April 25, 2008

What Edubuntu can teach your kids

Author: Lisa Hoover

Edubuntu is a customized version of Ubuntu aimed at children in educational environments. According to the distributions homepage, Edubuntu is "Linux for Young Human Beings." That works out well for me, since I have three of those in my house. I homeschool my children and use Edubuntu on a couple of our computers. My boys love having an operating system that was designed with them in mind, and I appreciate the way its applications encompass the total learning process.

Edubuntu is based on the Ubuntu Linux operating system and geared for a wide age-range of children from youngsters just learning to read all the way through teenagers getting ready to enter college. It comes bundled with the KDE Edutainment Suite and dozens of other applications and tools to enhance learning in virtually every school subject -- math, reading, art, computer science, language arts, and more. Edubuntu's default interface is GNOME, but KDE is also available. While Edubuntu used extensively in classrooms across the globe, it is easy to install on a laptop or desktop computer for home use.

You just can't beat the educational software included with Edubuntu. Some, like the KmPlot function plotter and the Kig geometry tool, are a bit advanced for my 7, 9, and 10-year old kids, but we regularly use KBurch to practice fractions and are beginning to dabble with Kalzium to learn about the periodic table of elements. Far and away, the most-used app is KStars, which we use almost every day to check what the universe overhead looks like and what celestial bodies will be in view at night.

There's little doubt that as my children get older, the ability to work with various kids of media will become increasingly important, so I've already begun getting them acclimated. All three regularly use the GIMP to edit pictures. My middle son -- a budding film director -- produces weekly movies with Kino. My oldest uses Serpentine to create audio CDs to use during music lessons. The native sound recorder helps us make homegrown podcasts where we discuss what they've learned recently. We burn them to a CD and include it in their lesson portfolios and the records we keep for the state.

Edubuntu really shines in the way it lets me teach my family about programming. I was initially intimidated by the educational programming environment KTurtle, since my rusty programming skills date back to the mid-1980s. The application turned out to be very approachable, and now my children are beginning to learn the cause and effect of code editing in visual way that's suited to their abilities.

Of course, Edubuntu comes with many of the standard applications you'd expect. We make heavy use of the OpenOffice.org word processor and will use Impress when it comes time do a major science project before the end of the school year. While the kids don't use Calc very often, I find it invaluable for keeping track of previous and upcoming assignments, as well as grades and test scores. The desktop publishing app Scribus has also come in handy on a number of occasions when my children have made fancy covers for books they've written, or want to decorate folders to hold their schoolwork.

An added bonus of working with this distribution is that discussions we have about open source software aren't theoretical -- they're actually able to compare for themselves how well it stacks up against the other operating systems and applications available in our home.

Learning disguised as fun

My boys love games, and they are especially fond of the ones included in Edubuntu. As I write this, my oldest is sitting next to me with one of the laptops trying to beat his personal best in a game of KHangMan. He thinks he's goofing off, but I know he's strengthening his reading, spelling, and reasoning skills. They also enjoy Tux Math, a cute game where kids help Tux find the answers to math equations as they fall out of the sky. Enter the right answer and the equations are blasted away; guess wrong and they fall onto the city below, causing mayhem and mass destruction.

My family typically gets the most use out of the Gcompris suite of educational games. Though some are a bit below my children's grade levels, we use make use of several others. For example, we've used the puzzles of famous paintings after art class, the canal-lock game after learning about the properties of water, and the geography module for skill strengthening. We also use other modules to learn chess, sudoku, and to help teach my youngest how to tell time.

Besides Gcompris, Edubuntu ships with more than 15 games that vary in fun and educational value. Some, like AisleRiot Solitare and Potato Guy aren't exactly brain-benders, but overall it's a clever collection and my kids really like them.

Teacher tools

In addition to Calc, which I mentioned earlier, Edubuntu has a few other tools I use regularly to keep myself organized and keep the kids on track.

I've set up each computer with a separate workspace for each child. That way, they can switch users without worrying that whatever their brothers are working on will be lost. I've also set up an Evolution account for each of my children. Even though I'm very hands-on with their schoolwork, they like receiving daily email with their assignments and what to expect for the day. Their inboxes serve as a good record of what we've been doing, and since I use a Web-based mail service, I can check what I've assigned even when we're out of the house.

Since a lot of learning at their age is based on repetition -- multiplication tables, names of continents, spelling words -- I use KEduca to make flash cards and quizzes. Unlike store-bought flash cards, I can tailor these to each child's needs and education level. I've been having some issues getting the built-in image scanner to work with my Lexmark device, but I hope to soon be able to use it to scan writing assignments and burn them to disk for their portfolios. I also plan to scan their cursive handwriting assignments so we can email them to Grandma for extra praise and encouragement with a skill they're not enjoying learning very much.

Finally, as a reward when we're done with schoolwork for the day, I let my kids goof off on the Internet for a while via the Firefox browser with the Glubble extension in place to keep them away from sites they shouldn't visit. They usually like to surf while playing some tunes on the Rhythmbox music player.

Since most of my kids' schoolwork is hands-on and interactive, they don't spend a huge amount of time with our computers each day. Technology is a big part of our lives, however, and by the time they get to be my age I imagine it will be a big part of everyone's. Edubuntu strikes the right balance between helping them learn the basics of core subjects they need to know and teaching them ways open source software can help us achieve great things.


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