June 23, 2005

Review: Freeduc, an educational live CD

Author: Michael M Murphree

One of the least expected -- and most useful -- products of the Linux movement is the live CD. The ability to demo an operating system, with applications, is an advocate's dream come true. Freeduc is a live CD intended to be an aid to primary and secondary education. It could be a good tool for your child.

Freeduc was developed by the Organization for Free Software in Education and Teaching (OFSET). Its home page states:

OFSET is a legal organization which [sic] goal is to promote the development of free software for the educational system [sic] and teaching. OFSET has its legal roots in France but it's actually a multi-cultural entity with founding members all over the world.

Freeduc version 1.4 was released in October 2003 in collaboration with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Freeduc version 1.5, a primary school edition, was released in May 2005 in collaboration with the CRDP d'Aquitaine/CDDP des Landes and the teacher volunteer group AbulEdu. I found some nice improvements in the latest version, some surprises, and some features that still need work.

Look and feel

By default, Freeduc uses the Xfce desktop manager, a good choice for older systems or newer users. Large buttons either launch specific applications or extend toolbars, and an application menu is available from the desktop. Applications are divided into educational categories such as mathematics, astronomy, geography, and languages. Users can specify language and keyboard settings at boot, with 1.4 defaulting to U.S. English/QWERTY keyboard while Freeduc Primary defaults to French/Dvorak keyboard. English users can boot Freeduc Primary with the knoppix lang=us option (q=a on Dvorak keyboards).

Freeduc Primary provides boot options to specify other desktop managers, but I was unable to bring up KDE, IceWM, or any desktop manager other than Xfce. Both Freeduc versions include the knoppix-install.sh script, which installs the entire distribution to the hard drive, after which users can add additional applications from Debian sources. Both versions also allow users to specify a persistent home directory, which allows users to save settings and documents to the hard drive.

Applications

You can find the full of list of applications on the Freeduc 1.4 live CD and the Freeduc Primary live CD online. Although both versions include game and system tools sections, the focus on educational software is what sets Freeduc apart from other live CDs. The true gem of the distribution is GCompris, an educational suite that contains more than 60 educational applications, ranging from mouse games to a chess tutorial. Other applications include Dr. Geo, an interactive geometry application, a music "ear training" program, a periodic table of the elements, and an online dictionary. In addition, Freeduc 1.4 includes more advanced applications for astronomy, electrical circuit design, and drafting. Freeduc Primary includes the educational suite AbulÉdu, but it appears to be available only in French, even when English is selected from the application itself.

Both versions include the Abiword word processor, but Freeduc Primary does not include OpenOffice.org, Scribus, or Gnumeric -- all included in Freeduc 1.4. Both versions include the GIMP for image editing, and GQview for image viewing. Freeduc Primary also provides support for digital cameras, optical scanners, and webcams, including GnomeMeeting software. Freeduc 1.4 provides Mozilla for Web browsing and Sylpheed for email. Freeduc Primary includes the newer Firefox browser and Thunderbird email client.

What works, what doesn't

Hardware detection works perfectly, as I've come to expect from Knoppix derivatives. GCompris is fun and addictive as well as educational. Freeduc 1.4 especially contains enough educational applications to provide strong supplemental instruction in many areas, with applications for students to produce professional-quality papers, desktop publications, and Web pages.

Freeduc 1.4 appears to be a bit more polished than Freeduc Primary, although it does have a few issues. Although the desktop contains a screen lock button, neither XScreenSaver nor Xlock are installed, which renders the button ineffective. Only one application in Freeduc 1.4 gave me serious trouble -- the 3D modeler application completely locked my system. Freeduc Primary is visibly rough, as not all of the provided "cheat codes" actually work. In addition, not all applications provide English text, even though they may provide an "English" option. Although it is configured as the main help browser, Dillo did not properly read help files when started from the menu.

Overall impression

Freeduc 1.4 looks like a great tool for those contemplating home schooling, or who would like to give their students a good system without spending hundreds of dollars on software. I have given out Freeduc 1.4 to several friends who have school-aged children. Freeduc Primary, however, is still a little rough. Worse, I disagree with the assumption that younger students would not benefit from access to a good spreadsheet, desktop publisher, and other applications that Primary leaves out.

If you want to follow Freeduc developments, you can subscribe to the Freeduc mailing list.

Michael M Murphree has been a Linux user for more than a decade, and now administers
high-performance computational clusters. He is certified LPIC-2 by the Linux Professionals Institute.

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