Linux systems for the education sector

UCS

Univention provides a platform that has been specifically compiled for schools through the server solution UCS@school (Figure 10), which focuses on simple configuration. You can install and set up the software in just a few minutes. If desired, UCS@school operates as an Active Domain Controller and, in this role, provides roaming profiles for Windows computers. The system can also effortlessly integrate other client operating systems such as Linux or OS X.

Figure 10: USC@School aims to make it as easy for admins to install and set up servers in schools; the company also provides support.

The three most important services include a directory service, a central email server for teachers, and finally a data server including synchronization capabilities. At the same time, the IT infrastructure is increasingly outsourced to data centers. According to Univention, cloud services, in combination with their own IT infrastructure, now play a major role. Schools also consider external solutions such as Dropbox, ownCloud, Microsoft Office 365, or Google Apps for Business.

Univention provides a Debian-based Linux distribution called Univention Corporate Client [19] for clients, which administrators can distribute via the network. Important applications like LibreOffice are included by default, and you can expand the range of software as required. In addition, UCS@school offers more quick-to-install apps.

You can also expand the server itself with monitoring software, an email infrastructure, and other network services. UCS@school requires the Univention Corporate Server as a base. In addition to the free, virtually unlimited, Core Edition, you find variants that cost 290-1690 euros depending on support options. You will also need to pay an additional one Euro per user per year for the UCS@school extension.

Conclusions

Linux now offers several alternatives for the classroom, with a perfectly knitted solution for almost every scenario (see also "Slow Migration Increases Acceptance"). The educational software available for the Linux environment should occupy schoolchildren over several weeks without boring them with repetition. Even older pupils can draw from an extensive range of applications, which includes excellent academic programs as well as software for teaching programming.

Slow Migration Increases Acceptance

Switching to Linux isn't just a financial matter. IT teacher Marco Schneider recalls that, for his school, the desire to move away from proprietary solutions was based on the practical need to be free of a single vendor and avoid potential lock-in. The Microsoft solution used at his school in the past was too inflexible, and external support was too expensive. However, Schneider explains, migrating to Linux is a long-term project; a sudden switch is very difficult to implement – especially among teachers. Individuals also need to be taken along and shown Linux installations that are already working. It helps that many users are already familiar with products such as Firefox or LibreOffice.

Schneider says he didn't experience any problems with the hardware when switching. He and his colleagues had already been worked with Linux for a long time and managed to set up the IT infrastructure. The team made the decision to go with UCS@school because of time constraints, but also because the company provides support itself for its product. Schneider is gradually migrating all client machines to Linux. The client system also comes from Univention and provides a KDE interface. He recommends trying out all relevant software and experimenting with the operating system before beginning the transition.

Sugar has a key issue: The focus on unfamiliar symbols means the user interface is hardly intuitive. Teachers, in particular, must spend longer coming to grips with the desktop environment before they can offer assistance to their students, especially with complex applications like drawing. There is, however, detailed help. The localization in UberStudent is lagging behind. Sugar and UberStudent may be more niche products, but they exemplify the complications associated with using free software.

Systems that lack support can cause a lot of frustration among both pupils and teachers (see the box titled "Beyond the Cost"). Teaching content is the top priority for teachers, who should have to spend as little time as possible explaining functions to pupils or rectifying deficiencies.

Beyond the Cost

Peripheral devices found in schools might cause some problems. Linux's CUPS printer support tool supports most printers, but scanners are sometimes more difficult to integrate. And a teacher can waste valuable teaching time rummaging through the system control because the user interface doesn't appear correctly on the projector.

The savings from using Free software might be well worth the expense of purchasing compatible hardware.

Edubuntu provides a good starting point – it might have only limited scope, but it can be used as a live system without excessive effort, which can give both teachers and pupils a first taste of Linux without the need to erect a complete infrastructure. DebianEdu is also a good option for starting with Linux, plus it can expand with a mature school server as necessary.

Anyone who prefers to use a finished and easy-to-maintain IT infrastructure can confidently use UCS@school, which – according to the manufacturers – is already in use in hundreds of schools. Univention doesn't just maintain the software, it also offers comprehensive support and has set up a community devoted to the server solution, with a website providing a forum as well as tips from colleagues.

The Author

Jörg Thoma has been using Linux for 20 years and has been writing about it for almost as long. He loves everything about open source, still thinks the command line is useful, and relaxes while watching compiler messages.

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