Archive for December 26th, 2010

Why education-focused Linux distros fail to deliver

I came across Edubuntu tonight, a Linux distro focused on education. Their goal is to create a distro that official education organizations can use to deploy to students.

As much as I hate my country for all its shortcomings, I do love my country just as much (if not more) for the things that it does well. And it’s because of this love why sometimes I envision how things should happen in order to bring Greece to become again all that it used to be. But it all starts with education. It’s the No 1 building block for a future.

So I’d love to see cheap netbooks given/sold to students, netbooks running an open platform, with each school having a WiFi network that can access certain web sites (e.g. Wikipedia), lets the kids to use Skype to video-chat, and with administrative tools to keep unwanted fiddling out. Most of this can be done today with Edubuntu. But the biggest feature on this laptop should be the access to interactive curriculum, and this is where Edubuntu falls short.

I’m not talking about Edubuntu providing the curriculum of course, that would be impossible as education is very different depending on the country/area/school. But what I am talking about is a PLATFORM where each country/area/school can use it to DEPLOY their curriculum. A sort of an “App Store”-type application where the kids can download books, exercises, even applications that have heavy graphics to teach them Geometry or Math. Virtual books that have annotations, comments, and clipboard support. No need to carry 8 kilos of books every day on your back (I had to endure that when I was at school), no need to learn math the old way that it’s so wrong (check the embedded videos for more), no need to buy books anymore (as it’s common in some countries). There could be even exercises carried through by team of students at the same time, kind of like collaborative word processors work, to endorse team spirit. The possibilities on how you educate kids using modern methods are endless once you go digital.

But for a government or private school to go digital, the said platform must exist. The tools they need, and the special file formats, and special apps they need to do all that, must first exist. All they must have to do is provide the CONTENT. But the infrastructure must exist, must be cohesive, must make sense. And this is the biggest feature these Linux education distros must provide. Locking down a student user account and limiting internet access (that can currently be done) should only be an afterthought to the whole education thing. What governments need first and foremost is the infrastructure to deploy content — limiting users is secondary.

Even OLPC falls short in that front. I wrote in the past that I was against a custom OS interface for educational purposes, but that’s a small misstep compared to the fact that even OLPC doesn’t get it, and never provided the said platform for deployment. Instead, they developed some useless butt-ugly tools, and expected the educators to learn Squeak or some shit like that, and write useless apps like “eToys”. No wonder OLPC went nowhere either.

Sure, OLPC’s main attraction was its supposed $100 price tag, but you see, you will have to be realistic and logical here, even if that doesn’t always mean “humanistic”. See, when a country like Greece, Italy, Spain still don’t have what I suggest above, do you think that Uganda can afford OLPC — even at its lower price tag? The answer is “no”. As cruel as this may sound, the digitization of education must start from the richer countries (heck, even USA is lacking!), and move to the poorer countries as both hardware becomes cheaper, and these countries get *the rest* of the infrastructure (e.g. server rooms, hordes of devs, country-wide internet) to run such a big project. Trying to sell OLPCs to poor countries, is like trying to sell a FORD car to some tribal leader that lives 10 Khm from the nearest paved road. You can’t force progress, sorry. It has to happen in stages.

All this is of course a big job to take on for a few volunteers, and honestly, I think this is where UN or some other organization (maybe UNESCO?), should put money where their mouth is, and help out the Edubuntu volunteers by providing R&D, engineers, and education ideas to create that server-client software platform discussed above. There is no need for custom hardware, there is no need for custom interfaces, there is no need to unearth useless programming languages. Instead, there is a need for a management and deployment solution, along interactive and [complex] apps that explain the sciences in a very visual way. All that should run on a NORMAL Linux distro (e.g. Edubuntu) and hardware (e.g. Atom netbooks), instead of the incompatible wet-dream like OLPC was. I hope UN/UNESCO takes the bite, otherwise I don’t see us going anywhere on that front…

BTW, if you made it through this article, make sure you watch the videos. They explain how educational software must go further than traditional teaching methods.