May 23, 2006

A free education

Author: Sean "Nz17" Robinson

My sister Erika's second grade primary school class had a problem: it had four old computers running Microsoft Windows 98, and no educational software for the computers. The computers were used mainly for viewing children's educational Web sites, and playing simple Macromedia Flash games. I decided to introduce free software into her classroom. The results were heart-warming.

Our computers at home run Debian Linux, and we have several children's games on them, including Anagramarama, GCompris, Tux of Math Command, Tux Paint, and Tux Typing 2. Assessing the lot of them, I decided that Anagramarama, an anagrams game, was the best choice for a "trial run" introductory game. It was simple and obvious to use, and seemed to have the most immediate educational benefit for second graders, most of whom are eight and nine years old.

However, there was a slight difficulty installing the latest version of Anagramarama. The last Windows 98 compatible binary release of Anagramarama was version 0.1, which lacked keyboard support. Because keyboard support is critical for the budding typists, I first installed Cygwin, the GNU-on-Windows software collection, so that I could compile Anagramarama 0.2 (which has keyboard support) for Win32 systems.

After I set up Cygwin, as well as prerequisite software Simple Directmedia Layer and SDL_mixer, Anagramarama compiled with no problems. Once it's compiled, it can run without Cygwin and be distributed as a standalone package.

Next, I set about creating an installer for the game so that classroom teacher Mr. Bemis and his associates, many of whom may lack technical expertise, could easily install the game on other computers without assistance.

For this step I chose the Nullsoft Scriptable Install System (NSIS). NSIS is available under the GNU General Public License (GPL), light on system resources, and easy to use to set up a variety of installation profiles. NSIS can create shortcut icons in a range of locations, such as the Desktop or Start Menu, it can run under dozens of different languages, and automatically launch the program after installation. As a finishing touch, I created an autorun.inf file to automatically run the installer upon insertion of the CD-R onto which I copied it. I kept an ISO of each CD, in case the class needed additional copies.

The next step was to surprise Mr. Bemis with the discs. He was receptive. The class had no clear use for its computers, so he says he was glad to have some native educational software to run on the machines. The only other educational programs the class had were Apple IIe applications on 5 1/4-inch floppy diskettes. I demonstrated Tux Paint to the class to gauge their interest in my bringing in more free software, and the students and Mr. Bemis seemed quite happy to receive more.

Two weeks later, when I returned with new CDs containing Tux Paint, I was in for a pleasant surprise: other teachers at the school were now using Anagramarama in their own classrooms! Apparently, some teachers noticed the kids playing Anagramarama and initially attempted to scold Mr. Bemis for allowing computer games in his classroom against school rules. However, he showed them that the game was not only an action-orientated distraction, but an important educational tool that was teaching the children critical thinking, spelling, and suffixes and prefixes, and increasing their creative skills.

The nearby teachers began asking to borrow the CD to install the game in their own classrooms. Mr. Bemis was even approached by the school's computer lab instructor, who asked for the disc so that he could install Anagramarama in the lab! I made certain to make two copies of each CD I brought in after this point so that sharing wouldn't be such a concern.

Over the next few weeks, I brought in Tux of Math Command and Tux Typing 2. When Mr. Bemis announced that I had brought a new mathematics computer game for his students, half the class cheered for the game while the other half groaned at the math. The groans were soon replaced by enthusiasm, however. The students liked the game because they could use lasers to shoot down the approaching meteors, as long as they gave the correct answers to the math problems in time. The teacher liked it because it helped the students refine and enforce their math reflexes with addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, and Tux Math allowed him to set the difficulty of the problems.

The last program I want for class use is GCompris, a suite of learning activities including math, logic, computer use, and drawing applications. The Windows version of this program lacks the full activity set that is available for GCompris under Linux, because the program's designer wants all children of the world to have free computer systems so they can appreciate and become accustomed to the ideas and freedoms of free software ideology. I set out to give these to Mr. Bemis's class.

The computers in these classrooms are nearly 10 years old, with Pentium II or Celeron processors clocked at around 300MHz. They're not well-suited to running a modern education-based distribution like Edubuntu or SkoleLinux, and it is unclear whether the school would approve of installing Linux on the systems in place of Windows, since there would be a question of long-term support.

Happily, I found a solution. GCompriX is a live CD specifically designed to run GCompris on modest computer hardware -- even on an original Pentium CPU with a mere 64MB of RAM. The CD does not modify the installed operating system, so it can be used on school computers without concern. On systems with a large amount of RAM it is even possible to load the entire GCompriX disc into memory for incredibly fast operation. Students don't need to worry about properly shutting down a computer running GCompriX, as simply turning off the computer is the correct method of stopping the live CD.

I look forward to presenting GCompriX to the children in Mr. Bemis's classroom. I feel good every time I bring them new software to play with, and I know that they and their class are better off thanks to my small contribution on behalf on the free software community.