Linux systems for the education sector

Back to School

Article from Issue 186/2016
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The fact that Linux and its extensive open source ecosystem are free of charge is really a strong argument for financially strapped schools. This article looks at Linux in the classroom.

Classroom computing is a big topic – and a big market around the world. Teachers and education experts are looking for new ways to delivery curriculum efficiently with maximum benefit for their students. Many of the available education platforms got their start before the widespread acceptance of Linux, which means Windows and Mac OS systems had a big head start on the market. But, open source innovation has opened the classroom doors to Linux. Several specialized Linux distros compete for the chance to serve curriculum to students.

One of the biggest reasons for considering Free software is that it offers lower cost – and sometimes even has no cost. But, FOSS provides other benefits for educational users. For instance, the adaptability and rich diversity of the open source ecosystem leads to an abundant variety of solutions tailored to specific interests and use cases. Also, an open environment reduces the possibility of vendor lock-in, which can lead to reduced choice and unnecessary expense with maintaining and updating the network.

A vast number of Free education-related applications are available for all versions of Linux. You'll find office applications, graphics, and presentation tools, learning tools, multimedia solutions, and a variety of educational games.

The modern school network, however, isn't just a room full of autonomous PCs. Leading classroom systems offer tools for collaboration, as well as teacher interaction and oversight. Some systems depend on thin client workstations and a terminal server model for supporting classroom activities.

One issue associated with rolling out open source software in schools is the general unfamiliarity with the Linux environment (see the box titled "Windows Preferred"). Each solution must provide the necessary documentation or background support to help teachers, students, and school IT staff use the systems productively.

Windows Preferred

Learning programs created specifically for Windows, which some teachers unfortunately can't or don't want to do without, present an obstacle for Linux adoption in the education space. The Wine compatibility API [18] provides a solution for running Windows programs on Linux, or you can integrate Windows computers into an existing Linux-based infrastructure using the Samba protocol.

Nevertheless, many schools still favor Windows, even when the Windows version is hopelessly and dangerously outdated. Some schools in the world, for example, are still using Windows XP!

This article tours some popular Linux distros designed for educational environments (Table 1). You'll learn about Sugar [1], UberStudent [2], Edubuntu [3], DebianEdu [4], openSUSE Edu-Life [5], and UCS@school [6].

Table 1

Schoolroom Linux Features

Feature

Sugar

Edubuntu

DebianEdu

openSUSE Edu-Life

UberStudent

UCS@school

Localization

Inadequate

Good

Good

Good

Defective

Good

Documentation

Good (English)

Good

Good

Good

Good (English)

Good

Target group

All ages

All ages

All ages

All ages

Secondary classes/students

Administrators

Application

Classes/schools

Classes

Classes

Classes

Individuals

Schools

Setup effort

Server: difficult;Clients: easy

Server: easy; Clients: complex user management

Server: easy;Clients: complex user management

Server: easy;Clients: complex user management

Server: --; Client: easy

Server: easy; Client: easy

LDAP support

Optional

Optional

Optional

Optional

No

Integrated

Mail server

Optional

Optional

Optional

Optional

No

Integrated

File server

Local or server

LTSP server

LTSP server

LTSP server

Local

Server

Windows/Mac clients

Optional with server

Optional

Optional

Optional

Optional

Yes

Management tools for clients

Moodle

Epoptes

GOsa

iTALC

No

Own solution

Desktops

Own solution

Unity

KDE

KDE

Xfce

KDE

Sugar

Fedora's Sugar, which evolved from the One Laptop Per Child project [7] (see the box titled "OLPC") is designed to make the world of computers as simple and intuitive as possible for children. The user interface designed for pupils isn't just aimed at first-graders but at older pupils, too. Sugar also demonstrates how difficult it is to devise a universal solution for pupils worldwide.

OLPC

Sugar Linux isn't just for the now-no-longer-produced XO-1 laptop from the OLPC initiative. Sugar on a Stick (SoaS, [8]) is a version of Sugar that is based on Fedora 23 and supported by the Fedora project. You'll need to run SoaS on a laptop with a wireless chip that Sugar supports. There are also Sugar packages in the Ubuntu repositories, but they don't offer all the applications provided by SoaS.

According to its own statements, the OLPC initiative has already achieved success in Ethiopia and Nepal and is used in Peru and Venezuela, among other places. The once-acclaimed project is no longer in the news, although the existing laptops are still being maintained. The brand name now belongs to the US-based Sakar, which manufactures a tablet with Android instead of laptops, and this tablet is more focused on leisure activities. Walmart sells the tablet with more than 100 games.

However, the creator of the OLPC project, Nicholas Negroponte, is continuing with his goal of global education in the non-profit, education-oriented organization XPRIZE.

The user interface is kept pleasingly simple, and design is clearly aimed at mobile devices – in particular, the XO laptop, which was the target hardware for the OLPC developers. Sugar's interface, however, is different from all other known GUIs (Figure 1). Anyone starting life in the IT world using Sugar will probably find it difficult to switch to other conventional user interfaces later.

Figure 1: Fedora-based Sugar was originally developed for the OLPC project and has an idiosyncratic interface.

The OLPC initiative wanted to familiarize as many children as possible with computers, especially those in regions of the world with a shortage of computer hardware. By Sugar's own account, the system specifically targets immigrants who need to learn a new language and users with disabilities.

The user interface provides only icons for the many applications (Figure 2). A number of learning, puzzle, and communication program hide behind these icons. Sugar connects each user with a Jabber server by default. In any case, the system focuses heavily on the collaboration and communication between the students. Sugar keeps track of all activities locally in a journal, which contains elements such as images and texts.

Figure 2: The many non-text symbols in Sugar are used to help overcome language barriers, but they don't make it any easier to get started using the system.

If you don't have a central server, the Sugar can form a mesh network. Alternatively, you can set up a Sugar server based on CentOS. Teachers also can configure the network, including CentOS-based proxies like Squid (along with filters) or WWWoffle [9], which can deliver content despite shaky Internet connections. Sugar uses the free web-based Moodle learning platform, which groups the students and provides learning materials. Users can store their own activities on the server.

UberStudent

Whereas Sugar is aimed at children, UberStudent tries to educate older students. Even the name seems a bit pretentious, and the description on the website even more so (Figure 3). The system, we learn, "pushes users to the head of the class." Anyone who scans through the website will receive requests for donations at almost obtrusively short intervals.

Figure 3: Although UberStudent seems somewhat pretentious, it does provide a few useful applications that aren't available in other distributions.

UberStudent is based on Ubuntu 14.04 but also provides the update manager from the Linux Mint project. The project initiator, Stephen Ewen, repeatedly leveled criticism at the desktops Unity and Gnome 3 in the past – his Linux distribution consequently uses Xfce with a specially designed interface.

Unlike systems intended for younger students, UberStudent plays down the simple math and reading and focuses on tools for research and writing, study aids, and "self-management" tools.

The default configuration comes with the Zotero research tool, the Cherry Tree note-taking application, several logic puzzles, and a number of tools with "encyclopedia" in the name, like "Encyclopedia of Philosophy" and "Encyclopedia of Mathematics." UberStudent offers a diverse collection of helpful applications for high school and college-age users; however, you won't find an accompanying set of management tools and server software. No wonder: UberStudent is not really intended for use in school classrooms but is more for learners' personal computers.

Edubuntu

Edubuntu, which is classified as an official Ubuntu project, is significantly better networked and more extensive that UberStudent or Sugar.

Edubuntu includes puzzle and educational games and applications for children in preschool or primary grades in the preschool and primary packages. An essential difference from Sugar: The programs in Edubuntu use conventional menus which display both icons and text.

It is worth highlighting the very successful software collection GCompris [10], which includes a wealth of applications (Figure 4). The GCompris applications are separated into tools for learning the alphabet or for basic arithmetic operations. Games and puzzles like "Connect Four" or chess complement the collection. You will also find software that describes the basics of power circuits or the water cycle.

Figure 4: The software collection GCompris for Kids provides plenty of games and fun.

The Edubuntu developers appear to expect a lot from young children: When starting the application to experiment with the power circuit, a message appears, stating that the electric simulator Gnucap is missing, followed by a detailed description of how to install it. It's only in the final sentence that information is provided to say that Gnucap isn't absolutely necessary. The message alone is probably enough to confound primary students, and teachers need administrative rights to download the software.

One software package for pupils in first grade mainly consists of KDE applications, including the guessing game KHangMan (Figure 5). The application also serves as an example of the predominantly Anglo-Saxon orientation of many learning programs, such as Hangman. It is easy to see the problem with internationally standardizing the educational software – applications where children can learn to spell, do simple math, and use computers are really useful for grade-schoolers. However, the more advanced the students are, the more country-specific the requirements become.

Figure 5: KHangMan: Are the gallows really necessary? Things that are acceptable in one country might cause offense in another.

The supplementary packages secondary and tertiary make applications available for higher grades. Academic programs like Chemtool, which illustrates complex chemical compounds, is a good example of this category. Other tools act more as accessories and supplement the research, including the digital Atlas Marble (Figure 6) or Kstars, which invites you to explore the night sky. Linux also provides a massive selection of applications for budding programmers. Despite criticism, Edubuntu's software complements the pupils' textbooks well. Many programs also invite you to experiment.

Figure 6: Edubuntu includes includes many applications for older students, such as a digital atlas.

A major difference that exists between Edubuntu and DebianEdu (which you will learn more about later in this article) is the underlying server infrastructure. Both systems might operate in a thin client environment, but Edubuntu targets an easy installation within a limited infrastructure using the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP, [11]), which loops through the graphical interface directly to the thin client (see Figure 7).

Figure 7: Edubuntu tries to make it easy to get started with Linux – a terminal server sets up quickly and works without any further action.

The server equipment limits the number of connected clients; an up-to-date computer with four CPU cores and 8GB of RAM can provide about 20 clients. It makes sense to use a server if you are operating Edubuntu in a classroom setting. The option to set up Edubuntu as an LTSP server is available upon installation and works afterwards without any need for further input.

A decisive disadvantage in Edubuntu: Users work directly on the server. For example, during the tests for this article, an update message appeared, which the server obediently passes on to the thin clients. A student who gets hold of the admin password will have direct access to all their fellow pupils' data.

If system administrators want to create their own user accounts, they need to use self-constructed solutions. The default installation only provides the Ubuntu or Gnome user management. Epoptes [12] is available as a central remote maintenance and client-monitoring tool. However, configuration files need to be edited, and you need to start the Epoptes server via the command line. Basic knowledge of Linux is therefore a requirement.

It is also possible to connect diskless workstations to the Edubuntu LTSP server. The workstation takes over almost the entire role of a computer and operates as a Network Block Device (NDB). This setup relieves the server and reduces network traffic between workstations and servers because the workstation directly depends on the Internet. However, a separate DHCP server is required on the network. Finally, the workstation must also meet the system requirements for an Edubuntu installation.

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