Sunday, January 28, 2007

Why Linux Laptops?

We are over half way through our second year with the Linux laptops. It is already time to begin thinking about next year's laptop model and configuration. Microsoft's new Vista operating system is out now and the Apple MacBook is now available for under $1000 for schools. It is appropriate to ask myself, why Linux?

I will admit that although SUSE 9 got the job done, it wasn't the best solution. Also, we released SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED) 10 to our community this year and, although it was a MASSIVE improvement over SUSE 9, it was a little buggy, as all OS releases are before their first major service pack. (SIDE NOTE: I am on the beta team for SLED 10 and they have targeted all of the right areas.) We have had enough time to observe our users and talk to graduates and these are the conclusions I have made.

Why Linux?
Linux has grown up
It is no longer the domain of code monkeys and geeks. Linux has always been powerful and secure. However, now it is also pleasant. The transition from XP to SLED 10 went very well for some of our least technologically secure users. Though we purchase our computers for academic and administrative work, normal humans like to easily listen to music, share pictures of their friends, children and grandchildren. Linux does this now and it does it as well as Microsoft. It doesn't do it as well as Mac. Anyway you cut it, Linux is a viable option for the normal computer user. Some things it does better than its competitors and some things it does worse, but it's here and it's ready.

Why Linux?
Centerpiece of Open Source
When I speak at conferences now, most people at least know what open source is and a growing number of them have used open source tools, though it is still a solid minority. I really believe, here in the U.S., we have been living a fool's paradise. We have enjoyed industrial success greatly because most of the world couldn't afford to compete with us. Open source has changed this and our competitiveness has been slipping rapidly because of it. I had a small online business about 6 years ago. To get my website and basic accounting needs off the ground took a couple thousand dollars and a lot of time. I started another small venture about a month ago. Joomla, an open source content management system, GNUCash accounting software, Open Office and Gimp provided me pretty much everything I needed. The most expensive thing I've bought so far is business cards!

I consider myself reasonably well versed in open source options. This was not the case when we started our Linux laptop program. Linux provided the platform for me to explore and learn so many open source options that made my second business so much leaner than the first. I really like that our students are getting exposure to the tools that are changing the world which they are entering. I saw several recent graduates over the holidays and enjoyed hearing say, "Hey Mr. Inman, my college has a Linux lab and is doing open source stuff. I know so much more than the other students about this stuff." Well, here's to hoping the other students learn that "stuff."

Why Linux?
Because the community is winning
We say our school is a community of learners. I believe this. On any given day you will see teachers learning from students, administrators learning from teachers, parents learning from teachers and every other conceivable combination. When everyone takes the time to listen, we all grow. John Stewart Mill said he "found a livelier version of the truth through its collision with error." That's open source! We risk, try, fail and fix. Then, as soon as you are stable, someone introduces a new idea and you start the process all over again. The result is something like Moodle, an e-learning system, or Joomla, tools that actually beat their commercial rivals. What better model for our students!

A colleague from another school cynically asked if our students were actually contributing to the open source community knowing that we don't teach programming at our school. Very few of our kids are even looking at the code but I absolutely believe they are contributing the the open source community. They deeply explore the powers of their Linux laptops and bring me their problems and questions. Sometimes they post those concerns to community forums and sometimes I do. Also, many of their wishes and concerns have been brought to Novell and been included in SLES 10 and SLES 10 SP1. That is contributing and I am proud of our teachers and students for the contributions they have made. As with all contributions to open source, we have all enjoyed the benefits of their labor.

Why not Linux?
You know, all computers have bugs. Each new version of every operating system comes with a learning curve and software becomes obsolete on all platforms. We have experienced less down-time, more student initiated solutions to computing problems and generally good user satisfaction. So I guess the real question is, "why not linux?"

Friday, January 05, 2007

Moodle on SUSE Server

Though our back-end network is primarily Microsoft Server 2003, our use of Linux laptops has certainly opened our eyes to the power and flexibility of Linux servers. Last summer I saw a presentation on Moodle, the open source e-learning platform so we launched a pilot Moodle server for our dean of faculty to manage the faculty resource web page.

The resources of Moodle were quickly in demand in the classroom. By exam time in December, we had several classes hosting forums and posting work. A freshman biology section had over 40 threads with some threads containing as many as 155 replies! The amazing part is that the forum was only a week old! Students used it as a forum for preparing for the exam.

We realized we needed to put some more thought behind our Moodle deployment and so we built a new SUSE Linux Enterprise 10 server from scratch and installed Moodle. I don't know anything about mySQL or php and that made things a little difficult for me. However, between the powerful system tool SUSE uses, called YaST and some custom scripting by a brilliant Linux partner of ours, we've made the installation of this secure and pretty fool-proof. Click on the post title or on the link along the side of the page to get the directions we created. The directions will link you to the Moodle software and the little tool we created to help you with your setup.

Moodle is a powerful tool that you can really grow with.