Switching to GNU/Linux was my best Windows system update.

I use GNU/Linux most of the time. I keep a Windows partition into which I boot when somebody has a Windows question that needs a demonstrated answer. I don’t hate Windows. I just don’t rely on it for daily work any more.

This week at my local FOSS user group, one of those Windows questions came up right at the end of the session and I didn’t realize the building was about to close down. After my quick demo, though, we had to get out so the staff could close the building down. I wasn’t bugged by that. The staff at the community center have supper to cook at home, after all.

I was bothered, though, by the big pain of Windows updates. When I shut down my laptop using the approved menu steps, I got the very clear message. Do not shut down or power off your computer. You have 23 updates.There had been no warning before I committed to the shut down. The shutdown couldn’t be deferred once I saw the message. There was no way to put the updates on hold. I was a hostage to the process.

I didn’t quite panic. I couldn’t stop to plug the laptop in. Fortunately it was almost fully charged. I went out the door and off to the car with hope in my heart that this wasn’t one of those major update-upgrades that would go on for an hour or more.

I decided to carry the open laptop to my car. It had just started raining, so I tipped the laptop to get the rain to hit mainly on the screen’s back and not into the openings of the case. I rushed across the empty parking lot and used a napkin to wipe off the splattered raindrops on the computer once I was inside. On my way home, the updates finished and the laptop shut down on its own. No harm done.

What’s the problem, then?

Windows! I was totally at the mercy of default update options of the operating system. The message was clear. The OS is in charge, not YOU!

My GNU/Linux software updates work differently. I get a message in my system taskbar telling me I have updates available. I can check to see what they are. I can click a button to apply the updates when I’m ready. I can also ignore the notification and go on with my work or even TURN OFF MY COMPUTER when I want. I can put off the updates to a convenient time.

I know. I know. I have the ability to modify the settings of the Windows installation so that I can better control the update process. But Windows programmers set the defaults and I accept defaults because generally the developers know what’s best. Ahem!

For a desktop computer, automatic updates taking over my computer at shutdown isn’t so bad. I can turn off the monitor, the room lights and go home. The computer will whir along through as many updates as are needed. Then it will simply shut down, even if it is an hour after I’ve left the building. For a user on the go with a laptop, the automatic updates process is a headache. It is wonderful that the Windows headaches are now rare events for me.

I’m going off now to change my Windows update settings. See you later.


Chris Dawson writes about education for ZDNet. In a post today, he boldly recommends educators look closely at Canonical’s newest version of Ubuntu.

There’s been a move by the Ubuntu distribution team to create a unified interface which works on desktops, laptops, and  netbooks.

What’s your take? Have you tried Ubuntu 11.04 with Unity?

Happy Cinco de Mayo to you who are from south of the border.

The United States turned down the international standard for measurement and stands alone using the foot, gallon, pound and Fahrenheit degree. Will our stance on software be similar? Will we let corporations decide what is good for us? (cybergedeon)

How attached are you?

When I was a middle school science teacher during the 1970s, there was a brief period during which we were asked to teach students how easy it is to use the metric system. Just like our decimal system for counting (10 fingers, after all) the metric system offered simple relationships among the measurements, and children learned it easily.

Nonetheless, the effort was brief. Industry rejected the recommendation, saying it would be prohibitively expensive to make the machinery conversions, and besides, everybody already knows the current “English” system of measurements.

Of course, losing the opportunity didn’t mean nothing changed. Look around. Find out what size your soda bottles are. They are almost all based on a metric liter. There are no quart, half gallon, etc. in my grocery store. Most loyal Americans seem to buy Hondas, Toyotas, Mazdas, etc., etc. whose bolts are metric. Did the U.S. citizens suffer from that silent conversion in the automobile industry? A quick check of the Wikipedia page on “engine displacement” indicates that since the 1980s, the industry has adopted the Liter as it’s main volume measure.

Right now, the common software base is Windows. If a program runs on Windows, people claim to know how to use it. If the same program runs on GNU/Linux, is it any more difficult?

Schools are the place where expectations are often set for the future. Is your school tying students to a Windows expectation? It it Macintosh that fills your classrooms? Are you teachers and your students shills for the proprietary formats of Microsoft and Apple, Inc.?

Where is GNU/Linux getting the chance to set student expectations? It is open, teachers and their students can be free to work with it and not be constrained by cost restrictions. There is no need to cry, “We cannot afford that software.”

Of course, the masters of the school computers aren’t the students nor the teachers, not even the early adopters. Most American schools are locked into the choices made by district administrators or worse, by the tech staff.

During the early days of computers in the classroom, the 1970s and 1980s, teachers who jumped at the chance to have a computer made more decisions than they do today. We are stepping backward. Progress is in the hands of the tech staff and administrators who control the money.

It isn’t the hardware which makes a computer useful. It is the software.

As a teacher, are you allowed to bring an old computer into your classroom for students to use, even if it is a Windows or Mac machine? I know of teachers who had to give the computers they brought in to the school which took control of the software installs just as much as they did the hardware.

Where is your software freedom? Do you have any?

Even if you are a tech savvy user, can you get any of your classroom computers set up to provide software freedom for yourself or your students?

Education Week published a discussion between middle school teachers, Dina Strasser and Bill Ferriter. Are computers and the Internet more a distraction in classrooms than a benefit?

Dina Strasser selects a couple of books for support of her localism. One suggests that classroom computers and the Internet engender short attention spans putting in doubt “whether they [students] can stick with a good novel”. She also references a book suggesting that computers limit the focus to only a couple of the senses and impede “interaction with the environment through the senses.”

I’m going to focus on those two alone.

Personal experience doing programming (something mainly restricted to computing) has shown me that I can completely focus for long periods of time, surfacing from my work only to realize hours have passed. Of course, not everything done with a computer requires such focus. Reading the headlines of a newspaper has been considered a good use of time by several American generations, even if they have read only a few of the articles from beginning to end and done even less research to study the background of the story. Today’s interaction with the Internet might be seen in that light. Indeed, if a student should start with a short headline from the Web, it is actually much more possible that a student will follow supporting links and dig deeply to find answers that the initial story doesn’t cover. That would have been difficult with a newspaper, unless a student happened to be in a well stocked library and a supportive reference librarian.

The second concept, that computers limit us to two senses, is very oddly placed right after the suggestion that long term focus on a good book is more valuable than flighty focus on the Web. It might be argued that a book limits us to the sense of sight, and the focus on book pages is even narrower than the focus angle of a computer monitor. Now, I’m very much in favor of reading. I love to sit and immerse my imagination in the story line of a good novel and its characters. On the other hand, I also enjoy taking a long walk with my dogs. I don’t read during those walks. I listen for the birds, watch the clouds chase across the sky, feel the crunch of snow beneath my shoes, smell the breeze, feel the wind in my hair (what remains of it, anyway). On some of my walks, I am even able to get tastes of berries and edible greens which grow along the route. I love the chance to engage all my senses.

I would not trade the walk for more time absorbed in a book nor more hours focused on getting a program just right. Each of the tasks is independent. Each of them contributes to my personal development options. Each of them enriches my experience (education) in ways that the others do not.

Spending six hours in a classroom might also be blamed for restricting students from fully experiencing their local environment, walking along the hillsides with an educator, looking at the edges of the layers of protruding shale. I would actually think it was the responsibility of some educator at the school to do that field trip instead of talking for one or more class periods about how important the political and science issues are.

Localism might entail gaining a rich personal experience of ones yard, town and surrounding environs, but it might also be used to justify “following local norms” which has been a euphamism for things like not allowing children to dance, or worse, segregating one ethnic group from all others.

No matter what the topic is, no matter what tools are used to implement a lesson plan, it takes teacher effort to effectively use the tools to engage students with the topic. New tools aren’t always the answer. It also doesn’t make sense to ignore new tools if they enhance students’ chances to learn a complex topic. It also means that the teacher needs to know the tools so as to judge their effective use. Sadly, I’ve observed many teachers who fail to grasp many forms of technology. Overhead projectors, slide projectors, math manipulatives, 16mm projectors, purple master duplicators and their proper uses come to mind. The computer, the Internet, word processors, etc. are just the current technology challenge.

If cost of technology is the overriding issue, then teachers and the schools for which they work should seek to minimize the costs to both the schools themselves and the costs for students’ families trying to provide computers as educatonal tools. One way to do so, is to encourage use of software which provides freedom of choice, freedom from lock-in and in most cases freedom from cost. I’d recommend all teachers, all schools find what Free/Open Source Software meets their real needs and promote the use of those tools, making computers more flexible by making the cost of the software not be a barrier to implementation. Software costs using proprietary products, can easily exceed the cost of the actual computer hardware. Using FOSS not only reduces cost, it encourages wide exploration to find and implement just the right software to get a lesson accomplished.

I use the Kubuntu 10.10 distribution while working at a computer. It suits me. For word processing tasks, I mainly use OpenOffice.  In school settings, the typical teacher uses Microsoft Word. It is installed by the tech department and the district may even have mandated its use so that it is easy to exchange work among members of the staff. In Massachusetts, the state department of education uses Microsoft .doc and .xls file formats for much of the information sent to schools and has asked schools to submit their work in those formats.

Where does that leave me, a proponent of GNU/Linux?

I’m not using Windows or Microsoft Word on my own computer. If somebody wants me to read a .doc file I have no trouble. OpenOffice transparently deals with the doc format created by MSWord. But, the fonts don’t automatically work right. There are slight spacing issues. Most users of MSWord do their routine typing with either the Arial or Times New Roman fonts. Those fonts are not automatically on my GNU/Linux computer.

On my computer, I like the FreeSerif font much better than the DejaVu Serif font. DejaVu Serif really has the look of a typewriter font with better character spacing. FreeSerif looks more elegant. Both fonts are on my Kubuntu 10.10 install.

Although most GNU/Linux distributions don’t automatically install the common Windows fonts used by a MSWord user. However, the fonts are typically available in the packages system of a distribution.

In Kubuntu, which uses KPackageKit for managing installs, I typed “fonts” into the search box. Among the many listed packages was “ttf-mscorefonts-installer” which will connect to the Internet and download/install the following fonts. Your distribution package manager will probably show something similar.

If you have Arial or Times New Roman installed on your system, your computer will do a good job of opening and displaying the documents your colleagues send to you. If you modify and save the file in the Microsoft doc format, the file will get back to your collaborator in good shape for them to continue working with it.

“TTF” in the font package name stands for “true type font” which is one of the standard computer font systems. The Microsoft fonts are not fully “free as in freedom” and the package description recommends alternatives if you want to keep “free”. If, however, working efficiently with fellow teachers is more important, install the “ttf-mscorefonts-installer” and get your job done.

Update: Oracle filed a patent suit against Google related to Android. The judge in the case is asking that court submissions be 12 point Times New Roman font. If the lawyers are using Linux, it is good that ttf-mscorefonts exists for them.

There was a day-long education mini-summit on Monday at this year’s Linuxcon conference in Boston. There were several sessions which I hope to cover in a series of posts. [[A very good summary here. Maybe I’ll skip the other posts because Mairin did such an excellent job and you can get more details from her blog post.]]

David Trask, a long-time educator in Maine, was faced with a server crash in 2000. He asked his principal to consider options with him and when they compared the long list of negatives for rebuilding the server and its proprietary software against the long list of positives for going for the open source alternative, the two of them agreed to jump at the open alternative.

Since then Maine has instituted a 1to1 computing initiative starting with giving middle school student a laptop, one that they carried around school each day and took home every evening. When the initiative was expanded to high school students, it was provided with a less advantageous financial support from the state. David initiated a plan to overcome that. He proposed that high school students get a netbook preloaded with a customized Linux solution. The site is an outgrowth of that effort. He and his team have devised a USB thumb drive image which can be easily installed to a netbook, laptop or other computer. The regularly updated Ubuntu-based image is generally taken from the site by a school’s IT staff and put onto approximately 20 thumb drives which the techs take around the school and install to the computers. It takes less than 6 minutes for a complete install and only requires a couple of initial keypresses.

Bug fix releases are put onto the site during the school year, and some schools jump to get them while others wait for the next school year if the bug is not a core problem.

Network install options are in development, and you can keep abreast of the progress at the Web site. []

The Free & Open Source Software in Education Conference FOSSED [] is another effort of David and his team. It is held annually at Gould Academy in Bethel, Maine. The $495 price includes everything; sessions, room and board. I’m planning to attend the next one in 2011.

I am headed off to LinuxCon in a couple of weeks.

I need some guidance. What presentations should I be sure to see? I plan to attend the mini-summit for Teaching Open Source which is on Monday the 9th (before the official start of the conference itself). I’m also going to be a volunteer at the KDE table. I want to make the most of the remaining time. I don’t think I’m really up to the technical level of some tracks…Kernel, heavy duty programming, etc.

If you have suggestions, I’d appreciate it.

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