Computers have been used as teaching tools since they first arrived on the scene -- that is, if you were a computer science student. Slowly and steadily, though, computers started to fulfill other teaching needs as well, from computer-aided reading instruction to mathematics drill programs to research facilitators. There are tons of open source education tools that come bundled with popular Linux distributions, but if you are looking for a complete (not to mention, portable) education environment, check out the three nice LiveCDs reviewed in this article to see if they suit your needs.
Education is a diverse field, and depending on how you participate -- as a teacher, an administrator, or a student -- there's a wide variety of tools at your disposal. They range from simple tools that help elementary students improve their spelling or middle school students learn a foreign language to complex tools that help high school physics students in their optics and mechanics classes.
C.K. Hung, vice president of the Organization for Free Software in Education and Teaching (OFSET) in Taiwan, is promoting a popular geometric tool, Dr. Geo, in local schools there. He believes tools like Dr. Geo help integrate Linux (through projects like FreeDUC) into the education sector by running exclusively on the free software platform. Such projects are gaining the attention of Free Software advocates who want to avoid proprietary platforms and see more Linux adoption.
OFSET started work on the FreeDUC LiveCD in 2002. "In the various freeduc-cd version, we also got support from UNESCO and National Taiwan University. Klaus Knopper also helped me with hard disk space and bandwith when I started the project," says Hilaire Fernandes, one of the FreeDUC core members who has a team of seven that do coding, packaging, documentation, and graphics.
Incidentally, Hilaire is also the author of Dr. Geo. "Personally I consider projects like FreeDUC as second zone projects as they do not bring or improve end-user software for education, but simply act as facilitators to expose teachers to free software. Project like Dr. Geo, GCompris, and GNU Edu are much more important and require much more work than packaging software in a distribution," he says.
FreeDUC has a lightweight desktop and lots of documentation related to the software it bundles in the 699MB ISO. It can be easily installed on the hard disk. "Projects like Skolelinux (based on Debian/stable) suffer from a serious problem: the applications included with them get old very quickly. For example the shipped version of Dr. Geo in stable Skolelinux is four years old," explains Hilaire. FreeDUC's last version was 1.5 for primary school and there's also a FreeDUC-games edition. The project has lots of documentation in French that they would like to extend and translate.
Figure 1. Dr. Geo, the math learning tool, comes with the FreeDUC CD
This LiveCD is a product of the Open Source Education Foundation (OSEF) developed by Harry McGregor. He is the Computing Manager for the University of Arizona and teaches Linux and UNIX® classes at his local community college, Pima Community College. "While Knoppix for Kids is certainly useful for kids, we actually aimed it more at teachers, administrators, and parents to show to them that Linux is a viable educational desktop platform. At the time no one even considered Linux viable for the educational desktop. Through other projects of ours, we have had K-5 students using Linux on the desktop since 1997," explains Harry, who works on the CD in his spare time and has a few testers and contributors.
The project distributed 5,000 professionally pressed CDs with color envelopes and packaging at the National Educational Computing Convention in Seattle about two years ago and around 2,000 CDs at the Linux World Expo in San Francisco in August 2003. "We were able to distribute about 2,000 CDs to teachers."
"I personally find for the lower grade levels that KDE and Gnome are too much. We are currently using IceWM for a K-5 school. The kids don't need a full desktop environment, and it can cause more confusion than it can help. Also Knoppix for Kids has too many choices and you don't know what to click on," explains Harry. To overcome this problem, he would like to divide the CD for multiple target users:
- Kindergarten (age 5)
- 3rd grade (age 8)
- 5th grade (age 10)
- Middle school (ages 11-14)
- High school (ages 14-18)
- Teacher, etc.
Then he can have custom desktops with custom applications lists for each group.
Knoppix for Kids has a 699MB ISO and can be installed on the hard disk.
Figure 2. Knoppix for Kids LiveCD is running TuxPaint
For more advanced education, this LiveCD has a collection of bioinformatics, computational biology, and computational chemistry tools. The project has recently released the 1.0-beta version based on Knoppix 3.7 with updated and new packages. They have also released a special version of the CD with tools for molecular quantum chemistry.
Vigyaan is indeed a paradise for biology and chemistry students at any level. The numerous professional and visually appealing tools come with quick-start instructions, detailed tutorials, and demos. A Macintosh version is also in development. The 638MB ISO boots into the live environment, which can also be anchored to the hard disk.
Figure 3. Vigyaan running the Ghemical chem visualization analysis tool
Any resource that can help provide a better education -- whether kindergarten or professional level -- is a good thing. And if that resource can ease another key criterion of the realities of modern education -- money -- so much the better. These LiveCDs meet those requirements, but they are only the beginning.
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"Restore compromised systems with diagnostics LiveCDs" (developerWorks, January 2006) reviews two LiveCD offerings to detect system break-ins and recover critical data.
"Rock your desktop with entertainment LiveCDs" (developerWorks, January 2006) reviews four LiveCD offerings to help turn your Linux machine into a complete home entertainment system.
"Craft a load-balancing cluster with ClusterKnoppix" (developerWorks, December 2004) shows you how to use Knoppix-based LiveCDs to build your own supercomputing Linux cluster.
"Spin up a Linux LiveCD" (developerWorks, July 2004) is a no-install approach to running or demonstrating Linux.
OFSET is the Organization for Free Software in Education and Teaching.
OSEF is the Open Source Education Foundation.
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Dr. Geo is a GTK interactive geometry software that allows a child to create geometric figures and interactively manipulate the figures with respect to their geometric constraints. GCompris consists of 50 activities for kids. GNU Edu is a searchable catalog for educational software.
FreeDUC is a directory of free software for education from OFSET.
Skolelinux is a network architecture designed for educational systems.
Knoppix for Kids is useful for elementary-age students, but aimed at teachers, administrators, and parents to show to them that Linux is a viable educational desktop platform. Read more at the OSEF, and download it.
Vigyaan is an electronic workbench for bioinformatics, computational biology, and computational chemistry. It has been designed to meet the needs of both beginners and experts.
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Mayank Sharma has been writing about technology, especially free and open software, for the past five years. He helped launch South Asia's leading FLOSS monthly LINUX For You (as its Assistant Editor) and is currently busy putting together a Web-based publication devoted to localization, education, and FLOSS migration. Besides writing, Mayank loves to hack also; his most recent contribution is an installer for the Utkarsh localization project. Still struggling for a computer science degree, he loves Formula One car racing.