Edubuntu: At last, Linux for human teachers and
Alan Zisman (c)
2006 First published in CUE
Teachers and schools try to provide students with technology
opportunities while living within tight budgetary restraints. In this
situation, the open source movement holds a lot of promise- a promise
of free operating systems and applications. The OpenOffice.org office
suite, for instance, is comparable and compatible with Microsoft
Office, but can be freely downloaded and installed throughout the
school and on computers in student and teacher homes (www.openoffice.org
). There are
versions for systems running Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X.
Linux is an open source operating system that can
complete replacement for Microsoft Windows (or the Mac OS). A
computer’s operating system is the ‘master software’ on the computer,
so replacing the operating system is a pretty drastic step. Moving from
Windows to Linux offers users freedom from the need to purchase legal
copies of Windows for each computer. As well, Linux is more secure than
Windows; like Mac OS X, Linux users don’t currently have to be too
concerned with computer viruses, spyware, or hackers. Moreover, while a
school installing Windows onto a system still needs to add all the
(often expensive) applications needed to actually make a Windows system
useful, Linux installations typically include a wide range of other
open source applications (including the OpenOffice.org suite).
Still, while my school (Vancouver’s Chief Maquinna
installed OpenOffice.org on all our systems, we haven’t replaced
Windows with Linux. The reason? If all we needed from a school computer
was a web browser and word processor and presentation software, pretty
much any Linux distribution would work well. (Linux is distributed in a
wide range of packages, known as distributions. Each has a somewhat
different look and feel and includes a different subset of the wide
range of compatible open source applications and utilities).
But over the years, we’ve collected a lot of Windows
we use with students; many are free. These include science labs, math
software, geography programs, and more. (See http://www.zisman.ca/files
for links to a huge number of free programs that may be useful to
teachers and students). Moving to Linux would mean starting over. (The
fine print: there are several ways to try to make Windows programs run
under Linux, but it would take a lot of work).
Moreover, Linux has had a reputation of being a
that wasn’t very friendly for everyday users. Too often, it didn’t work
without needing a bunch of tweaks to multiple text-mode configuration
files. Hard-core Linux fans get to do things like re-compile their
operating system kernel, sort of the computer equivalent of rebuilding
your engine. For those of us who just want to drive from Point A to
Point B, that doesn’t sound like something we would do for fun!
is a popular Linux distribution that describes itself as ‘Linux for
Human Beings’. (‘Ubuntu’ is an African word meaning "I am what I am
because of who we all are"). The people working on the Ubuntu project
have worked hard to get past Linux’s geeks-only factor and build a
system that should be more immediately usable by more people without
any interest in learning esoteric computer skills. If you’re interested
in Ubuntu but not sure if you’re prepared to take it up full time, you
can download a ‘Live’ CD image; burn it to CD to get a bootable disc
that will give you a good idea of whether Ubuntu will work with your
computer’s hardware, and let you work with Ubuntu’s user interface, all
without actually installing anything on your computer’s hard drive. To
get back to your old Windows system, just shut down, remove the CD, and
restart. (Note: running everything off a CD disc is much slower than
running from your hard drive; as a result, Ubuntu Live will feel more
sluggish than if you actually install it onto your computer).
If you like what you see and if you have 10 or more
GB of free
space on your hard drive, you can optionally choose to install Ubuntu
(or other Linux distributions) to co-exist with your existing Windows
system; after installation, each time you restart you’ll get a boot
menu letting you choose to boot to Windows or Linux.
On the several systems I’ve tested, Ubuntu did a good
supporting the computer’s built-in networking, sound, and display
adapters, though I found that older WiFi adapters were more likely to
work ‘right of the box’ then newer models. I was able to print to many
printer models, both directly connected and across a Windows network
(yes, a Windows network) though in some cases, I needed to use a
compatible printer driver.
Just like on a Mac, my USB flash memory drive quickly
shows up as
an icon on the desktop. Just remember when done to right-click the icon
and choose ‘Unmount Drive’ before unplugging it. Much easier than
Windows’ clumsy Safely Remove Hardware procedure.
Your experience may vary- that’s why it’s worth
playing around with the Live CD version prior to installing.
Up and running, Ubuntu uses an interface that, while
Windows, is easy for non-technical users to warm to. Starting
applications, browsing the web, saving, and printing files, burning CDs
and more is pretty straightforward. To a large extent, then, Ubuntu
lives up to its claim to provide Linux for human beings.
But how about for teachers and students?
Recently, another Ubuntu project, the somewhat
Edubuntu, aimed at providing a version customized for families and K-12
|| Setup is the same as for the parent Ubuntu
distribution, giving the
option of being installed alongside Windows (assuming there’s enough
free hard drive space), and takes half an hour or so. After restarting
and logging in, though, users get cheery kid-friendly wallpaper and
customized icons for commonly-used applications like the Firefox web
browser (yes, the icon is the head of a fox). Perhaps more important is
a menu with a reasonably hefty selection of educational applications
and games, many from the KDE Education Suite (hence the over-abundance
of program names starting with the letter ‘K’ like Khangman). (Yes, you
could track down and install all this stuff into any Linux
installation. The big advantage here is that it’s already
If the default installation doesn’t give you
enough variety, it’s
reasonably easy to add more: the last item in the Edubuntu-equivalent
of the Start Menu is entitled Add Applications. If a program name
looks interesting, click on it for a description.
But there’s a catch. When you scroll down to
the lists of
Edutainment or Games (and click on the More programs item), you’ll find
most of the listed items are greyed out; apparently they’re just listed
to tease you.
Here’s what to do: Click on the Add Applications
menu and choose Repositories (the only option). In the new window that
opens up, click the Add button, then select ‘Community Maintained
(Universe)’. Click OK a couple of times and wait a moment for the lists
to be updated, and suddenly, the formerly unavailable applications will
be accessible. Pick as many as you like; they’ll be downloaded and
installed to the computer, adding an icon to the appropriate area of
the upper-left corner Start Menu. (When, oh when, will Apple put back
the ability to use its Apple Menu as an equivalent of Windows’ handy
Unlike the main Ubuntu distribution, there’s not a Live version of
Edubuntu. You can’t just boot to a CD to try it out- at least not yet.
You can give the Live Ubuntu a try to see if it works with your
hardware—if it does, then Edubuntu will, too. If you’ve got a spare,
relatively modern PC handy, you may want to download the Edubuntu CD
image and try it out yourself.
Like other modern operating systems, it won’t work
very well on
those old Pentium-133 systems with 32 MB of RAM that are cluttering
many of our schools and classrooms. But on a more modern Pentium II or
later, expect performance more or less comparable to Windows 2000.
With its kid-friendly look and feel and expandable collection of
educational programs and games (and its free price) Edubuntu deserves a
look. If the cost of software licenses is an issue for you or your
school, you may find it a way to maximize your use of donated or
low-cost PC hardware while providing students and teachers with a wide
range of educational software.
(June 16, 2006)
note: Between the time that I wrote this and publication date, updated
versions of Ubuntu and Edubuntu were released, making these Linux
distributions even more powerful, attractive, and easy to use. As a
result, though, minor details of this article-- as well as the
illustrations-- will not exact match what you'll see if you download
and install the current version.