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.


Ralfoide wrote on December 26th, 2010 at 10:30 PM PST:

You fail to address one point: do you think these people selling books and other educative media will *really* let DRM-free Linux distros take over education? We’ve seen how the music/movie industry fails to adapt to the digital age, and book media is no different. Anywhere there’s an industry and money to make, Linux is perceived as a show-stopper only good for “hackers”. That image needs to be fixed first.

As for computers in the classroom, frankly I’m far from sold. IMHO there’s something about books that is enables learning as a tactile/tangible experience. You just don’t learn the same way by looking at something intangible on a screen.

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Eugenia wrote on December 26th, 2010 at 10:41 PM PST:

>educative media will *really* let DRM-free Linux distros take over education?

This is not a problem for a semi-socialist country like Greece. All school books are provided by the government, and all schools follow the same curriculum. Education, healthcare, water and a few other such values is where I’m socialist. For everything else, I’m a hard core capitalist. So at least for a lot of European countries, big content companies won’t be a stumbling block.

>books that is enables learning

Not in my case. I always had trouble following books, especially since I couldn’t focus for more than 5 minutes. These days, I can’t even focus 1 minute while reading. Which is why I do video. Because I can only focus on something that’s moving and evolves. The static nature of books tire me too fast.

Calculus was very difficult for me at school, since I couldn’t understand it by reading books. Only when we got a great math teacher one year I finally got a grasp of it. He was a very visual person, he would describe things in a visual way, and he would use his arms to help us visualize too. So, yes, I believe that computers, with proper apps, are way more efficient to teach sciences than any teacher. Learning geometry from a book, or from a teacher fighting with the 2D blackboard can’t hold a handle to a computer’s 3D abilities.

Please watch the videos btw. It’s important to watch them in order to understand the need for these “apps” I’m talking about. The problem is that today we learn math in a way that’s useless, while computers could apply teaching in a way that we actually solve problems. This could create some very efficient engineers 20 years down the line.

George wrote on December 26th, 2010 at 11:41 PM PST:

Υπάρχει και άλλη άποψη.

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Eugenia wrote on December 27th, 2010 at 12:09 AM PST:

George, that’s not another opinion, that article had nothing on topic with what we’re talking about here.

george wrote on December 27th, 2010 at 1:02 AM PST:

είναι μια άλλη άποψη ή προσέγγιση στη γνώση, στη ζωή (Δυστυχώς διείστωσα εκ των υστέρων ότι ήταν μόνο διαφημιστικό, πρέπει να το δείς όλο και δεν ξέρω αν υπάρχει online).
Εδώ στην Ελλάδα τα πράγματα ήταν πάντα υπόθεση λίγων, υπόθεση προσωπική, αυτό δείχνει το ντοκυμαντέρ .
Στις δικές σας κοινωνίες, υπάρχει η τάση να αντιμετωπίζονται όλα μαζικά και οργανωμένα, να διεκδικείται την τυποποίηση.
Εδώ ποτέ δεν ήταν έτσι.
Αυτό προσπάθησα να σου πω, η γνώση είναι μάλλον προσωπική ή υπόθεση μεταξύ λίγων . Όπως εκείνος ο δάσκαλος των
μαθηματικών που είχες….
Aπό προσωπική εμπειρία, τα πράγματα στα Ελληνικά σχολεία, δεν είναι και τόσο άσχημα, γενικά, υπάρχει ο παραδοσιακός τρόπος διδασκαλίας και ευτυχώς πολλοί νέοι δάσκαλοι με ενδιαφέρον και ιδέες. Μάλλον το πρόβλημα είναι οι γονείς.

Και κάτι τελευταίο, οι κόρες μου χρησιμοποιούν πλέον UBUNTU και FIREFOX για να βρίσκουν απαντήσεις στο δίκτυο, χωρίς κανένα απολύτως πρόβλημα (Μικρότερες από 10 ετών). Το μόνο που χρειάσθηκε ήταν λίγος χρόνος μαζί τους για να μάθουν τα βασικά, από εμένα και κάποιες επεκτάσεις στον Firefox για έλεγχο περιεχομένου…
Αυτα και με συγχωρείς για τη φλυαρία.
Ευχές για τη γιορτή σου και το νέο έτος.


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Eugenia wrote on December 27th, 2010 at 1:16 AM PST:

George, best wishes to you too. 🙂

>Ελληνικά σχολεία, δεν είναι και τόσο άσχημα

The Greek schools are not good at all, have a read. Don’t lie to yourself that Greek education is high quality, because it’s not. Check the tables here too, Greece is among the worst!

BTW, please try to reply in English, so more people can join in the discussion. Thx! 🙂

Tony B wrote on December 27th, 2010 at 3:16 PM PST:

Honestly, I’m done with Linux on the desktop. It’s the same reason why I’m done with Windows: There’s so much that can go wrong.

I’d love to see a Android/iOS/WebOS approach to these types of devices. Most desktop operating systems are essentially server-style operating systems. Huge numbers of library files, DLLs, .so’s… too much to go wrong.

Smartphone-style operating systems provide much of the capability that a traditional desktop OS, and are much much simpler to manage. Imagine how much work goes into maintaining patches, drivers, etc. for a school of 1,000. Then imagine how much easier it would be to maintain Android-style desktops.

Even Linux experts find it frustrating. A distro that used to work all of a sudden is super jerky on new hardware. Wifi drivers don’t work, etc. Take Jeremy Zawodny. He’s one of the world’s experts on MySQL and databases, having run them for Yahoo! and now for Craigslist.

Run something like the Amazon Kindle App, virtual book store, app store, on a smartphone-style OS that’s easily managed. That removes 90% of the problems that Linux on the desktop has in terms of a platform, so then the content is much easier to concentrate on.

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Eugenia wrote on December 27th, 2010 at 3:35 PM PST:

Actually, this is not correct. Android/iOS/WebOS have as many files under the hood, *you* just don’t see them. The problem with the smartphone approach is that if something does go wrong, like GPS in the case of the Samsung Galaxy S, there’s no way to fix it yourself.

I got another DELL laptop recently, which has a problem with its touchpad. The original driver had a bug and drag-n-drop wouldn’t work. So then I simply installed a newer version of the DELL Synaptics driver, and it worked. I also installed the generic version of Synaptics, and that worked too. If that was a smartphone, I would have been without a solution.

It’s not about being a server-style OS or a smartphone-style OS. It’s about always buying the best quality you can. Both styles can go wrong.

Not very on topic btw, so please keep the topic on education solutions.

Tony B wrote on December 27th, 2010 at 3:44 PM PST:

Android and iOS have lots of files under the hood, you’re correct. But you can’t get at them (unless you root the device). And I *love* that. For servers, I like the control. For my phone, I could care less. I just want it to work. The fact that there’s X many versions of synaptics drivers is manageable but annoying for a single computer expert, but to manage an army of devices like that… it’s 2010, we shouldn’t be dealing with driver issues.

My (ok, semi-on topic) point is that until these devices become simple to manage en-mass by non-computer proficient people, the platform management issues are going to get in the way of being a subtable education platform.

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Eugenia wrote on December 27th, 2010 at 3:51 PM PST:

This is not true. College kids in the US use Macbooks mostly, and they work fine. When there’s a pre-defined cheap Linux netbook for education, with predefined hardware and fixed drivers, none of these problems are going to happen.

Also, it’s best to get kids to learn to use the system at its fullest, rather than raise them with dumb-down OSes like smartphones are. See, if any of these kids are to become smart developers at some point, they must have access to a real system, and not a toy. I don’t think the world needs more web and java programmers, while in the Silicon Valley WE ARE SHORT of low level engineers who know how to write drivers or debug hardware problems (note the difference between a “programmer” and an “engineer”). And these are NOT skills you can learn with 4 years in a college. The kinds of people who work for these smartphones today, at Google/Apple/Palm, GREW UP with hard core systems, like Linux, or even hacking their Amiga OS.

So the OS system they use, should be part of the educational experience. You gain no real computer knowledge by using a freaking iPhone. Not even to learn how to put up your own web page!

Tony Bourke wrote on December 27th, 2010 at 4:22 PM PST:

If there’s some predefined hardware stack (ala Mac) that’s great. But that would mean a tight integration between hardware and software.

And as for dumbed-down, I love dumbed down. Dumbed down mean it’s more accessible to more people.

I also want more programmers and engineers, but there are plenty of additional tools to help that happen. Plenty of hobby kits, hobby operating systems, etc. If we want a learning platform, it should be easy to use for everyone, not just subtable for future CS/CE students. For those students, there are plenty of other learning platforms for them. We want our kids learning, not figuring out track-pad drivers, or trying to figure out why their video plays so sluggishly, or forget to install the antivirus software.

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Eugenia wrote on December 27th, 2010 at 4:33 PM PST:

As I said, education-provided hardware and software would be tight. Not random laptops. However, there is no reason to go even tighter.

As for video playing sluggishly, there’s no way around it. Current Atom netbooks can’t playback not even Flash h.264 720p, even if they use a hardware accelerated graphics card.

Android/iPhone CAN’T do this either! The kind of 720p they playback is a very specific one, that doesn’t include CABAC encoding (which is why Youtube/Vimeo uses to get better quality — with or without Flash as a decoder).

So don’t even expect real-world HD playback in any of these machines, in 2011. Maybe around 2015 the netbooks of the time will be able to do 1080p, and the smartphones of the time will be able to playback any kind of 720p (not just their own). But don’t expect miracles in that front. Cheap means that some things must be sacrificed.

Besides, the OLPC is WAY worse in that front, than either netbooks or smartphones!

BTW, this is really off topic, I don’t enjoy it. I took time to write about the specifics of management/deployment and science apps in software level, and I expect such a discussion, not rants about how cool the iOS interface would be in the classroom. OLPC went exactly in the direction you suggested, and it failed, among other reasons, because it didn’t use a real world interface where people could learn computers in the way they would use it in their work 15 years down the line.

Lennie wrote on December 27th, 2010 at 5:49 PM PST:

Sorry for the off-topic question:

“I couldn’t focus for more than 5 minutes. These days, I can’t even focus 1 minute”

I’ve heared this problem before. It almost seems to be a problem of the times.

This information overloading and multitasking society seems to have a real effect on us.

Atleast that is what it feels like, do you agree ?

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Eugenia wrote on December 27th, 2010 at 6:50 PM PST:

Actually, I think I just have ADHD-PI since I was a kid (not the Hyperactivity kind though). I have all the symptoms of the “Predominantly Inattentive” kind mentioned there.

mattledding wrote on December 28th, 2010 at 3:55 AM PST:

As a fan of Ubuntu and Edubuntu for its accessibility and ease of use, (my parents and Grandfather are using it.) I think it is great for education because it is easier, stabler, and safer than windows. It also allows use of older, and less powerful machines with less maintenance, and no crazy password remembering.

A platform at the class level is Google Apps for education… an easy to use place for students to download and upload in a walled garden. The biggest problem with computers in schools is invariably bandwidth, and g-Apps focus on “bandwidth chastity” is really useful… and with a linux os using chrome it just flies. (no heavy antivirus at the user end.) I am not employed by Google, but as an experimenter who likes to fiddle, I love a lot of their products, and think that they are the best corporate face for OS in general, and would love them to be involved in developing a educacational resource platform.

There are a lot of platforms out there, (ie http://www.oercommons.org/ or the British platform at http://www.jisc.ac.uk/publications.aspx , and in addition there are grants available at: http://www.hewlett.org/programs/education-program/open-educational-resources, and yes, the UN is involved with: http://oerwiki.iiep-unesco.org/index.php?title=UNESCO_OER_Toolkit ) but once again, there are a lot of fragmented “competitors”. Google could be a great “one ring to bind them”.

Otherwise, the problem with an official state repository is that it would recieve a lot of complaints about unfair competition from the free software. It might be interesting to see about some sort of repository or search engine that showed all free and non-free options based on State criteria.

I almost think that a social bookmark site maintained by teachers per state might be the simplest solution, or, again, a wiki/google site that would allow teachers to choose resources for their classes to get best of breed materials to the students.

As per phones, “android educational market” could be a very interesting platform.

We live in an exciting time for phones, the Android Samsung galaxy s, with its video out, can connect to a projector, and potentially, using the wii whiteboard method (tracking ir via bluetooth) could be used as a base for an Interactive Whiteboard, (there is a OS Java whiteboard by Uwe Schmidt that could serve as a base if someone clever knows how to get past the Android HID/wii speedbumps.) To say nothing of Pranov Mistry and his promised opensource code for sixth sense, if it ever comes, and gets ported.

I like Android more than Iphone or iPad for education, because it offers more possiblities, and the option of flash, which is a format in which a lot of educational resources are present. However, Apple has traditionally focused on education, and has banked a lot of credibility from the Apple II e years that it is still milking, so there are more likely to be ip@ds than androids in the classroom for the next year at least.

Pete F wrote on January 1st, 2011 at 6:47 AM PST:

I guess one argument is: “the only operating system you need for education is a web browser”. Browsers really are computers, AND they are the platform that everyone writes to, AND they are the the gateway to other people’s creativity (viz. content).

On the other hand, i love etoys, squeak, alice, scratch, sugar and anything that encouragers kids to code. If you really buy the constructivist argument (or really buy it in the context of certain kids who happen to learn that way) you don’t need much “content”. You need somewhere to assemble ideas, find answers, and (for some more than others) a way to connect with other people doing the same thing. The nice thing is, this is much easier to put together than a world of “content”.

>>[..]even OLPC doesn’t get it,<< I'm pretty sure that the OLPC people would argue that *you* don't get it. Content is something to *produce* for those guys, and its subsequent availability for consumption is (sort of) a useful side-effect.

Enjoyed the videos, -thanks!

Pete F

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Eugenia wrote on January 1st, 2011 at 2:43 PM PST:

I don’t even think you understood my article. Content is something that each country should produce, not teachers, and not OLPC. What OLPC, and every other such effort, doesn’t get, is the fact that what these countries need is management/deployment tools, and not pretty, non-realistic interfaces. If you think that all OLPC/Linux has to do is just provide a few apps and have a kid-y interface, you’re living in dreams.

SenorKaffee wrote on January 4th, 2011 at 6:38 AM PST:

I think I get what you mean – there should be a common “store” that has digital version of all the books and exercises I need for my current classes. The standardized content is already there – in the form of books, but not as digital documents or presented as video lectures.

The one big thing that will be very hard to overcome is copyright and distribution lobbyists. Bookstores will fight for the lucrative schoolbook market and publishers will try to squeeze an extra premium from this “state store”.

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Eugenia wrote on January 4th, 2011 at 12:51 PM PST:

The store is only a small piece of what I am suggesting. But as I mentioned to someone else above, who had the exact same concern as you do, most European and non-US countries don’t use third party text books and publishers. The governments have teams who write these books, so if it’s only US with that concern, they can may well stay out of the loop. It’s not just US in the map.

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