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Fair Field Junior School LogoFair Field Junior School

School No:  784

Using Ubuntu on a Curriculum Network

Date:

25 March 2011

Subject Coverage:

Cross Curricular

Key Stages:

2 (relevance to all)

Author:

 

Chris Carter
Tel: 01438 843918

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Ubuntu logoFair Field Junior School in Radlett is a 2 form entry junior with approximately 212 pupils on role. The school has been running the free Ubuntu (Linux) operating system on its curriculum computers since September 2010, with a variety of open source and web based software being used in different subject areas.

This is being seen by the school as a ‘pilot’. The financial savings are so significant, and as the Ubuntu network is efficient and easy to set up and administer, the Headteacher felt it was well worth piloting. The school office continue to use Windows computers and teachers and the SLT use personal Apple Mac laptops.

Decision to use Ubuntu

The school first decided to implement Ubuntu after a server crash on their Windows network left them without access to their curriculum computers. Not wanting the children’s learning to be affected, the Headteacher, who has significant prior knowledge of Ubuntu, decided to set up an existing school workstation as an Ubuntu server, and configured a group of the existing curriculum computers to boot from this server, to run Ubuntu on each desktop. The reason for making this decision was that it could be set up at no cost and in a very short space of time, without the need to rebuild each workstation, so giving the children access to ICT again whilst the school considered their next steps towards restoring a full curriculum network. With the server running, workstations needed simply to be configured (in the bios) to boot from the network card. All the workstations were then ready to be used in a matter of minutes. This is a similar system to the ‘thin client’ model used in some schools.

The Ubuntu Desktop

The Ubuntu Desktop

Such was the ease and success of this step, that the school decided to buy a dedicated server from which to run Ubuntu Server, and to use this to power the entire curriculum network, which now has 64 desktop computers around the school, including a large ICT suite.

In doing so, the school has saved a very significant amount on software licensing costs, as the Ubuntu operating system is free, and similarly software used on the systems is open source and available at no cost. There has also been savings in network administration time. Because the workstations are booting from the server, there is less dependency on the spec of the local computer to run the operating system and applications, so older, lower spec computers can continue to be used effectively on the network. This is successful for less demanding applications, but more memory intensive applications can be configured to use more of the local system resources where necessary. This is a very significant improvement on a traditional ‘thin client’ model, with some applications using the workstation resources.

All the curriculum computers start up quickly and their performance when running standard applications such as office programs or a web browser is excellent.

Use across the school

Software is installed directly to the Ubuntu server, and therefore when workstations boot to this server the software is immediately available to all the users. A new program can therefore be available to the entire curriculum network in a matter of minutes. Ubuntu comes with a range of software preinstalled, including:

  • Open Office. This office suite offers a word processor, presentation maker, spreadsheets and graphics/drawing program called OpenOffice Draw.
  • Firefox web browser.
  • PiTiVi Video Editor. A basic video editing tool.

Software is easy to install from the Ubuntu Software Centre

Software is easy to install from the
Ubuntu Software Centre

K-Turtle control software,

K-Turtle control software,
loosely based on 'Logo'

 

Further software can easily be added from Ubuntu’s ‘Software Centre’ where approved programs are made available for immediate download and installation. The school has added titles such as:

  • Audacity. The well known audio editor suitable for making podcasts etc.
  • Pencil. An animation package with which the user can create flip-book style animations from drawings.
  • Picasa. Google’s image editor and manager, used for digital photographs.
  • Scratch. The child-friendly programming language used in schools for learning about programming and creating animations and more.
  • Tux Paint. A popular linux painting program.
  • TuxMath. A space-invader type game to practise mental maths skills.
  • K-Turtle. A control program, loosely based on Logo.
  • Hydrogen Drum machine. Learn about rhythm and create simple to advanced drum patterns.
  • Mypaint. A versatile painting program.
  • GBrainy. Brain training style activities,

In addition to using the Ubuntu-compatible software above, the school makes significant use of web-based (and therefore operating-system agnostic) software, of which there is an ever growing range. For example, the children at Fair Field use SAM Learning, eChalk and activities from Maths Zone, and the school is looking further into using web based programs to meet the needs of a creative curriculum. Links to the online resources used are stored on the social bookmarking site Del.icio.us, which is set as the browser home page for easy access.

SAM Learning is accessible from the Ubuntu workstations

SAM Learning is accessible from
the Ubuntu workstations

The school uses digital cameras and ‘Flip’ video cameras, and the photos and videos can be downloaded to Ubuntu and managed in much the same way as on a Windows computer. Printers are installed to the server and accessible to pupils around the school.

Children all have their own log-ons to the network with their own home folders in which to save their work. Teachers can access these folders from Ubuntu workstations or their Macbooks (or the school office Windows computers). Whilst the teachers use Macs for powering whole-class teaching technologies, they are able to run Ubuntu in a window using free ‘virtual machine’ software (in this case Virtualbox from Sun Microsystems.) Therefore they can demonstrate to the class anything that is available on the Ubuntu curriculum computers, using their Macs.

The Headteacher reports that there has been a very positive response to the use of Ubuntu from teachers in the school, but he points out that they are very ICT literate and enjoy being flexible and to ‘experiment’ when necessary. Pupils have responded very positively, not least because logging on and starting applications is so quick. The desktop is user-friendly and the workstation hardware has a new lease of life.

Challenges

The majority of the curriculum ICT needs at the school can be met through use of the software described above. However, there are still some ‘gaps’ which teachers are looking to fill. These are mainly around the fact that, traditionally, nearly all educational hardware tools, and specific educational software titles, are designed for Windows and Mac operating systems. Fortunately, software delivery is changing through the advancement of new technologies. Many developers are moving their programs to web based delivery, available through any browser on any operating system. But some hardware such as webcams, cameras, digital microscopes etc., especially those that work together with dedicated software, may not run easily, or at all, on Linux systems. Linux support for such devices is constantly improving,

The future

At the time of writing this report it is still early days for the use of Ubuntu across the curriculum network at Fair Field Junior. With the server and workstations in full use and a range of software installed, the next steps for the school are to develop staff skills in using the available resources, through training, and to work on revising the ICT scheme in use in the school. With a more creative, blended curriculum, the school is excited to be expanding the creative hardware and software to supplement the current Ubuntu network.

Conclusion

Whilst there is no doubt that the system implemented at Fair Field has lead to considerable financial savings, and savings in administration time through the easy to manage network, like any computer system, it is absolutely essential that a full support service is in place. A Linux system requires no less technical expertise to troubleshoot than any other system, and problems will occur, as they will on any network, which will need to be quickly remedied. Failure to have efficient support in place would quickly result in a loss of confidence in any system.

Further information

edubuntu logoAn education specific version of Ubuntu called ‘Edubuntu’ is available. This comes preinstalled with a wide range of free education software, for all ages of learner. Fair Field chose not to use this version as it wanted to choose just the software that would be appropriate for the pupils there.

You can try Edubuntu from a browser (ie without installing it) at:

Ubuntu website:

Open Source for Schools:

KDE Open Source Education project (free software)