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Open Source in Middle Earth: Education on the Agenda at linux.conf.au

Submitted by kattekrab on Wed 29th Mar 2006 08:03

Donna Benjamin
29 March 2006
Infonet 2006 Issue 2 Volume 16

Linux Conference
Linux Australia is the national peak body of linux user groups and it has held this conference every year since 2001. It has grown to become one of the year’s most significant events for the international linux and open source community. I was lucky enough to attend, and whilst I didn’t get to meet, or shake his hand, I did lay eyes on Linus Torvalds, creator of Linux. He wasn’t presenting, he didn’t deliver a keynote, he was just there, and that is testimony to the regard in which linux.conf.au is held.

I had become involved with a group of Melbourne linux users keen to win the right to host LCA in future, so I found a way to get myself to Dunedin. Dunedin, New Zealand? For an Australian Linux Conference? Ummm, ok. Well, what a delight that turned out to be. Dunedin is gorgeous, and parts of the surrounding countryside featured in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, unfortunately I didn’t get much chance to explore, but I saw enough to promise a return.

The Education mini-conference attracts an interesting crowd - techos, academics, and open source professionals - all interested in how linux and open source software is being used across the education spectrum. We heard about open source initiatives and implementations from all over the world. I came away with a strong sense that the open source world is truly international and it is more about people and communities than about corporations and marketing.

Education Mini Conference at linux.conf.au Dunedin 2006
Bryant Patten of White Nitro from Vermont in the USA put together a stimulating program for this year’s FOSS in education mini-conf. Speakers represented a spectrum of educational viewpoints but all had a common angle. Some referred to unnatural barriers in the path of wider FOSS adoption in the education sector, and others focused on finding better ways to support teachers. Technical presentations informed us of new projects, new developments in established projects and new ways of using common tools. We were given insights into how different the educational realities can be on the other side of the world, but found we have much in common. We learnt about FOSS success stories making a difference in communities across the globe. We left with a renewed commitment to work co-operatively across borders, to share strategies and build new networks for collaboration.

INGOTs
Graham Lauder, an INGOT’s Gold Assessor Trainer and member of the OpenOffice.org marketing team, lead the charge. He spoke of the INGOTs program, or International Grades in Office Technology. It is a system of certification in office technology proficiency that’s not tied to any one vendor, although OpenOffice is the natural target. Learning through participation was a key theme as Graham explained his role in teaching teachers how to deliver technology curriculum and help those who are nervous about new software to overcome their fears.

Plone
Julie Kosakowski from Hewlett Packard spoke about Plone, a content management system that has been very widely deployed. Julie demonstrated Plone’s out-of-the-box features as well as many of the add-ons that can be easily enabled. Her demonstration started from the user perspective and then switched to the admin view. It left me wishing I could get such a competent demo of other content management systems. Plone is highly ‘skinnable’, meaning it can easily be customised to have a unique look and feel, but it is easy for users to start adding content using standard templates.

Moodle
From content to learning management. Martin Langehoff gave a great presentation on Moodle. Martin is one of the lead developers in charge of the stable branch of Moodle. Martin pointed out that the wide adoption of Moodle by universities around the world was having a significant impact on the current development phase. Much is being learned about migrating from commercial proprietary systems, and attention is being paid to the details of how to ensure course content portability. He spoke of a renewed focus on integration and modularity and showed us some impressive statistics on how far Moodle’s tentacles reach.

SAMBA and Schools
Andrew Bartlett spoke of his experiences setting up and managing a linux network at Hawker College in the ACT. As one of the core developers, he noted that his ability to test Samba in the real world environment at Hawker was of benefit not only to Samba, but also to Hawker College, who were getting the benefit of access to cutting edge open source file server technology. Andrew repeated some of his 2004 ed-mini-conf presentation as there were new faces in the audience who wanted to hear it. It was somewhat sad to hear that his network is likely to be de-commissioned for the brave new windows-only world that’s replacing it. However it was his Samba4 material that got the tech-heads buzzing, but unfortunately that was way over my head. Not sure if Andrew’s stuff is online yet, but Tridge’s presentation from the main conference has been widely blogged. See http://jwulf.livejournal.com/22187.html

OSV - FOSS Catalogue, LiveLAMP and the Curriculum Matrix
I took the podium with an update on the education initiatives of Open Source Victoria. OSV has published a catalogue of Free and Open Source Software for the education sector and is also developing LiveLAMP, a CD linux distribution aimed at teachers who want to set up a programming development environment for their students. I spoke about a new project - the Curriculum Matrix - that aims to take the work already done on the FOSS catalogue to the next level by connecting it to Victoria’s Essential Learning Standards, with activity plans and information on how to use the software and connect with the relevant development and user communities.

eXelearning.org
Next, David Moore took us on a journey through eXe: the eLearning XML editor. David is part of The Centre for Flexible and Distance Learning at the University of Auckland. eXe is designed to be an off-line authoring environment to help educators easily publish web content without the need to be expert in HTML or XML markup. Based on the Firefox web browser, eXe functions as a stand alone application that allows people to generate content that can be uploaded to a web server or incorporated into an eLearning system such as Moodle. Modular functions called ‘iDevices’ provide a framework of content templates. David delivered his presentation using eXe which gave us an opportunity to really appreciate how it works.

Developing Communities of Practice
Shaun Nykvist brought Day 1 to a close with a thought-provoking presentation on Developing Communities of Practice. Shaun does research and teaching at the Queensland University of Technology. He started with some provocations:
Every school must have internet. Have we asked why?
How are we going to train the teachers?

Shaun spoke of his experiences both from inside and as a creator of various online communities and he suggests that for it to really work it has to be free and the community has to be allowed to run itself. He spoke about real tasks. Don’t teach typing he suggests, instead let’s get into chat rooms and ask experts to join in our discussions. Kids will learn to type because they have something to say. Ultimately, he reminds us to look at what the research actually says. His findings suggest that we must find an effective use for technology, and not just use it for the sake of it.

FOSS in schools
Kathryn Moyle, Associate Professor at the School of Education and Community Studies at the University of Canberra, opened Day 2 with a presentation on evaluating FOSS technology for schools. She gave us a detailed picture of the Australian Education landscape with a national perspective. She identified the roles of the Federal and State Governments, and the joint committees and task forces they have in place to manage funding and policy for Australian schools across all sectors. Kathryn spoke of the need to start with the pedagogy, not the technology, and look at authentic learning tasks that are grounded in students’ realities. Kids need open-ended problem solving activities that are not solely focused on skill development or demonstrating the acquisition of information. She advocates teaching young kids to program, but this needs skilled teachers, and a real investment in their own professional learning.

Kathryn described the realities of teachers work. They have a duty of care: P-12 students are minors. Relationships are the fundamental connections of teachers’ networks. They are pushed for time and are expected to achieve much with little. In technology terms, we should look at the importance of peripherals and on keeping the age range of computers narrow. The reality of most school networks is that they are mixed environments. There are endless combinations of lans, wans, admin, & curriculum networks, different operating systems, a range of applications for teaching and learning, student management and general administration. There’s databases, internet access issues, and the ongoing questions around emerging technologies.

Kathryn suggested that for open source software to be viable for use in schools it should have the following characteristics; - an identifiable core group of developers;
- an active community operating around the software;
- a clear plan of software developments;
- lively feature developments under way;
- rapid turnaround for dealing with support requests and bugs;
- third party support or strategic alliances;
- adoption of the software internationally, - and service industry support through publications, support documentation, service provision, and conferences.

 

I’m still thinking.

The Tribal Homelands
Edward Holcroft, Executive Director of NetDay in South Africa, was the next speaker. What a change of pace and direction! NetDay recycles computers and installs whole computer labs in rural South African schools. Edward spoke without slides, telling us about the history of the organisation, what it does, how it works. He told stories of the people and communities that NetDay had worked with, and finally he showed us photographs that brought to life the anecdotes he recounted. Two in particular stand out in my mind. The rough shed in which one school’s food programme is conducted was surrounded by brightly coloured plastic buckets and bottles. He explained that this was because the children were being asked to bring water because the school’s well had run dry. This is an area rich with tea plantations.

Another school had a shiny solar panel to generate the power for their computer lab. The town’s grid power stops short of the school, but close enough to see in the background behind the solar installation. Another photo showed the security measures one school employed to protect their precious new computer lab; 3 steel doors and a steel roof. The next image showed the newly bricked up hole in the wall created when thieves drove a truck through it to steal the equipment anyway.

Perspective? NetDay works in the tribal homelands where there was no infrastructure under apartheid. This is a different world to the one in which I live. This isn’t about convincing people to run linux; linux is the only option. It will be the first operating system these kids will ever see.

Wow. Lunchtime.

A Sense of History & Future Possibilities
Jon ‘Maddog’ Hall reminded us that in 1969 a computer took up half the room and a compiler cost $100,000. In 1969, Text editors weren’t cheap either. The Digital Equipment Computer User Society had a software library to which people contributed lots of ‘freely distributed’ programs, including text editors. But the service cost of cataloguing, punching to paper tape, and paying for postage still made the text editor very expensive for a college student. It cost about the same as 10 jugs of beer. Hmmm, Software, or Beer?

Because the text editor was ‘freely distributable’, Maddog was able to sell the service of copying it for fellow students, recover his investment, and still buy beer. IT is becoming what it was before, a software service industry, rather than a software product industry. Service is not a dirty word. A brain surgeon provides a service.

Maddog reminded us that just because someone is a professional at what they do doesn’t necessarily make them better at it than an amateur. He gave examples of projects all around the world that proved his theory that open source software teaches people twice. Free Software allows students to see how software works, exchange research results, and create a local software economy.

Do the Natives Need Saving?
Bryant Patten told us of a ‘layover’ in Tahiti on a long series of flights. In Tahiti, he learned about the missionaries who came to save the natives and bring them closer to Jesus and he was reminded of the evangelical nature of those ‘open source advocates’.
So, do the natives need saving?

It’s a question I would have thought long and hard over just 48 hours earlier, but after spending 2 days in a small room with little ventilation and all of these people, I’m now completely convinced that yes, the natives do need saving, and that Free and Open Source Software is their salvation.

Pia Waugh closed the mini-conference by leading a discussion about where to from here. By that stage of proceedings, taking useful notes was beyond me, so check out Josh Wulf’s summary of Pia’s presentation and the ensuing discussion:

“There was a lot of discussion, and the word ‘synergy’ flew around a few times, but don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t just about sitting around the campfire holding hands and singing ‘Kumbayah’. It was all about evangelism and taking it to the masses, one step at a time, and presenting in terms of their values, rather than ours, which is something I can relate to from my double-life as a Hare Krishna. In Sanksrit there is a saying: ‘Atmavan manyate jagat’, which means ‘everyone sees in the world a reflection of themselves’. A lot of times we have difficulty grasping that other people have different values, experiences, and reactions from us. We know what we’re all about, and we can’t figure out why other people ‘just don’t get it’, when it’s clear as night and day to us.”

Yeah. What he said.

And now... for world domination
The presentations were excellent and the discussion and debate they generated fired our imaginations. Inspired to continue the dialogue, we wondered how we could work together better. Should we be establishing a FOSS in Education Conference especially for teachers? Should that be part of linux.conf.au or held at a time and place apart? We ran out of time before we finished changing the world, but promised to meet virtually to take up the challenge.

Donnna Benjamin
Creative Contingencies

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