Posts Tagged ‘open source’

Why Ubermix?

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011
  • 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.

Open Content-Judo Flip the Common Core Standards

Monday, April 11th, 2011

Judo FlipAs educators we can decry the adoption of the Common Core standards as a homogenization of education. Or we can take this opportunity to wrest control of our curriculum from the publishing companies. Like a skilled Judo athlete we can use the power and strength of an aggressor (dominating one-size fits all standards created by non-educators) to gain an advantage. How? By working together educators can create materials to teach the common core standards: from instructional resources like textbooks and lecture videos, to formative assessments like adaptive online quizzes and rubrics, to classroom activities and projects, from 15 minute discussion starters to cross curricular, multimedia, student-led investigations of ideas. We write it all collaboratively and we make sure that it teaches the standards, because we know that you can teach the basic concepts on the standards in exciting and engaging ways even if the state only assesses them using a multiple choice test. Then we go to our state departments of education and say, “Thanks but no thanks to your approved textbooks”. The state then takes all of that textbook money and uses it for teacher professional development and student materials (including technology to access the digital curriculum).

So what do we get out of this approach? Free and open learning materials that can be mixed and matched by teachers and schools to best fit their needs, money to get digital tools into kids hands so that they can take advantage in the latest advances in learning-multimedia, interactivity, personalization, and educator control over content in spite of the attempt to teacher-proof education.

Open content already has some nascent beginnings. Now is the time to take it to the next level: The broad adoption of common core standards will give teachers across the US a common set of learning objectives, and the increase in affordable digital devices will allow us to kick the paper habit and the control of the companies with the printing presses. Can we reach a critical mass?

Reflections on Eportfolios

Friday, May 28th, 2010

Just finished a nice high school English e-portfolio project (I am going to drop the e for the rest of the post). Here is a page with links to the student work The project had two parts: a group portfolio, of mostly new work, and an individual portfolio, reflecting on work done during the year.

What was good about the project.

  • Students worked in groups to apply knowledge learned during the year. Most students picked a theme in literature they studied (such as Nature) and applied it to a work they studied in class. The twist was that they had to pick a new work/theme combo that wasn’t the focus of earlier discussions in class. The goal was to get students to see that themes are… well themes, and that they run through many works even if they aren’t explicitly the focus of the work. Other students covered a literary era and applied new themes to that era.
  • Students worked independently to reflect on and improve their own products. For their individual portfolio students chose projects/papers done earlier in the year and discussed them. They also had to correct any errors.
  • It was great to hear the groups negotiating how to divide up the tasks, planning multimedia and layout, and sharing resources as they worked.
  • As students were wrapping up, I mentioned that they could use this site in the future for other classes or for a resume to help with applying for scholarships, colleges, and jobs. (Hopefully it will catch on!)

We chose to use Mahara after also considering Google Sites, Wikispaces, and WordPress blogs for a few reasons:

  • It is tied into Moodle-no new accounts need to be made, the students already know where to go.
  • The drag and drop interface and ability to add and remove columns on the fly allows students to rearrange text, images, and videos as their pages evolve
  • Students could upload media directly or embed from YouTube
  • Students can reuse this content in a future portfolio
  • Students can export the pages as html files, so they can always have a copy of their work
  • It is nicely set up for groups to work together on a page
  • It has an awesome granular permissions system so students could keep work private, and/or share it with a few people before making it public (many students don’t want the world/their classmates to see unpolished work)

Things that weren’t great about Mahara

  • Students wanted to apply individual/group themes to their pages to change the look (coming soon?)
  • Multi-page views with navigation were a pain, students had to add a text box and copy it to each of their pages (coming soon?)
  • Embed code from sites like vimeo and myplaylist didn’t work

Open Office Adoption Proposal

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

An outline of information about Open Office I prepared to present to school teachers and administrators.

Facts About Open Office

  • Contains word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation tool (also drawing, math editor, and database)

  • Looks a lot like Microsoft Office 2003 (same features, but some options are in different menus)

  • Is free (can be installed on ∞ computers)

  • Is open source (like Firefox, Moodle, and Android phones) extensions and modifications are allowed (democratic community guides the path of the software instead of dictatorial corporation).

  • Is lightweight and runs on any operating system (Windows, Mac, Linux & new/old hardware)

  • Can open files created by Microsoft Office 2003 and 2007 (.doc, .xls, .ppt, .docx, .xlsx, .pptx)

    • Some issues with converting files with complex layout (lots of images embedded in a word document)

  • Can save files in Microsoft Office 2003 format (also has its own file format)

  • Can save files as .pdf (don’t need to have cute pdf installed)

  • Is popular (108 downloads of Open Office 3 in one year)

Who uses it?

Why Are We Considering Open Office?

  • We will need to upgrade software eventually

    • We are currently using Microsoft Office 2003

    • This is software that was released 7 years ago and will eventually be phased out

  • Microsoft Office 2007 is available (MS Office 2010 is in beta testing

    • The interface is quite different from MS Office 2003 and will require extensive training

  • Since training is going to be required, why not invest money we would use on buying software into training people?

    • To buy MS Office every 5-7 years is enough money to pay every teacher for 3 hours of training every year!

  • You can keep using MS Office 2003 during the transition (since we already purchased it)

  • If we choose MS Office 2007 we will have new computers with 2007 and old computers with 2003. (mixed environment)

  • If we choose Open Office we can install open office on all computers right away (free to install, consistent environment).

  • Makes a $400 netbook a $350 netbook (12% savings)

  • Can be installed for free at home (on Windows, Mac, and Linux-a $150 savings per student

  • Google Docs is free and complements any office suite we choose.

  • Ideology – Public education and open source have similar goals

Arguments for Microsoft Office 2007

  • The presentation software has more templates

  • Microsoft Office has a large market share so we should expose students to the dominant brand

  • Some features on MS Office 2007 work better

  • Looks slicker

  • Complex MS 2003 documents (lots of tables) might open more consistently

One school going open source not to save money but for the ideology (they also save money)