GNU/Linux in Public Schools

Posted 22 Aug 2000 at 15:13 UTC by gnuchris Share This

I've recently been approached on two seperate occasions, by an Administrator, and a computer science teacher, of two public school districts asking me how Linux could be useful to them. They both agreed that the price was great, but had a hard time, finding the other benefits.

I've recently been approached on two seperate occasions, by an Administrator, and a computer science teacher, of two public school districts asking me how Linux could be useful to them. They both agreed that the price was great, but had a hard time, finding the other benefits.

Price is the most obvious benefit for a school district to switch to Linux... one district official said to me, "I have 25 computers, running on about 5 copies of Windows 95, and we have to do something about that fast." But price alone isn't enough to persuade administrators that they should switch to Linux.

The real question is, can the students do all the same things they can do in Linux in Windows, and will they learn more using Linux? A local high school tech teacher told me that the following programs would allow his kids to do 99% of thier work/play {Netscape Communicator,gFTP, GIMP ,RealPlayer ,Blender ,XMMS ,WordPerfect ,StarOffice Personal Edition ,GNOME ,KDE,Quadra} Add gcc and various programming tools and Linux seems to be a pefect fit. On top of that, each student can have thier own home directory accessible from any machine on the network, and their own user configurations/desktop. Now I want to ask YOU two questions...

1) He wants a program that allows his desktop to be exported to all the students, so he can do a demonstration on his machine and all his students could view, what he is doing on thier monitor... So does something like that exsist?

2) What other applications would seem to be a good fit for both educators, and students?

So we come to the question of "Will the kids learn more using Linux?"... my answer is, that some of them will definately learn more. Linux makes a good Operating System to study computer topics like Networking, Security, and Operating Systems... so to the students who want to learn more about computers, they will definately learn more by having a hands on Linux experience.

The last issue is security. Can the schools Windows Intensive SysAdmins, be expected to keep up with the security patches surrounding Windows? Can the system be locked down tight enough to prevent the students from doing damage?

I think it is a really important step to get Linux into the classroom. It is important in an economical way, but it is also important to expose people to GNU/Linux at an earlier age, and teach them the essence of Free Software, and suggestions or comments the world has, would be greatly appreciated.

teacher demos, posted 22 Aug 2000 at 15:24 UTC by nullity » (Master)

Look at VNC.

With some fairly simple scripts and a desktop icon it would allow students to view what their teacher's computer was doing whilst they were performing demoes (and hence running the daemon). All the computers would have to be networked of course, but it sounds like they already are.

VNC, posted 22 Aug 2000 at 15:55 UTC by gnuchris » (Journeyer)

Yea, I mentioned VNC to them when they asked... it seems like a good choice, but in my experience with VNC, both desktop users have control of the desktop, so a student could move the mouse and mess the teacher up.. is there permissions on this?

XMX, posted 22 Aug 2000 at 15:58 UTC by flawed » (Journeyer)

There also is XMX, the X Protocol Multiplexer, which seems to be designed for just the type of use.

A alternative solution..., posted 22 Aug 2000 at 16:32 UTC by BrentN » (Apprentice)

This isn't exactly what was specified, but it may be that a simple desktop projector would suffice. If the teacher is simply wanting to demo what he is doing, then I don't see why simply throwing an image of his monitor up on a projection screen wouldn't accomplish the task. Plus, I know from experience that there is a lot of money available from various public & private sources to help schools "multimedia-ify" classrooms. Ceiling mounted projectors are a typical choice when writing grant proposals for these things.

Plus, schools love teachers who write successful grant proposals... :)

VNC, posted 22 Aug 2000 at 16:40 UTC by sterwill » (Master)

I have seen VNC used in computer labs as a teacher-use-only tool. My manual page for xvncviewer(1x) says vncserver can be invoked with the -viewonly option, which "disables transfer of mouse and key events from the client to the server." I believe VNC would be great for these situations assuming enough bandwidth for all the clients.

Re: GNU/Linux in Public Schools, posted 22 Aug 2000 at 16:47 UTC by DarkBlack » (Apprentice)

As a sysadmin for a public school system, I can see several problems with getting this going:

1) StarOffice can be useful, but the current crop of books are designed for teaching Microsoft Office. I find it horrible that they teach a specific application and not how to learn how to use any word processor you are handed. Bottom Line: They want to teach only one application: Office or Works

2) Students are not taught how to use a computer to manage files, they are taught only an application. Anything else and they are lost.

3) Most software written for school use is written exclusively for windows or macintosh. If it can't run the software that we need, why use it?

4) Most teachers do not know how to use a computer themselves. How can they be expected to use something that they don't even use at home?

For computer programming classes, I can say yes, GNU/Linux is the way to go. For everything else, I have to say not yet.

I would very much like to see GNU/Linux in the classroom. I would very much enjoy deploying and administering it. However, unless some more of us set out to write some of the greatly needed software to use on it for educational purposes, I don't see it happening.....yet.

So what titles need to be ported?, posted 22 Aug 2000 at 17:54 UTC by cmacd » (Journeyer)

Most software written for school use is written exclusively for windows or macintosh. If it can't run the software that we need, why use it?

OK - what is it that is needed? I am not in a school, so I don't have an idea of your want list. Please spell it out.

I can remember when a School Computer was a synonym for an Apple ][ and at that time there was a group in Minnesota that went out and wrote a bunch of software to teach every level. I belive that some of this was eventualy ported to MS-DOS.

The nice thing about open software is that if the needs are known, teachers can have their Grade 9-13 students write stuff for the younger crowd.

The folks in Mexico are working on such a project, Perhaps you only need to to a bit of reverse internationalization to change the spanish to english and french.

There was a remark the other day that there are "too many IRC clients being produced" so small educational packages may be just the thing for programmers wishing to get involved to start with.

The trick is I doubt that typing drills are what is needed. Show us what sort of software you want in order to switch over and we will be able to plan to provide it.

Now as for the remark about books focusing on WORD® rather on generic word processing. The answser may be to get different books. The ones that depend on Word will be passe soon enough when the next edition changes things. Word Perfect 8® looks the same on windows and Linux, Word Perfect 2000 IS the same on both, thanks to WIne. Corel used to have educational prices for their stuff. StarOffice is FREE, so that leaves lots to buy texts if one wishes to go that route.

Lets Think Positive

The only thing that Linux has as a disadvantage is that it is not seen by school admistrators as mainstream. All Geeks who pay property taxes for education may wish to communicate to their elected school board members to disuade them of this view. Linux (or BSD) users groups may wish to create a distribution that is already configured for their local school district to use...

what more do they need?, posted 22 Aug 2000 at 18:30 UTC by mobius » (Master)

Thinking back to my days in high school(not that long ago), here's a list of the software that got used in their computer labs:

  1. MS Works
  2. Mavis Beacon
  3. an 'automated aptitudes test', done in glorious CGA, being run in a DOS window,
Now, I *know* that I went to a backwater school that was considerably behind the times, but I don't think that changes much. As long as there's some way to do word processing and to teach typing, I can't imagine my school would care what OS it was running. And, given the sorry state of security on their network, Linux could only be an improvement.

SEUL/edu, posted 22 Aug 2000 at 18:56 UTC by Acapnotic » (Master)

SEUL/edu (the edu-oriented branch of Simple End User Linux) is the place to go with your questions. The website gets a little stale at times, but the mailing list is usually active. I know I've seen the "export-teacher's-desktop" discussion done there, so you might be able to find that in the mailing list archive. (I think many felt that connecting an entire classroom to one VNC server would be a big biandwidth-strain). The "what other applications" question is, of course, a constantly ongoing discussion, which they have a project list for.

When in high school, one of the obsticles I found myself facing when thinking about Linux's place in schools is that no-one around seemed really clear on what the purpose of computers in schools was. There's this general "mm, computers, schools, good" buzz that goes on and actually gets money allocated to it, but that's a totally seperate issue from how to do education. The one teacher who did get it was happy with using his Apple ]['s with supported with software by Vernier.

<jadedbastard>Public schools haven't gone out for any other improvements in the eductaional process in the last two hundred years, what makes anyone think they'll change now?</jadedbastard>

*cough* Sorry about that last bit... SEUL/edu is your friend. Good luck with this, and godspeed.

literacy vs. vocational skills, posted 22 Aug 2000 at 18:57 UTC by rillian » (Master)

One thing I've often come across is a confusion between teaching computers, and teaching vocational skills. I certainly agree that unix, especially with the source available, is an excellent place to teach literacy. The unix command line in particular provides a much richer experience and requires some understanding of how a computer works to use proficiently.

On the other hand, if what they want to teach are vocational skills, like how to use version n of Microsoft Office, one has a much harder sell. As others have pointed out, you can teach word processing and so on on Linux, but not with the market-majority tools. I don't think that's the proper role of education, but many people disagree.

Software Needs, posted 22 Aug 2000 at 19:19 UTC by gnuchris » (Journeyer)

I would be interested to know what Apps are specific to the classroom... if administration uses a Windows Specific App for Payroll or something, I can totally understand that, but I can't really think of any apps for the classroom that arn't for Linux or can't be easily written... I like the idea of finding out what NEEDS the schools have, and then set up a non-profit Free Software Organization to code those needs... point in case, if you need a typing tutor, I could write that in a few hours.

Re: literacy vs. vocational skills (off-topic), posted 22 Aug 2000 at 19:23 UTC by sneakums » (Journeyer)

One thing I've often come across is a confusion between teaching computers, and teaching vocational skills.

My experience in school here in Ireland was that all subjects were taught in this fashion; the aim of the teaching was that the students learn by rote everything required to pass the exams, not to be good at the subject or to develop a feel for it. For example, large chunks of the maths exam simply required the ability to remeber whole proofs, or to perform mechanical operations such as proof by induction or differentiation from first principles. It is the product of a high-pressure system, where school is a means to an end, viz. getting good enough grades to get into college.

College in the United States (and probably many other places) seems to be designed to allow some experimentation in the courses taken before a major is decided; students have some scope to find their strengths and play to them. The college system here is such that your college major is chosen before you know how you did in you final school exams, and before you even know what grades are required to be accepted for that major.

Unfortunately, I resisted the pressure to suck all the material in for regurgitation in the exam hall (it didn't help that we had wonderful weather during the entire two weeks!), and my college career got off to a less than stellar start as a result.

Software for schools, posted 23 Aug 2000 at 06:02 UTC by DarkBlack » (Apprentice)


Well, in the district where I work, the teachers have access to maybe one or two computers in their classroom. Usually just one. They use this to manage grades, attendance, etc. This is all transported via the network to the central office. So the OS is pretty much dictated.

So, #1 would be a comprehensive grade, attendance, and scheduling system. This was discussed a while back at SEUL/edu but I can't seem to find it anywhere. I am very interested in working on such a project.

It seems that every application aimed at managing a student's stats depends on Microsoft Office. This is a very expensive trend. Usually, the key component needed is Access and/or Excel.

Many of our schools use a peice of software that is basically a spruced up IRC/Netmeeting/Powerpoint application. It requires Windows and IE. This type of app would be very useful.

Digital Video Editing Tools. Several of our high schools are offering a class in this area.

I am very sorry to have gone off on a rant like that earlier. I really did not have much time to get all I wanted to say down before time to head back to work.

Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of very useful software software for use in public schools. But to completely switch platforms requires solutions for many problems besides classroom software. These teachers also need them for their work. I feel that our school system is very fortunate to have the amount of systems/classroom that we have. I know that we have more than most districts in our area and compare with several of the larger districts in the state.

So, in a positive attitude, let's get coding!

A different direction..., posted 23 Aug 2000 at 15:33 UTC by mazeone » (Journeyer)

I know that this isn't quite what you're asking about, but a friend of mine has been using linux for several years in a private school setting. They use linux on 99% of the servers around campus, and then use Macs or PCs as clients. This seems like a great way of doing things, and I know that many buisnesses do the same thing--linux/unix on the server side and then windows (or macs, occasionally) on the client side. The nice thing about doing things this way is that it gives kids a chance to learn both sides of things, if they have a desire--kids that show interest can be made into assistant sysadmins, but all the kids get experience on windows, which unfortunately will probably serve them better over the short term.

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