- We recently started exploring the use of Ubermix on school computers. Before I get into what Ubermix is I wanted to do a little thought experiment.
- What if I told you Ubermix sped up boot times from 7 minutes to 1 minute?
- What if I told you Ubermix freed up 500 MB of RAM on each computer?
- What if I told you Ubermix freed up IT staff from having to manage classroom computers?
- What if I told you Ubermix came with a wide variety of apps chosen by educators for classroom use (from multimedia to math)?
- What if I told you it was free?
Ubermix is an operating system that your computers can use instead of Windows. Because Ubermix is based on Ubuntu, free and open source software, it is an inherently more lightweight and secure operating system than Windows. That is why computers using Ubermix boot up faster and use less RAM. Computers can run Ubermix and feel responsive instead of sluggish. Also, since Ubermix is secure and virus free, they aren’t bogged down by anti-virus software scanning in the background. In my tests, I have improved boot time of netbooks running Windows from 7 minutes to 1 minute. That time saved allows you to use computers more fluidly in class and can end up saving several days of instruction a year that would have been wasted. All this means that schools using Ubermix can keep older computers in use longer, buy cheaper new hardware, and potentially have more efficient instructors.
But we know that you can’t just look at purchase price, you have to look at Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). Some might say, “I am sure these cheaper computers running this free software are going to be full of glitches and always need tons of tech support. So we will probably have to hire staff and also pay the cost of computer downtime effecting instruction.” Surprisingly, Ubermix has the ability to decrease tech support costs. One of the key innovations of ubermix is the ability for non technical staff (or even students) to restore the computer back to original settings in less than a minute. It is the strange reality of technology that you can place it in the classroom and it works fine, until randomly problems creep up: one computer can’t print anymore, another becomes very slow, a third has lost network connection. In a Windows classroom, these computers need a technician to troubleshoot and sometimes remove the computers to be restored (or reimaged). In an Ubermix classroom, the teacher or student needs to restart the computer and hold the ESC key. They are then presented with a choice: restore the computer to factory settings and keep the user files OR completely restore the computer and erase the user files. By choosing the first option the computer restores itself, but any documents, images, videos, etc. are maintained! So you get a computer that acts exactly like it did when it was first brought to the classroom without any tech support and with barely any computer downtime (just the time it takes to restart the computer).
When you buy Windows, all you are getting is the license to the operating system, but you still need to pay for many things people would consider essential–including basic apps like word processing and presentation–anti-virus software, and specialty applications like Photoshop. Ubermix takes the default Ubuntu installation and removes some apps and adds a few education specific ones. You get a full office suite, firefox, chrome, mind mapping software, audio editing, slideshow creation, web cam recording, video editing, and more. Since Ubermix is open source you can customize your computers with a wide variety of other free apps available in the Ubuntu Software Center.
The last advantage ends up being a “disadvantage.” Ubermix is a version of Ubuntu which is free and open source. That means that no sales rep is going to come to your school and pitch to your IT staff. Microsoft has done a good job convincing tech departments that the only way to deal with technology is by creating locked user accounts and central control. Just giving a student (or a teacher) admin access to a computer and saying, “Here you go, if you mess it up, here is how to restore it back to working,” is a very foreign concept. Many people also believe that free means cheap in a pejorative sense. Nothing could be further from the truth with Linux-based Ubermix. Linux is developed by a world wide community and backed by some of the largest tech businesses. In fact, over 70% of all web pages are hosted on servers running Linux.
However, regardless of the robustness of Linux, and even though Ubermix is a high quality system, there is the problem of how to get support when troubleshooting. As it is, however, most techs will tell you that they don’t receive tech support in a useful sense from Microsoft, and instead use Google search to sift through blogs and forums to find answers to tech problems. Since open source software has a spirit of sharing and community, the online communities centered around Linux, Ubuntu (and by proxy Ubermix) are very active and full of information. For example, I was working to set up a printer that wasn’t working with Ubermix out of the box. Searching Google pointed me to the answer, and now I have a default image of Ubermix that works in our setting. For better or worse, this troubleshooting process is a very similar process that would take place if I had a problem with a Windows or Mac OS computer.
Another concern is that people don’t have any experience with Linux and so they can’t handle a change from Windows. However, the rise of smartphones has taught us that people can deal with non-windows user interfaces and Ubermix takes its cue from a very apps-based screen. Large buttons similar to an Android or iPhone greet the user instead of a start menu, and the increased responsiveness and wealth of apps actually means Ubermix computers are more intuitive.
We have several teachers who can’t stand the long boot times of their windows netbooks and are willing to try something different. I am hopeful that our Ubermix tests will go well and pave the way for a viable 1:1 program at our schools. Head over to Ubermix central and try it out for yourself.