50 Reasons to Love GNU/Linux for Schools

We have all read articles with 5 or 10 reasons to love/hate some facet of IT. I thought I would go for 50. It is not hard. What is hard is putting them in order of importance/preference. The first few are easy. The last few are a coin-flip, but there are many reasons to love GNU/Linux in education. Education may be an early-adopter not because of geekiness in education but because there is a great need for good IT in schools. Schools are a unique environment. A lot of money is involved but IT is not about making money either by selling something or increasing efficiency. IT in education is mostly about creating, finding, changing and presenting information and GNU/Linux makes sense because there is so little nonsense in GNU/Linux. It gets the job done quickly and reliably.

Here’s the list – GNU/Linux is:

  1. Fast! Crazy fast, if you are used to that other OS futzing around doing totally unnecessary things like sniffing files for DRM or malware and phoning home.
  2. Flexible! Need a server anywhere, even on your client PC? Need a database, anywhere? A search engine, locally-produced software, sending CDs home with students… It’s all easy and legal with FLOSS.
  3. Free! Schools, teacher, students, everyone can run, examine, modify and distribute the code legally under the licence that comes with the software. That also tends to make the cost of getting the software almost nothing.
  4. Easy to manage! A computer teacher, administrator or tech can sit in a chair anywhere in the world and manage the software and monitor the hardware in a particular school quickly easily and securely. How cool is that?
  5. NO MALWARE!!! There are nearly a million new malwares produced each year to invade and manipulate that other OS but only a few for GNU/Linux and they don’t spread. IT with GNU/Linux is like riding in an air-conditioned tank while the enemy is suffering hot weather armed with pea-shooters.
  6. Total control of users. Schools are unique in that most of the users are totally immature, reckless young humans with no inhibitions and it is the legal responsibility of teachers to stand in the place of a parent and protect the system and the little monsters from everything. Being easily able to control what user and what PC is allowed to do is priceless. That can be done with that other OS but at great cost. It costs nothing extra in GNU/Linux.
  7. Resourceful! Have an old PC with 256MB? That’s more than enough to run a usable desktop on a thick client and you are laughing to use the machine as a thin client. Also a powerful PC can actually run many users connecting from thin clients. 100MHz-core, 100MB RAM and 20megabits/s connection are enough on the server for one user to have a great experience. That other OS has trouble pleasing one person on a PC. The consequence of this resourcefulness is the lowest capital cost per PC. Many schools do well with donated PCs that no longer run the current version of that other OS. Our school can get 20 PCs per year from Computers for Schools and they rock.
  8. Hardware independence! That other OS often has to search the web for a driver and when it fails, you have to search. GNU/Linux usually has the right driver ready to go as part of the kernel or loadable kernel module. The Linux organization has thousands of programmers contributing drivers from many manufacturers. The result is a modern distro of GNU/Linux will run on almost any PC made in the last ten years. You can even reach back 15 years to set up an old PC as a thin client if you dig into RedHat’s archives. That’s a lot of hardware love and it goes for many platforms from mainframes to smart-phones.
  9. Networking! The UNIX operating systems were designed from the beginning to connect. It’s in the DNA. The display, keyboard, mouse, various devices, storage, memory, CPU power, files… can all be networked out of the box. GNU/Linux does the same. No need to buy some expensive package. This means I can supply a service anywhere for any purpose and there is a simple way to do it in GNU/Linux.
  10. Security! Anything that can be handled securely by one person can be handled securely by a group and even over the network in a secure manner and it is simple. That other OS cannot even keep one person secure against the Internet. There is no comparison. The differences are too great.
  11. Shared Memory! This is the feature that really separated GNU/Linux from that other OS early on. Multiple instances of most software processes running in GNU/Linux only load executable files once, saving tons of RAM. This is what makes GNU/Linux wonderful as a terminal server, running all the users’ applications on one machine. The first time I tried using a GNU/Linux terminal server I had 30 students walk in and boot 30 thin clients. All the ram was used up (1.5gB) but it did not crash or freeze or slow down. It knocked the socks off the students who were used to those same clients running Lose ’98. One even fell off his chair because the desktop snapped open so quickly on login. It was magical to those who did not appreciate full use of shared memory (like me ;-)). By many reports that other OS is supposed to share memory for executables but M$ seems to have messed it up because that other OS swaps way too easily and it runs much more slowly than GNU/Linux.
  12. File Caching! Not only are executables cached in RAM but also files of data. This is what makes logins so quick on a GNU/Linux terminal server. The first guy who logs in loads most of the files needed by all the rest and they click in a heartbeat. Large applications similarly open their windows (rectangular regions of the screen) in a second or three. It is superior performance compared to any thick client just booted. This makes thin-client/terminal-server the right way to do IT in schools.
  13. Package Management! With a few clicks one can install new software or update old software whether it is an application or part of the operating system with no distinction between the two. With that other OS, third-party applications must be individually updated because everyone is trying to lock-in their income-streams/licensing. GNU/Linux has APT, RPM, and other systems that automatically pull in all the dependencies and security updates and one person can trigger updates on thousands of machines as well as one or set it to be done by the clock. This makes software installation and maintenance much easier on GNU/Linux.
  14. Choice of GUI! Students, teachers and IT people can choose a desktop or user-interface that suits them and the task at hand. I can set up XFCE4 for older machines to be snappier or GNOME for all the features of a modern desktop or even no desktop if typed commands are the best way to do something. When you consider that with networking a user can load one GUI from one machine and have a window open to another GUI from another machine it permits the user-interface to be as simple or as complex as required. Yesterday, I had grade 10 students login at a thin client, onto a terminal server where they accessed a database GUI on a PC they installed themselves elsewhere on the network. Anything can be done immediately.
  15. Databases! Educational use of IT is about creating, finding, modifying and presenting information. A plain file-system is useful but when you get past a certain number of files, and a school full of students can do that on Day One. You need other tools. A good general purpose database like MySQL or PostgreSQL is valuable. A school can keep track of what’s in every file on the system or what every student or staff member has done or is scheduled to do. This kind of capability allows every member of the school-community to do more faster. It helps a school establish a body of information that survives graduations, deaths or turnover. It makes the information on the system more accessible and useful. It sure beats a school having tens of thousands of images filed by year with no identifying information except serial number and year… Web applications like Gallery2 can take care of all that. Then there are reports, essays, science and maths facts, curricula, plans, …
  16. Search Engines! Finding data fast is the name of the game. It saves time, steps, aggravation and worse, not finding the data because it is too big a job. Google desktop search, Swish-e, Beagle and others make it easy to find everything in a second.
  17. To be continued after Soup and a Sandwich… – To my surprise I found worthy comments by Bender and Richard Chapman that I will include in the list if they have no objection.
    (Bender)”One might argue that some of these tasks could be accomplished with that other OS but for me the most important thing with GNU/Linux would be it’s license practically permitting everything while that other OS restricts us in so many ways (licences for schools may be less restricting and cheaper but we all know that is, it’s drug dealers way of hooking everyone from young age to “their stuff”). Consider that if you would like to setup a “thin client – server” environment with that other OS you would have to shell out boat load of money for just the licenses while thanks to GNU/Linux you might have a lot more powerful hardware thanks to savings on licenses alone which ultimately leads to even more savings since that hardware would serve your needs longer without neccesary hardware upgrades to serve that other OS slowing down with time. Avoid the lock in since any company could service your software having easy access to the source code that allows for instore improvemets etc. GNU/Linux and FOSS = True Competition.
  18. (Richard Chapman) “Fewer unexpected notifications too. Windows falls all over itself telling you how much it cares about you and showing you how important you are to Microsoft by constantly popping up messages in your face while you are trying to work. Microsoft’s GUIs are loaded with distractions. And, in my opinion, their graphics are ugly. Too many details that distract the eye.
  19. OpenOffice.org is the standard office suite for many distros. It could be argued that it is available for that other OS but it still is a plus for GNU/Linux and it is so easy to obtain – install the OS and poof! it appears. With OpenOffice.org a school is about set for almost any task of creating, modifying and displaying information. There are plenty of other tools that are useful but this is a killer app, IMHO. No school should be without it.
  20. Abiword pretends to be nothing except Word so it is not as useful as OpenOffice.org but 90% of the work might be textual with some graphics so Abiword is enough for many operations and it will work on much less powerful hardware. For those timid about leaving Office and that other OS for GNU/Linux this can be a comforting island in a sea of change.
  21. Lyx is perhaps not as easy to use as the usual word-processing software but it does a good job of writing reports with a particular style as required by publications. The ability to generate a Table of Contents and Bibliography automatically is very useful in academia.
  22. KOffice is the office suite often used in KDE environments. It is quite different but does an excellent job of framing to organize complex documents.
  23. PDF and PS tools are great for schools. GNU/Linux is full of tools to convert back and forth from these formats and with OpenOffice.org with ODF making it possible to merge documents from various sources in a whole. Schools often produce annual reports, yearbooks or documentation that comes from several sources internal and external and there is always a tool to handle it.
  24. Gimp while not PhotoShop does everything one needs in schools except possibly printing in colour “perfectly”. It slices and dices images and students can quickly to quite useful things with it at a young age.
  25. ImageMagick can do many of the things that Gimp can do but from typed or scripted commands. This is an amazing tool for preparing images for the web or publication because thousands can be done with a single command.
  26. Hugin is an amazing tool to combine your overlapping digital images into a whole.With it a simple webcam can become a multi-megapixel imaging machine and students or staff can make dazzling pictures for murals, web-pages, presentations etc.
  27. Audacity is a neat little GUI app for recording, editing and playing audio. It is available for that other OS, too, but it means Audacity and GNU/Linux are both world-class. With only this application, students can produce sound tracks for a CD/motion picture/theatrical performance with not much more than a PC, a headset and a microphone or two.
  28. Hydrogen is a neat GUI application for generating a variety of beats for music. It is a programmable metronome with a “voice”. So, they call it a drum machine… It is probably easier to use than tapping spoons which is a high art.
  29. ZynAddSubFX is an amazing synthesizer which allows one student to create or to play almost any music on a PC.
  30. Ardour is an audio tool like audacity much able to do much more complex work. This would be great for a school which wanted to do best by top-quality equipment.
  31. Sox is the Swiss Army Knife of audio and does what Imagemagick does for images but for audio files. It is trivial to convert a bunch of audio tracks to a form suitable to make an audio CD, for instance from a typed command or script.
  32. OpenMoveiEditor is a capable yet easy to use video editor for GNU/Linux.
  33. Cinelerra is a more advanced video editor for GNU/Linux.
  34. VLC will do just about anything with multimedia: play it, capture it, stream it… It just works.
  35. Mplayer will do most of the same thing but you can run it completely from commands or scripts as well as a GUI.
  36. Impressive is a handy tool for producing presentations/slide-shows in a hurry. Throw some PDFs and image files in a directory and run impressive on them. It does fancy OpenGL graphics effects. There is no need to click on anything or insert anything. It just works from commands or scripts.
  37. (Ray) LiveCDGot one: Live CD. Try linux out without reformatting, or having to install it 🙂” Yes. That is so cool. I have even seen a distro snappier than XP from the hard drive running on a CD. Some even cache the CD in RAM for even more speed and there is such diversity: Distros, servers/firewalls, and SystemRescueCD and CloneZilla. You have to love that feature.
  38. Programming languages is a huge advantage for GNU/Linux in education at the high school. Language like PASCAL and Python and Ruby are sweet introductions to programming or computer science. PHP, Java, Javascript and C etc. could be a second language. An operating system originally designed by computer geeks for computer geeks naturally is fertile ground for this stuff. There must be a dozen or more supported/commonly used languages including BASH and a student can be set to work on projects on a few minutes notice with no licensing or procurement hassles. I use PASCAL as the first language because it is so simple but rigid. After teaching the basics of computer science with that tool, students can carry what they learned to many other environments. There are IDEs of all kinds, too. Chroots and virtual machines provide playgrounds on the terminal server or on random machines.
  39. GCompris is the perfect tool for the Early Years kids. 80 educational programmes in a suite that look a lot like games… 😉 with sound effects, music, and speech. Little kids can play it all year long.
  40. Childsplay is another contender for Early Years kids. It is not as well developed as GCompris but still very useful
  41. KHangman is a computer application that mimics what we used to do on the chalkboard when I was a kid. This classic exercises and increases the vocabulary especially if the teacher customizes the wordlist as appropriate. I augment this with my cheating application to expose kids to more words from the dictionary.
  42. TuxTyping and TuxMath make polishing mathematical facts and typing skills. A classroom with a centre running this in the Middle Years or a bit earlier will be welcomed by teachers and students. They make learning basic skills fun. Kids thrive on fun.
  43. MediaWiki is a powerful tool for schools. It can be a local encyclopaedia of text, images etc. created or modified by teachers and students. Imagine a school where every student learned everything that all previous students had learned. It is a vibrant knowledgebase for any organization based on PHP and MySQL and can run under Apach web server. My school has a snapshot of Wikipedia from 2005 with 100K images and many millions of words. To this students and teacher add information of a local nature like families and place-names.
  44. phpBB is another PHP script that is ideal for bulletins, discussion, and forums for schools. It allows staff to cooperate asynchronously but is more open than e-mail.
  45. AnyMeal is a GUI for a database of cooking recipes. The beauty of it is that it can slurp up 100K+ MealMaster recipes rattling around the web and create what amounts to many dozens of cookbooks. I use my own web application to access the database because I want access from a browser rather than accessing the database from a special client like AnyMeal.
  46. Apache is a heavy-weight web server that can deliver PHP scripts, javascripts and regular HTML like magic from a server on the LAN to client PCs without taking any Internet bandwidth. Everyone loves fast and this is it.
  47. Klipper or Clipman are two great clipboard managers. I do a lot of copy and paste and I simply need a list of clips I can choose to paste. Anyone doing research, writing, or editing needs more depth in their clipboard.
  48. Dict and Dictd are client and server packages for the Dictionary protocol RFC 2229 and support many dictionaries and a thesaurus or two. With this one can either access dictionaries on the web or the LAN. The LAN is much faster for me and GNU/Linux can run several services on the same server so it costs nothing more to implement a local server.
  49. Graphmonkey is a graphing calculator that is very easy to use and colourful. It’s great for the maths teacher or student demonstrating solutions of equations and shapes of graphs.
  50. Gromit is one of my favourite things. I prefer it over a whiteboard any day. My hands stay clean… It can do some of the things a smartboard can do too, for a lot less money. Essentially you can turn on and off your mouse as a painting tool with a selection of colours and erasers.

There it is. My choice/recommendation of 50 things that make GNU/Linux wonderful for schools. All of this can be implemented in minutes for installation and a bit more for configuring the web applications and databases. Typically, I can have most of it up and running on a terminal server in a few hours. Teachers I know spend more time on their bulletin boards. I could go on for another 50 but these are ones I use very frequently and can recommend. I don’t do much video editing but I do a fair bit of the others. I am sure others could come up with a completely different set of 50 reasons to use GNU/Linux in schools but it is a remarkable tool that costs so little no matter how you choose. I chose without knowing much about it because I needed stuff to work. Now, I regret not having switched earlier. I could have been at it for 15 years rather than 10.

One more thing. When you realize I can do all this with less than 1500 packages and Debian GNU/Linux has 25000 packages there must be very little that cannot be done with software in that repository. Learn to dig through it with apt-cache or synaptic and the world of GNU/Linux is your oyster.

About Robert Pogson

I am a retired teacher in Canada. I taught in the subject areas where I have worked for almost forty years: maths, physics, chemistry and computers. I love hunting, fishing, picking berries and mushrooms, too.
This entry was posted in Linux in Education, technology. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to 50 Reasons to Love GNU/Linux for Schools

  1. You are welcome. Thanks for sharing.

  2. japan says:

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  3. Dr.Asoka Dissanayake says:

    Good One.
    I am trying to promote (voluntary) Linux in schools in this small island-Ceylon-Sri-Lanka-and it is an uphill task.
    Microsoft has penetrated India by various means and that influence has left us astray.
    The University where I work has produced excellent IT guys with Linux experience but that influence has not penetrated to our schools.
    I will be using your comments for my promotions as a Medical doctor.
    I have made a comment in another site -50 ways to leave your Lover(Microsoft)and I suppose I should coin another phrase (50 ways to free our schools from Market Forces (Microsoft)!
    Ours is country we boast that we give free textbooks to students but we have not found a way to harness Linux in our schools.
    I will try but schools are in the hands of politicians who are corrupt!

  4. @FErArg

    Yes. I believe in sharing. Please let us know how GNU/Linux is received on your site and your language and community. We get a lot of hostility from the USA but many other regions seem to accept GNU/Linux more readily.

    Thanks

  5. FErArg says:

    Hi! great post, can I translated and post in my blog?

  6. That is a big one. Not only does fighting malware cost time and money but it drags down the performance of the system. The anti-malware we were using read every file on access before passing it on to the application so files were being processed twice. For large files that is a killer.

  7. Radheshyam says:

    Cool list of what GNU/Linux offers. One update – No Virus and thus no AntiVirus needed. Cost of AntiVirus license is ZERO.

  8. Richard Chapman says:

    Small edit: Fewer unexpected notifications too.

  9. Ray says:

    Got one: Live CD. Try linux out without reformatting, or having to install it 🙂

  10. Richard Chapman says:

    Fewer notifications. Windows falls all over itself telling you how much it cares about you and showing you how important you are to Microsoft by constantly popping up messages in your face while you are trying to work. Microsoft’s GUIs are loaded with distractions. And, in my opinion, their graphics are ugly. Too many details that distract the eye.

  11. Bender says:

    One might argue that some of these tasks could be accomplished with that other OS but for me the most important thing with GNU/Linux would be it’s license practically permitting everything while that other OS restricts us in so many ways (licences for schools may be less restricting and cheaper but we all know that is, it’s drug dealers way of hooking everyone from young age to “their stuff”). Consider that if you would like to setup a “thin client – server” environment with that other OS you would have to shell out boat load of money for just the licenses while thanks to GNU/Linux you might have a lot more powerful hardware thanks to savings on licenses alone which ultimately leads to even more savings since that hardware would serve your needs longer without neccesary hardware upgrades to serve that other OS slowing down with time. Avoid the lock in since any company could service your software having easy access to the source code that allows for instore improvemets etc. GNU/Linux and FOSS = True Competition.

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