeared, I edited them so that only certain users could see them. (That’s a drawback of Posterous–for services that allow “friends-locked” or password-protected posts, I think you’ll have to quickly edit the post after it appears.)
For when you’re browsing on your own web browser, not at work, there’s a bookmarklet you can put on your bookmark bar so that you can click and post things on Posterous.
Posterous really removes a lot of the barriers to blogging and can streamline the process, I think, so that you can just start posting. And yes, it’s free. (Maybe combine it with Picnik or Pixlr, two simple in-browser image editors.)
You can actually start by e-mailing email@example.com (seriously!) but to really get everything kitted out, you’ll then want to visit the site and register other services you want it to autopost to, choose how the Posterous site itself will look, etc. But this should only take a few minutes.
Oh, and you can attach not just images (.jpg, .png., .gif–all resized automatically, though they can link to the large size if you want), but also .doc, .ppt., .mp3, .avi, and .mpg (plus more). I haven’t experimented with this to see how they display, but Posterous claims they’ll all be handled intelligently.
WHAT YOU CAN’T DO: Format things. If you’re posting from e-mail, you’re not going to be able to put pictures in between text. You can’t change fonts, colors, spacing, etc., with HTML, nor write links any way other than as bare http:// … This is strangely freeing in a way, but if you are a hands-on coding junkie, you will be very dissatisfied. Finally, you can password-protect things on Posterous, but you can’t turn on other sites’ privacy settings from within the Posterous e-mail. (EDIT: Okay, after you post you can, in fact, edit the post that appears on Posterous.com to include HTML and other formatting, but it won’t carry over to other sites. If you can do it before it’s pushed to the other sites, I don’t know how yet.)
Tumblr itself is also fairly simple to use and can cross-post; my feeling is that Posterous is more flexible and I like it more. (Other people vociferously disagree and are huge Tumbler fans, so if you’re intrigued by the notion and don’t click with Posterous, check into Tumblr.) Tumblr doesn’t natively support comments, so it’s cool for presenting a list of images (for example, the Mori Girls Tumblr) but not so great for interaction without some hoop-jumping. If you click on “Comment” on my Tumblr post, since I actually made the post with Posterous, you are taken to Posterous. Some people just like Tumblr more, though, so it’s also worth considering as a solution, and you can add comments if you check into it with Google.
These tools are all potentially excellent for your students too, by the way. As mentioned in the Mashable Posterous Guide, you can make a multi-user Posterous that your students could post to, introducing their community or local restaurants, etc.
If you try it yourself or with your students, let me know how it goes.
(Of course, there’s always the more powerful WordPress.com, the popular Blogger, and various other options, as well as hosting it yourself like I do, but I wanted to mention Posterous as a kind of low-resistance way to just make it happen.)
So, previously I posted some caveats about the Kindle, but the fact remained that it was and is a very appealing piece of technology for internationally travelling teachers who don’t want to carry suitcases full of books with them. Even if you didn’t experience the USB issue that my friend experienced, though, the fact was that you couldn’t use its wireless purchasing ability outside of the US–that’s the delightful and financially dangerous ability to think “Oh, I’d really like to read XYZ…” while you’re sitting on a subway platform somewhere, pull out your Kindle, buy it even though there’s not a wifi connection there (because essentially Amazon’s paying for you to use cell networks), and start reading it in just a couple of minutes.
Anyway, good news–the new Amazon Kindle International edition has you covered if you are in Europe, South America, and Asia (scroll for Asia), excepting Finland, Lithuania, Mongolia, Vietnam, Iran, and some other areas that don’t run on 3G or EDGE/GPRS, etc. Some parts of Africa are included. Popular EFL destinations like Japan, Korea, and Taiwan look to be well covered. They will ship the Kindle itself to you–to Japan, for example, the cost is $20.98 (ouch, but it’s “priority courier” and will arrive in 2 to 4 days [!!!] after it’s shipped).
But don’t get this if you’re a bookworm with poor impulse control and a maxed out credit card…Me, I’m not getting one for various reasons, one of which is that I can’t take it in the bathtub. (Get back to me when it’s waterproof.) Plus I live in an English-speaking country and can buy books at Half-Price Books for $1 each, so I hesitate to spend this much money on a gadget–but at the prices English books cost in places like Japan, it might be worth it. Never mind the space you’d save in a small apartment…
If you get one or think you might, don’t forget to click the “I’d like to read this book on Kindle” link on the left, under the product image, when you’re browsing on Amazon. TESOL books, in particular, could use more representation on the Kindle. Clicking on it doesn’t commit you to anything; it just lets Amazon and the publisher know that people are interested in seeing that book in a Kindle version.
If you’ve come up with a creative way to use your Kindle, let us know about it and I’ll post again later, because I think the international functionality means that these will become much more common items among EFL teachers. I may write about it over on Readable Blog, too; for a really serious English learner, it could be a good tool. (To my surprise, Cambridge graded readers are available on Kindle! AWESOME.)
Well, I’m going to give Amazon a little tough love here. I do use Amazon Affiliate links here and at Readable Blog, but if you’re an EFL teacher who is interested in the Kindle 2, Amazon’s brand new e-book reader, watch out.
The Kindle 2 is a very appealing piece of technology for overseas English teachers. It’s thin and lightweight and can hold a ton of books, so you can keep up on your English-language reading during your commute on Taipei’s MRT or wherever. And just think of all the space you’ll save in your luggage, and all the postage you’ll save mailing books to yourself! (Even in the US, I struggle with how many books to pack in my carry-on, because I finish them quickly and they take up a lot of space.) For that matter, at the prices English-language novels sell for in many countries, the high price of the Kindle 2 may start to seem worth it.
I got to play with the one my friend just bought in anticipation of her new teaching job in Asia, and it’s rather nice. I wasn’t interested before, but I found myself wanting one after I tried it. The “electronic ink” makes reading feel different from an old-fashioned monitor or a laptop screen. It’s more comfortable, although you’ll have to use a booklight at night. One of my initial objections to the Kindle was that I could already download countless works of classic literature that are out of copyright for free through Project Gutenberg. As it turns out, a lot of these have been formatted for the Kindle and can be downloaded free through Amazon, and I had to admit that I would prefer to read them on a Kindle screen than on my MacBook Pro’s screen.
However, there’s a big problem with the Kindle 2 that I haven’t seen getting much or any press.
What’s the catch? Well, it’s a pretty big catch: The USB connection appears to be faulty on many Kindle 2s. Do not buy the Kindle 2 unless you have enough time to experiment before you go overseas, because one of the Kindle 2′s biggest selling points (wireless downloads) does not work overseas, and the backup method (USB) seems to be horribly glitchy. Amazon provides free wireless access to these Kindles (including a kind of rudimentary websurfing) that lets you shop Amazon and download Kindle titles quickly, which is the preferred and primary way to buy books. This access is through Amazon’s own network, “Whispernet,” not through your house’s wifi, etc. The backup method is to shop online with your computer and then transfer items by USB cable, which is also how the Kindle 2 charges. Whispernet is only available in the USA. If Whispernet is down, or if you’re not in the United States, you must use USB. As far as I understand it, there’s no other way to download items, transfer files, or retrieve your previously purchased items if the Kindle 2 crashes.
Unfortunately, many laptops don’t seem to recognize the Kindle 2 via USB. Despite a ton of theories on Amazon’s discussion boards, no one seems to have figured out why. For every plausible theory, there’s a disproof of the theory. My friend returned her original Kindle 2, received the first day they were available, and got a replacement, which worked on one computer but not another. She’s keeping it because it works just well enough and she’s still really excited about having 150 books in something the size of a memo pad. Still, it shows that you shouldn’t buy this unless you have time to establish that it works on your computer and aren’t going to change computers any time in the future. Best case scenario, of course, this is something they can fix via a firmware update. In that case I’ll try to post about it again, because I think the Kindle 2 (despite its high price) is going to be an excellent solution for some EFL professionals. Remember, if you do get one, you have to maintain a US-based credit card to buy things from Amazon.com. I hope they open this up eventually; the national restrictions are really irritating. In the meantime, check out Sony’s E-Reader, which I’ve heard is less restricted. I haven’t tried one myself so I can’t write about it.
(Amazon does have some TESOL books available for Kindle, by the way; the discounts are sometimes not substantial–though you can get From Corpus to Classroom for $18.70 instead of $89 hardback or $34 paperback. Of course, those TESOL books are sometimes heavy! The categories are a bit odd: here are some; here are some; and here are some more.)
P. S. Best wishes to my friend in her new job, and I hope she enjoys those Temaraire books and the other random things I recommended at the last minute! (And I hope she’ll write a guest post at some point.)
Even with educational discounts, software can be expensive. However, a lot of people aren’t even using name-brand software anymore. I don’t think I run any Microsoft products on my computer these days, and you don’t have to, either. While there isn’t a satisfactory substitute for everything, there are for a lot of things. (By the way, make sure to read to the end of this post for a really useful link if you travel and use internet cafes and library computers, or shared school computers.)
Here are just a few (I’ve tried to only list cross-platform ones so that most people will be able to use them). Most are free; some ask for a small fee or donation.
Office applications, including word processing, presentations, and spreadsheets: OpenOffice.org (cross-platform, including Windows) and NeoOffice (OS X) do pretty much everything we want them to. They can open .docx and .xls files, export as .pdf, save so that Word users can open files, edit Powerpoint documents, etc. In fact, both are so much like Word that you still have to go turn off all the annoying autocorrect features. Ugh! But at least there’s no paperclip … I have no more compatibility issues than I had when I used Word itself. Support for multiple languages, including Asian languages (some features built in). Very familiar interface. Free to use; optional donation.
Web browsing: Firefox (cross-platform) is safer than Internet Explorer. It’s less prone to viruses, etc., and less prone to crashing. It also has a lot of great features that, admittedly, IE eventually gets around to copying (like tabs). It has more useful add-ons, like Rikai-chan, which lets me read Japanese more easily. More about Firefox sometime in the future.
Sound editing: Audacity (cross-platform) is a free sound editing and recording application. It’s particularly popular with TESOLers doing podcasts (here’s a tutorial). It’s fairly easy to use.
Statistics: The R Project (crossplatform) was mentioned on Metafilter as a free substitute for expensive stat-crunching licenses, and may be useful for researchers. I haven’t used it myself.
Course management: Sakai (online) is a free alternative to Blackboard and its ilk. Designed by actual educators and researchers at Stanford, Michigan, Indiana, MIT and Berkeley, I really recommend giving it a try (Blackboard is such a mess).
Instant messaging: Pidgin (cross-platform) and Adium (OS X) are wonderful if you’re trying to stay in touch with friends, family, clients, and students around the world. Both applications put EVERYTHING in one wonderful chat interface. You don’t have to worry about whether different people are using Yahoo, MSN, AIM, or whatever anymore. I use Adium, which even lets me have both my Yahoo! Japan and my Yahoo! chat names signed on at once, and multiple accounts (for my teacher and real-person identities) with the same service. Additionally, it’s free of ads, which most of the proprietary free services aren’t.
These are just a few of the free and open-source programs out there. As for graphics, no one seems to be able to agree on a decent all-around package that’s also cross-platform. Your best bet is probably to search Lifehacker for your specific need (vector graphics, font creation, photo editing, 3D graphics, etc.) and see if they have a recommendation for your operating system. In general, Lifehacker and Ask Metafilter (may have adult content, textually speaking) are good places to find safe recommendations.
Another bonus of using these applications is that many of them are smaller than their commercial counterparts, so they take up less room on your hard drive. Many of them are available in even more stripped-down forms at Portable Apps, so that you can put them on a USB stick and use them on, for example, a school computer running Korean Windows and all Korean applications, or in an internet cafe where you really shouldn’t trust their software. (Internet cafes, library computers, etc., are favorite places for hackers to install keyloggers and grab your passwords…) Great for travel!
P. S. I was thinking of doing a conference presentation on this topic one of these days, but I’m not sure how interested people would be. What do you think?