Robert Pogson

One man, closing all the windows.

Posts Categorized / Linux in Education

  • Jul 31 / 2014
  • 1
Linux in Education, technology

Converting A Small School To GNU/Linux in 1 Hour

Of course this can be done using Debian GNU/Linux but it takes more knowledge than a newbie might have. A distro designed for the purpose gets a teacher off to a good start. My first experience with GNU/Linux in a lab came from K12LTSP GNU/Linux when it was a real distro based on Fedora GNU/Linux. It installed a working LTSP server in less than an hour and all I had to do was collect a few addresses and edit a few files. Easy.

More recently I recommended EdUbuntu for the job but with the strange sharp turns of Canonical away from a near perfect desktop OS to some kind of compromise, I thought I should try Debian Edu/SkoleLinux which does the same but is based on Debian more solidly.

I downloaded the beta CD from


One can verify the correctness of a 600MB download using the md5sum command on a working GNU/Linux system or just trust to luck. These days it is rare to have a bad download. One can boot from the CD and do an internal test as well.

I created a virtual machine of 40gB and booted the CD. Screenshots follow. The process installs applications, an OS and services to boot a bunch of PCs by PXE and run sessions on the subject PC. This is a great convenience. One installation does the whole bunch. One just needs to set all the client PCs to boot PXE/network from the BIOS and it helps to have two NICs (Network Interface Controllers) on the server PC. One will connect to the outside world and the other will supply the clients in the school or lab. If the server PC has 200MB RAM per client and a good modern CPU, it should be able to run 24 PCs with no problems for normal click and gawk computing. It’s not a super-computer, so don’t expect all clients to be able to solve the secrets of the universe simultaneously but they sure can give a nice snappy learning environment. GNU/Linux runs well under load.

This installation pulls packages in from the Internet, so speed is dependent on that connection. I have a local server which makes things much faster but one needs to select “expert” to be able to specify the proxy.

The installation guides the newbie through the steps:

There are 2600 packages installed in the main file-system and the chroot for thin clients. It even installs LDAP and xrdp, much more than a minimal installation. I fear this is bloat for a lot of schools who just need a lab running… Without a fast local mirror, this installation takes many hours and I can see teachers taking up much of a weekend to do it.

I recommend doing a minimal installation of Debian GNU/Linux and adding the LTSP parts manually to avoid the bloat. That way you can get XFCE4, turn off encryption and use a local mirror or cache of packages. That will save downloading packages twice, once for the file-system and once again for the chroot and if you need to repeat the installation, the second try will be much faster.

  • Jul 23 / 2014
  • 0
Linux in Education, Teaching, technology

Freeing Education Via GNU/Linux

When I was teaching in small remote schools in Canada’s north, I had the same sorts of problems schools in the south have.“I found that our technology was not up to scratch to meet the needs of our students. We only had a few desktop PCs located in each elementary and middle school classroom, and only a few in our high school computer labs. We definitely needed more machines so students would get more time to work on class projects and do research.” There weren’t enough PCs and the cost of maintenance was prohibitive. Along came GNU/Linux and a lot of problems were solved. We could spend money on hardware (productivity booster) instead of software licences (dead weight). Malware became a distant memory as installed operating systems just kept humming for years. Package management over the network saved tons of work, too.

I went with thin client technology to maximize the benefit of new hardware. Today, schools have the choice of letting Google spend money on hardware so a new kind of thin client, the Chromebook, works for them. It’s all good. They both use GNU/Linux. More money spent on IT goes for the education of students and less on making the rich richer.

See Bridgeport Public Schools Choose Chromebooks.

  • Jul 21 / 2014
  • 9
Linux in Education, Teaching, technology

Schools In Geneva Switching To GNU/Linux

“All primary and secondary public schools in the Swiss Canton of Geneva are switching to using Ubuntu GNU/Linux for the PCs used by teachers and students. The switch has been completed by all of the 170 primary public schools, and the migration of the canton’s 20 secondary schools is planned for the next school year. Ubuntu GNU/Linux offers powerful services to the teachers, is easier to maintain, faster, safer and more stable than the decade-old proprietary operating system it is replacing, the canton’s school IT department concludes, based on several four-year long pilots.” These guys took four years studying the matter and it will only take two years to switch their schools to GNU/Linux. It shows the Munich decade was some sort of aberration in terms of time taken to switch. The difference is the number of applications locked in to that other OS. Munich had hundreds. Geneva has only one or two. LibreOffice takes care of one…

Anyway, I think the migration in Geneva is remarkable because the Swiss are thorough. If they could be convinced in just four years, most of the rest of us should be convinced in a matter of hours. Get on with it folks. Take a look at Debian GNU/Linux and see what you’ve been missing: the freedom to use the hardware you own to its maximum capability, freedom from malware and freedom from paying about twice what IT should really cost you. In schools where I used GNU/Linux we easily had twice as much IT for the same cost and the cost of maintaining the larger system was less than the cost of maintaining the smaller system running that other OS. Freedom from the EULA of M$ which enslaves you rather than enabling you is the killer however. With FLOSS and GNU/Linux you can run, examine, modify and distribute the software to your heart’s content. Go with it. Seize the opportunity.

SeeGeneva class-rooms switching to free software | Joinup.

  • Jul 15 / 2014
  • 5
Linux in Education, Teaching, technology

FLOSS Is The Right Way

“a lot of children had never had any examples of programming. They’d used a computer, but in fact the computer had used them. They knew how a mouse worked, they knew how to save a spreadsheet, they knew how to load an XBOX game, but they didn’t necessarily know anything else about computing”I’ve seen this repeatedly, a classroom full of students who “knew how to use PCs” but had no idea how fast they were or of what PCs are capable. I demonstrated a few simple programmes in PASCAL to show them how fast the maths was. Even on decade old machines, hundreds of millions of FLOPS happen. These are computers that are sluggish under the bloat of M$’s software. Put on lean software like GNU/Linux and they fly.

I let them read the GPL and the EULA.txt and jaws dropped. They had no idea that their use of PCs was handicapped by non-Free software. I showed them the power they had with a bit of knowledge of FLOSS, and a screwdriver. They were liberated from needing to depend on the Wintel treadmill and Wintel itself for all aspects of their IT. A decade ago, it seemed every way forward for FLOSS was uphill because of the lock-in. Now young people can buy a small cheap computer with Android/Linux and “root” it and presto! they are free of the Wintel treadmill forever. A billion people have seen the light and it’s possible another billion or more will go to FLOSS this year alone. The world is just beginning this explosive migration away from non-Free software.

See Friends record their call to arms for open source!.

  • Jun 19 / 2014
  • 25
Linux in Education, Teaching, technology

John C. Dvorak, Educational Luddite

The Luddites were folks who tried to destroy new technology threatening their old ways of doing things.“When tech enters the classroom, the usual result is money squandered. This was obviously the case with PLATO and it is quite apparent today with daffy educators suckered into going all-in with PCs and tablets.” John C Dvorak is an educational Luddite. He decries the use of IT in the classroom. He associates IT with distracting from the activities of teaching and learning.

That is so far wrong I am amazed. Education is about training brains to absorb information and to modify information and to present information. What IT does is to make that information faster and easier to find, modify, create and distribute. IT is a great lever to increase the efficiency of education. Nothing moves information around and manipulates it faster than IT. What books, paper and pens did for education hundreds of years ago, IT, particularly with small cheap computers, is accelerated many times over.

For example, consider a school’s library. I have been in modern and effective schools which had thousands of dead-tree books on shelves mostly sitting there being dead. Using the library meant students had to travel individually or in groups to the library possibly wasting 10 minutes. A card-index slowed students down more minutes. A few quick reads might find a suitable book in 30 minutes or so. A quantum of time in the educational system being 45 minutes meant a whole quantum was wasted before any useful work was done except learning how to do things inefficiently. Now compare that with schools having a server with ~100K books/articles/images or good access to the same on the WWW. Teach the student how to search once and they have a lifetime of information available as fast as they can read. By the time the dead-tree-worshiping school has a book in the hands of a student, the new student may already have made progress to acquiring important information. Google has gone around the world digitising books. Should schools ignore that body of knowledge they could not possibly acquire any other way? There are about 20 students for each teacher. How many of those few teachers are experts in any field in which a student needs/wants to learn? Books, digital or not, are the best teachers and just getting the students to the books makes them winners.

Still not convinced? Consider teaching students to write cogently. How many books on a particular topic should a student read to form some sound thoughts on the matter? One, ten, twenty,…? How many books can a single school at some location afford to own? A school is a far better place for learning by having 10 or 20 times as many ebooks as dead-tree books. Remember the class sets, the ones bought for more than $1K that get used for a few days or weeks and then go back into storage? Think how inefficient that is to hold back every student to the pace of the slowest reader and to have expensive resources sitting unused. With one PC per child, everyone can be reading/learning at their rate all day. That’s optimal for every student who can read. Johnny can’t read? The PCs give the teacher more time to teach him. It’s parallel processing. It works. Schools should use it.

What is wasteful in educational IT is use of Wintel everywhere. The big old desktops were just too large for classrooms designed in the days of dead trees. The small cheap computers running FLOSS on ARM and wirelessly networked are custom-made for education.

One last example. Education is a building process. Each individual adds to his knolwedge one brick at a time. That’s a rate-limited process and can be improved. Suppose the work of all students was preserved/published/distributed so that each student not only benefits from the knowledge and experience of his teachers but also from other students in the building and students and teachers previously in the building or in the educational system. With networking, databases and search-engines, every school can be an inspiring space, not a box. Students who are motivated and challenged by their peers are vastly superior learners and that motivation can be magnified by IT. In communities where I worked, I put wikis on the servers so students could find stuff related to their families/communities rather than just “the world” out there. How many dead tree books are relevant to students, written by someone in a faraway place with a different dialect and vocabulary and published on some stranger’s dead trees? Try teaching reading and writing in English to aboriginal students who live in their local dialect. Try teaching them to read and to write about the people and places they know. See the difference? No one wants to learn stuff that is irrelevant. IT brings relevance to every school and student and a connection to the rest of the world in a way that dead tree books don’t. Economics, space, freight all make that impossible.

Education with IT bridges the digital divide giving every student everywhere an equal opportunity to learn. IT, in itself, does not replace teachers and is not about education, but IT is a far better tool than what most schools have used for centuries. Folks who decry IT in schools are Luddites, trying to hold back a tide of knowledge, knowledge of people, places and things but also new ways of solving problems and indeed examples of real problems that inspire students to learn. Most of my education was accomplished in the early years with dead trees and it worked but you know what I remember best? Examples my teachers brought in of new and interesting stuff, nothing from all those dead trees. Where teachers can manage to bring in dozens of memorable things, IT can bring in millions. Present them all. Let the students sort them out.

See Classrooms Need to Ditch PCs, Tablets.

  • Jun 09 / 2014
  • 0
Linux in Education, Teaching, technology

Education Done My Way, With Small Cheap Computers

A theme of my educational career has been that the right way to do IT in schools is to do as much as possible with IT.“The Gauteng Department of Education is planning to turn every school in the province into a textbook-free zone.” Obviously there are some things IT can’t do but there’s no faster/cheaper way to create, find, modify and distribute information. That’s about half the task of educations. The rest is actual thinking and problem-solving as well as physical activity: hand-eye coordination to basketball…

In my years as a student and as a teacher I was constantly annoyed by the need to shuffle paper or to shuffle students to where the paper was, like the dead-trees library or carrying around textbooks. Some schools have done the maths. In South Africa where families are strapped to buy textbooks, schools have discovered that students can buy PCs for less money and publishers can supply e-books for less money so the whole thing can be done for less money. That’s the right way to do education and IT.

Helping the rush to small cheap computers is FLOSS on */Linux. The world can and does make great software and share it making everyone’s cost of software less and lifting barriers to use of IT even in impoverished communities. We’re not quite there yet, but we are close to the point where IT will be in every classroom playing a major role.

See Gauteng schools to go textbook free.

“There will be no iPads at the event. The basic requirements are a seven or ten inch tablet running Google’s Android operating system with at least a Gorilla glass screen, and beyond that there’s free choice.”

See also Inside South Africa’s first textbook free government school.

  • Apr 16 / 2014
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Linux in Education, Teaching, technology

GNU/Linux Works In Computer Labs In Greece

After years of using GNU/Linux in schools and introducing it to many students and teachers,“All these tools together, Sch-scripts for setting-up PC labs, Epoptes for managing them, and LTSP are used in more than 500 schools, all over Greece. The free and open source solutions help save teachers valuable time. One grateful teacher posted a testimonial on the support forum for Sch-script in 2010: "Within one hour, a PC lab set-up which had been giving me all kind of headaches (8 computers with Windows 2000 and dozens of problems) became operable… from my laptop! Tomorrow, I am doing the first real test-drive with students, but it was amazing how fast and easy everything was. I’m speechless. Now I can share my desktop with all the lab PC users, and monitor them, it is incredible."” I became skilful enough to set up a lab in an hour or so, replacing that other OS with something that worked. That’s becoming “old school” these days with many distros provide setting up the software through the package-manager.

Now even more of the configuration and additional tools are all available by a set of scripts developed in Greece. 500 schools is a whole bunch more than I worked. GNU/Linux works in education. It can work anywhere. Finding the recipes for all this and sharing is obviously more efficient than buying solutions sold by M$ and “partners” that cost too much or don’t work at all sometimes. The world can and does make its own software better than those guys. This is just another example of doing IT the right way.

See Computer lab management tool in over 500 Greek schools.

  • Apr 01 / 2014
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Linux in Education, technology

Death of XP Bad for Linux? Nope.

Christopher Tozzi wrote, “The sad reality is that everybody needs to run a Windows app now and then” in an article about the increasing difficulty of virtualizing that other OS on a GNU/Linux system. He’s right about the RAM/CPU/storage burdens of that other OS increasing but he’s wrong that this is bad for GNU/Linux and FLOSS.

The thing is the cost of virtualization is just one more cost of using that other OS. The world is tired of those endless costs. In 2013 we saw ARM and Android/Linux explode in popularity because the costs are so much less. On the desktop, some folks are even using Android/Linux today if they don’t need a big load of applications running simultaneously. Those of us who live in the real world may feel the need for more multiprocessing and for that GNU/Linux works well.

The death of XP means many individuals and organizations have an opportunity to think outside M$’s box. Many will spend huge amounts to remain locked up but some will escape. That’s good for FLOSS and GNU/Linux. The more the merrier.

The last desktop application I ever ran on XP was about five years ago when the school where I worked used XP. I switched that school over to GNU/Linux on more than 90% of the seats. The last time I ever used Wine to run a self-extracting .exe was a few years ago when I got a new motherboard. I just don’t need that other OS ever again. If anyone pushes me to use it, I will just say, “NO!” and really mean it.

See Why Windows XP's Demise Is Bad for Linux and Open Source.

  • Mar 17 / 2014
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Linux in Education, Teaching, technology

OMG! FLOSS Has A Hotel…

I’ll come straight out with it. I don’t like hotels.“The Linux Hotel is one of the hubs for open source in Germany. For years, the makers behind on the well-known software packages at a very special ( see here ) in the Linux Hotel. We also like to make contact when companies or individuals help or want to get involved personally! A stay at the Linux Hotel brings casual way considerably more than conventional or in-house training. But we do not overdo it. Those seeking relaxation uses bicycles, parking, fireplace room, sauna / gym …. Others take the framework program (alternating: vintage bus, musicals, theater, concerts, forging the historic “Hammer”, Railway Museum, GoCart, table tennis, yoga, barbecue, …). “ I don’t like travelling at all. However, if you need to take a course in FLOSS or GNU/Linux or meet GNU/Linux people, there’s no better place than a hotel if it means you can spend more time doing what you came for. This hotel has 8 hours a day of courses, GNU/Linux PCs all over the place, food/drink/recreation all over the place 24×7. It’s the Shangri-La of FLOSS.

This could catch on. Maybe it’s part of the reason Germany is a leader in FLOSS/GNU/Linux. All kinds of businesses are saying there is a shortage of GNU/Linux/FLOSS geeks. Maybe they should offer a few existing or potential employees an all-expenses-paid visit to this place. That might make the world a better place.

Google Translation of The Linux Hotel’s site.

  • Mar 07 / 2014
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Linux in Education, technology

Time To Fire M$, Not Your IT Guy

I had to laugh at this article which suggests folks should be fired for not taking their organizations on the next step of the Wintel treadmill.“Those who haven’t started yet probably should be fired for leaving their businesses open to the impending threat. This is not like Microsoft dropped this on you six months ago. You’re putting your organization at risk.” That’s preposterous. It is M$ that is putting the world’s IT at risk by forcing hundreds of millions to use their crapware. If M$ had competed on price/performance from the beginning instead of leveraging themselves into almost every corner of IT using the fulcrum of monopoly the world would be a very different place. XP, if it existed at all would be just one OS among many in use all using open standards and not giving malware and intruders a huge soft target.

When M$ demanded OEMs install their OS and no other back in the day they planted the seed that now is hundreds of millions of users of XP out on a limb. In my own work XP was widely used in schools. The only alternative M$ offers is for those schools to scrap working computers and buy new PCs with M$’s crapware.

Of course, for those with competent IT there is a way out. Install Debian GNU/Linux and say good-bye to M$ forever. I’ve done that many times and was never fired for doing that. Try it. You’ll see.

See If you haven't retired Windows XP and haven't been fired yet, get busy.

See also, some history, the Competitive Impact Statement in US v M$ (1995). Think of all the software and businesses that were forced to treat M$ as the one true platform for IT for decades. Think how insecure IT has been because of that. Fire M$, not your IT guy!

  • Mar 05 / 2014
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Linux in Education, technology

New ICT Curriculum In Indian Schools

“The requirements of the curricula are not to be hardware or software speci c. Undoing the general trend of limiting software to office applications, which are not only ill suited for educational purposes but also tend to narrow down the view of what computers and ICT can achieve, a wide range of software applications specifi cally designed for education are introduced. Use of proprietary software would become very expensive and make the implementation unviable. Therefore, Free and Open Source software have been suggested throughout the curricula. The use of FOSS applications will also obviate software piracy and enable customisation to suit local needs.”

AMEN! This is a national curriculum for one of the largest countries on Earth. It is professionally done and not just about students. It includes training for teachers. Wow! If implemented widely, this should see increased use of computers in education and FLOSS in a country with 1billion+ people and many millions of students.

Further, the new curriculum does not hold teachers back. Those already skilled in ICT will be able to be certified in short order. The new curriculum does not hold students back. It starts with programming computers in the first year (~10 years of age).

The arrival of small cheap computers on retail shelves and OEMs’ catalogues will actually make this possible to implement widely as every school should be able to afford this and if they can’t the central government should be able to fix that.

See ICT Curriculuma.pdf.