February 27, 2007

Edubuntu: Linux for education

Author: Melissa Draper

Edubuntu is the Ubuntu distribution's educational variant. It provides a software platform that allows educators to spend more time teaching with computers and less time managing them. In addition to Linux and the typical productivity software, Edubuntu provides the organisational package SchoolTool and educational programs for children between preschool and high school, with three age groups within this demographic, each with their own relevant settings.

When it was first released in October 2005, Edubuntu was designed to serve as a desktop and server combination for a single school classroom of 6- to 18-year-olds. Today the project is working on catering to entire schools. Thanks in part to Edubuntu being the first distribution to utilise the the newest version of the Linux Terminal Server Project, LTSP5, and associated maintainer tools, schools will be able to manage school-wide implementations with greater ease than before.

The current development cycle will see additional adaptations for older students, thanks to the developers' decision to expand Edubuntu to be a two-CD kit. New applications on the second CD will include QCad, a 2-D Computer Assisted Drafting program, and Rasmol, a molecule virtualisation tool. Additionally, the Xfce desktop, a popular request, will also be provided on the disc.

"For Feisty, we added an add-on CD from which you will be able to install all kinds of new applications, as well as a broad range of extra language packages," Edubuntu's Technical Lead, Oliver Grawert, says. "The add-on CD will be very easy to use; you just pop it in and Add/Remove will offer you a list of choices to install. In the future we plan to divide the apps on that add-on CD by age group so that you have several age-related tasks." The simplicity of installing add-on packages is an important feature for a system that aims to be usable by any teacher with basic computer skills.

Good timing

Linux and open source software are receiving increased interest within the education sector as an alternative to Microsoft Windows Vista. In early January, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) released a report warning of "lock-in" risks with regard to Microsoft's academic licencing programs, and stated that many establishments do not believe that such programs provide value for money.

"We are already seeing concerns expressed by a number of education departments in a number of countries," says Richard Weideman, education programme manager for Canonical, the chief sponsor company behind Ubuntu. "Not only the financial implications of Vista licencing are raising concerns, but also the associated complexities and overhead of licencing compliance.

A migration in the education industry fueled by upgrade costs and licencing fears would expose students to Linux and open source, which Weideman sees as an opportunity for students to be more adaptable after their formal education concludes.

"Kids who learn to use a computer from scratch are not afraid of Linux or OpenOffice.org. They concentrate on the learning task at hand, and they learn to use whatever the tool is put in front of them. If some of those kids graduate to a work environment using Linux or OpenOffice.org, they will have no problem. If the new work environment uses Windows, they will adjust without any issues. Some of them will even propose OpenOffice.org or Linux at work, and help their new company to migrate and save money."

Edubuntu High

When the State of Indiana Department of Education's "Indiana ACCESS" initiative offered funding for Bloomington High School North to have 1:1 computing environments in four classrooms, Simon Ruiz, the school's technology aide, chose an option that was not even on the list: the brand new Edubuntu distribution.

"The first Linux distribution we looked at immediately after the release of 5.10 Breezy Badger was Edubuntu, simply because it was a distribution designed for education," Ruiz says. "This was the first Linux distribution I'd ever installed, and I was amazed at how easy it was to do so, and how high quality a product it was."

Ruiz believes the decision to use Edubuntu was a good one, and has been impressed by the improvements made to the system over the past year. The students have also been won over, with only a few complaints.

"When they first sit down at the computers and are confronted with an unfamiliar environment, I hear a lot of 'Why aren't we using Windows?' However, after they spend some time with them, that pretty much stops. The environment becomes transparent and they can focus on what it is they're doing, which is our objective. I've actually even had a few students tell me how cool they think Linux is."

Unfortunately, the transition has not been without hurdles, as the official technical support personnel "washed their hands" of the project -- a design flaw of the initiative. Better planning could have prevented this by properly educating technicians, or allocating part of the funding specifically for maintenance. In Bloomington High's case, this means that all the technical work of designing, implementing, and supporting everything Linux-related at the school is done voluntarily.

"They're understaffed and support a homogeneously Microsoft network, so they don't feel they can afford to support us," Ruiz says of the technical resistance the project has faced. "I've volunteered to provide as much support as I can because I believe this project deserves a better chance than being left to flounder unsupported."

If properly managed, initiatives like the Indiana ACCESS scheme could save schools thousands of dollars in licencing expenditure -- and the potential financial savings are not limited to the licencing costs. For instance, in Australia, the NSW Department of Education and Training, while standardised on Windows, is also considering adopting Linux and open source in some cases, to avoid the need to upgrade hardware.

A Third World solution

In the Third World countries where computer specifications are often far below that of the average Western desktop, schools have to make do with what is available, which usually means donated second-hand machines. This hardware restriction creates the need to look past Windows and adopt Linux and open source alternatives that can fulfill the requirements of teachers and students.

In Venezuela, for instance, "there are several movements that were originated by a new law, Presidential Decree No. 3390, where all public institutions must use open source software," says Efrain Valles, a Venezuelan educator, Ubuntu user, and open source advocate. However, Valles says that uptake in the education sector is slow. "Our schools are just beginning to use computers. There is no one computer per classroom thing; remember, we are a Third World country. Technology is an import and very expensive, so the reach to schools is happening mainly because of stuff like Edubuntu."

"Have you heard the expression 'No child left behind' and the education decree by George W. Bush? Well Edubuntu says 'No Hardware left behind,'" he quips, referring to the fact that Edubuntu will run well even on older machines that would have trouble with Windows Vista. "Schools will have two options: stick with old technology no longer supported by their makers, such as Windows XP in two years time, or switch to open source."

Of course, this situation is not unique to Latin America. On the other side of the world, in Africa, Alex Antener, system administrator at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Zurich, and artist Nathalie Bissig undertook a project in Malawi, one of the world's poorest countries, utilising donated two servers and 25 thin-client computers based on Edubuntu 6.10 donated by the university's Information Technology department. A group of six students from Malawi Polytechnic assisted in the implementation of the networks at the college.

While Edubuntu is finding success in underprivileged areas of the world, the same concepts easily warrant adoption in Western society. Though hardware availability is not a key issue in developed countries, the old 'penny saved' philosophy means that avoiding investments in new hardware allows more funds to be channeled to other areas of the education process, such as resource acquisition and facility improvements.

Windows XP is due to reach its end of life in two years, leaving plenty of otherwise useful computers that are incapable of running the new Vista system out in the cold. Savvy administrators are already making preparations. As the deadline looms and the restrictions enforced by Vista's digital rights management become more apparent, an increasing number of institutions are going to see the benefits of Linux distributions such as Edubuntu.

Melissa Draper is a Free Software and open source enthusiast. She is a project lead for the Ubuntu Local Community (LoCo) Project and the team contact for the Local Ubuntu Community in Australia.


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