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SEUL/edu: An International Focus on Linux in Education
December 7, 1999
Many of you who've been following Linux and LWN.net for a while have probably heard us mention SEUL, the project for supporting Simple End User Linux, before. To use their own description, "SEUL is a volunteer project to help Linux become an operating system that the average user can install and operate easily." One major focus of SEUL is supporting Linux in Education, also known as the SEUL/edu (or SEUL-edu) project. LWN met meet in October with several of the principals of SEUL/edu to talk about the progress they've made over the past year, what they hope to accomplish in the near and far future and their concerns about what will be needed to make all of this happen. Joining us that day were Douglas Loss, currently the leader of the SEUL project, Roman Kirsanow, the founder of a Linux For Kids site who chose to merge with SEUL/edu once he discovered the project and its goal, Pete St. Onge, who assists the SEUL/edu project with administration and web support and Roger Dingledine, the leader of the overall SEUL project. For those people who like the gory details or wish to trip us up over any inaccuracies, a lightly-edited version of the actual IRC interview is also available.
Current SEUL/edu StatusSEUL/edu maintains a list of educational software for Linux, which is well worth a look. It contains over forty entries currently, ranging from some scientific programs that have potential use in classrooms to basic learning tools for kids, such as Linux Letters and Numbers or Dr Geo, an interactive geometry package.
Continuing the effort to create the building blocks for future development, EduML is a SEUL project to develop a standard Education Markup Language using XML. The idea is to create a standard, flexible data format for the exchange of information used by educators, such as assessment items, curriculular activities, recording/reporting learner progress, keeping track of resources (libraries), and contact information. It is being developed by Bruno Vernier, a teacher in British Columbia. "Once it's done, anyone should be able to write an app using EduML as a data format and exchange data wi th any other EduML-compliant app. That would mean that the writer of a gradebook program wouldn't have to worry about the data format of the quizzing programs generating the raw grades," explained Doug Loss. It is currently at version 0.91, so it should be approaching its initial stable release.
Also nearing completion is K12Admin, a system designed to allow teachers to create and administer accounts for themselves and their students. It is currently in use in the Coast Mountains School District, Northern British Columbia, Canada, where it was developed, to maintain over 5,000 accounts in 30 schools. Going through its demonstration package, the package appears smooth and works well, though a review by an actual teacher would probably be more useful.
On another vein, the The OpenBook Project, sponsored by the Yorktown High School Linux Users' Group, is working to develop "high quality, freely distributable textbooks and educational materials on a wide range of topics". They've got two books out there so far, How to Think Like a Computer Scientist and Learn HTML!.
One less glamorous but also critical area in which SEUL/edu has been putting effort has been the creation of educational HOWTOs, documents meant to help educators install, configure, and use Linux in schools. This effort is picking up steam, though not a lot of documentation is currently available.
Then there is the work to encourage porting of commercial software to Linux. Why do this instead of, or in addition to, developing free software?
Intellectual property issues sometimes make the development of free educational software more difficult. For example, the artwork, sound recordings, video, animation, research material and data that might go into an educational product may not be freely available. Doug mentioned that Encyclopedia Brittanica recently moved to make their entire content available on the Internet. However, that doesn't release that content into the public domain to be used within educational programs. This is an example of why encouraging commercial companies to port their software to Linux is important. In addition, of course, people already comfortable and familiar with an educational package on some other operating system will be thrilled to find it under Linux and therefore more likely to try using Linux initially.
For example, Roman Kirsanow has been working with Topologika, a company in England that produces a large line of educational software which is already available on multiple platforms, including Acorn, MacIntosh and Windows. He hopes to see ports of some of their popular titles, such as "The Playground", in the near future. MetaCard is another company that has been approached. They have expressed an interest in making a version of their HyperCard-like program available to K12 schools at no cost.
Also supporting this effort, Doug Loss' Commercial Port Advocacy mini-HOWTO is available to help people advocate the support of Linux within a commercial company.
Roman mentioned that he felt one major difficulty in this area is demonstrating to companies that there is an interest in Linux educational software -- the "chicken and the egg" problem. It is hard to demonstrate an interest when the software is not yet available, too. In his experience, getting Linux onto the desktop in schools is not going to be easy. "Java technology seems one way forward," he mentioned.
Plans for the FutureSEUL/edu will continue its work over the next year in all areas, including encouraging commercial companies to port their educational software to Linux, providing tools to educators and developers interested in developing free software for educational use and developing documentation to assist with the use of Linux in education. One major emphasis will be on encouraging people to work at their local level to get Linux into their schools.
There are several projects world-wide that are working on the effort of just getting computers with Linux installed into the local schools, including Evan Leibovitch's Learnux project in Canada and the Computerbank Project, a similar project in Australia. This type of work, and other work to encourage people to work at the local level to get Linux into their schools will be a key area for SEUL/edu next year.
Doug gave an example, "I'm working on putting Linux on Mac Quadra 650s in a local parochial school. I find that parochial schools are generally more open to the suggestion of Linux because they tend to have lower budgets and less of a bureaucracy running them. Once you get some demo Linux systems or labs in some private schools, you have something to point to when you approach school boards in the public schools."
One concern that people in SEUL/edu is that you can put a linux box into a school, but it may end up in the cupboard if the people for whom it is intended don't get the tools, documentation and assistance they need to make that box useful to them. Hopefully SEUL/edu can serve as a resource in this area.
Another goal for SEUL/edu is how to get information from educators to the Linux community. "We'd like to do a web survey to find out more about how people are using linux in education at home and school and what they need", commented Roman.
They know, though, that there is a need for authoring tools to allow educators to develop their own content. "MetaCard is a good commercial candidate, especially if we redesign the user interface", commented Doug. They are also looking at Squeak, a free version of SmallTalk that some feel would be a good environment for developing content by non-programmers. "Their UI, Morphic, is supposed to be expandable from being appropriate for young children to powerful enough for experienced coders. We're looking into it and are contacting the Squeak people, but since that meeting is in the future I can't say just where this will all go", Doug added.
Doug Loss and Pete St. Onge will both be speaking at LinuxCanada 2000, so if you'd like to meet them, or any of the other "SEULies" that will be present, consider stopping by.
Areas Where Help is NeededOne of the problems with trying to address the topic of "Linux in Education" is the breadth of the issue. The needs of a child first entering school are not the same as a teenager or as an adult interested in college-level or continuing education topics. Then there are the needs of the educators themselves, including teachers, administrators, and more. However, one theme echoed back from the interview, that communication from the people with needs and the developers who might be able to respond to those needs is not yet happening.
One strength of the open source development process is that the developers are, themselves, actually users of the software and therefore more likely to develop software suited to the needs of a similar audience. There are some educators that are developers as well, as the SEUL/edu projects and other open source education projects demonstrate. However, there is a large, unmet need for which user/developers may not exist. Communication is missing; developers willing to help may find it difficult to know what needs to be done while defined needs continue to go unmet and existing projects run short on developer input.
"We need to get the developers and the educators together - so we can persuade the address book writer to help write a database for kids, for example," said Roman. "And the writers of spread sheets to develop gradebooks," Doug followed.
Roman also commented "I'd like to see people from the more technical projects such as Gnome, enlightenment etc. asking us what they think their projects could do to help education, especially with regards usability issues, theming etc for window managers ." It is not unlikely that the developers on these projects would say that they are happy to receive feedback from people in education ... but they are too busy to have to go dig up that feedback. They expect it to come to them. Bridging the gap between two very disparate communities to provide a method of communication is probably the most difficult task that SEUL/edu is trying to address.
An example of work to bridge that gap is Bill Ries-Knight's Linux Educational Needs Posting Pages. If you ever saw a request for help go by, but forgot to save it, or if you have hardware available and want to know where it might be appreciated, you can start here. In addition, the requests currently listed are not numerous, so the word also needs to get out to schools that a place exists where they can post their needs.
Most critically, though, Doug, Roman and all the SEUL/edu contributors would like to see SEUL/edu become a nice place for educators to come, talk, and discuss issues of interest to them above and beyond the tehcnical aspects of using Linux. SEUL/edu is ready and available to supply support for mailing lists to assist with this. In addition, SEUL, the parent organization to which SEUL/edu belongs, is also available to host or assist with the development of education or end-user- oriented projects/applications. Check their Hosting page for examples and information.
SEUL/edu summed upThe breadth of SEUL/edu comes primarily from their vision of their role to assist and support all aspects of Linux in Education, not to do it all but to find, encourage and assist everyone who is working in this area. "I don't think anyone's put it in this way before, but think of us as the Linux educational community's equivalent of Callahan's Bar (from the Spider Robinson stories)," said Doug.
SEUL/edu has promised to continue working with LWN.net to keep the needs of Linux in Education and the successful work done in this area more visible to the Linux community. Of course, there are other educational projects out there whose association with SEUL/edu may be loose or nonexistent, but are nonetheless extremely worthwhile. Example's include Jose Lacal's OpenClassroom toolkit, the Kids Games project and mailing list, Britain's National Grid for Learning (which uses Linux for email and www servers) and many, many more. We strongly encourage all of them in their work and hope they will choose to keep us informed as to their needs and progress, so that we can share that information with the larger community.
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