September 13, 2001

Tux goes back to school

Author: JT Smith

- By Dan Berkes -
September, at least the version of it that plays in the Northern Hemisphere, is a time for changes. Minor changes, like the temperature dropping by a couple of degrees, or a few impatient leaves changing color to red and gold and dropping off. September does have one big event, however: The official start of the school year. The use of computers in education has come a long way in the 16 years that have passed since my freshman year of high school. During those dark ages of computing, we were herded in groups of 35 into the school's computer lab for our state-mandated two weeks of computer education. For some reason that has been lost to the passage of time, we weren't actually allowed to touch the terminals (A networked group of Acorns, believe it or not) we sat in front of until the last three or four days of the course.

When we were allowed to touch the sacred keyboards, I think the hands-on experience involved tapping in a few BASIC commands, and learning how to use some word processing program that bore no resemblance to any text editor I've ever used since then. And I don't know if it's just coincidence, but it seems there's an awful lot of people my age who attended high school in Arizona who have a mild aversion or (in rare cases) an abnormal fear and dislike of computers. I seem to have avoided that, probably from playing on the Macintoshes and Tandy Color Computers that belonged to friends and neighbors.

It goes without saying that the computing resources available in today's schools have vastly improved. I understand that students are even allowed to use the computers these days, and not just during some state-mandated class. Computer hardware is cheap, but commercial software is not, and that's why it might not be surprising to discover that there's at least a handful of academic labs running Linux. Finding decent free or affordable software to run on those boxes can be a frustrating tax: As with any other operating system, precious few titles exist.

A computer tends to take on the role of a tutor or teacher's assistant during the early primary grades, and it's at this level where software is most needed.

One project that shows plenty of promise is Tux4Kids, a non-profit organization formed to produce freely-available educational software for Linux and other platforms. So far, the project has released an educational typing tutor for Linux, Windows and BeOS. Also in the works are a math problem-solving game and a speech synthesis program designed to help children in learning how to read. All programs are freely available from the Tux4Kids Web site, and donations of resources (including development skills) are gratefully accepted.

You can find a wide variety of Linux-based educational software at Linux For Kids, but be prepared (as you should be anyway) to closely evaluate the software to see if it's appropriate for your academic needs. As of this writing, one of the titles featured on the main page is Simutrans, which is an economic simulation game that's similar in play to Railroad Tycoon. Build up an infrastructure of road, rail, and ocean transportation services to move cargo and passengers. Other games featured at Linux For Kids include math, spelling, language, arts, and even educational utility programs designed to help instructors.

Instructors and others interested in educational software can meet and exchange ideas at the Simple End User Linux education project, known better as SEUL/edu. The project hosts a mailing list for anyone interested in using Linux for all areas of education. In addition to the ongoing discussion, the project publishes a twice-monthly report on the state of Linux in education. The report highlights major or interesting items of discussion from the mailing list.

For older students interested in more than a connection to a Web search engine, consider nudging them in the direction of programming languages and Open Source projects. Or perhaps getting involved yourself -- after all, the next generation of new and improved quality software has to come from somewhere, right?

We'll have more on Linux in education in the coming weeks.


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