Back in September, LWN ran an
article about the FUSS project
, which converted the entire computing
infrastructure for the Italian-speaking schools of Bolzano, Italy to Linux. When that
article was written, the FUSS staff had completed a major push to install
its own Debian-based distribution on over 2600 systems, but the true test -
the beginning of the school year - was still in the future. Now that the
new system has supported a few months of teaching, it seems like a good
time to go back and see how things went. Is Linux truly up to the task of
running a school system?
The FUSS organizers helpfully connected us with several teachers in the
affected schools. These people, in turn, graciously took time
out of their busy schedules to answer a long list of questions - and they
didn't even complain about your editor's difficult Italian. The answers
paint a picture of a not-entirely-smooth transition, but, in the end, the
system appears to be coming together. More importantly, the new system,
based on free software, would appear to have the strong support of the
people who must make use of it to get their jobs done.
School teachers everywhere tend to be busy people who are dedicated to
their work. So your editor did not expect to hear them praise the way free
software may have saved money for their central IT department or to talk
about the ethical aspects of free software. It seemed more likely that
these teachers would grumble about extra work, having to learn an
unfamiliar system, and the glitches which are inevitable with a transition
of this size. This expectation turned out to be only half correct.
There were indeed some complaints. Printing was at the top of
everybody's list; "cups" is indeed a four-letter word in Bolzano at the
moment. One teacher described its administration tools as "delirious."
Other peripheral devices - scanners, for example - were also problematic.
It's not just that there were problems, but that these problems often
required the intervention of the central FUSS staff (who received credit
for much hard work) to resolve. Many of the teachers do not see a
Linux-based network as something they can administer themselves. As one
middle school teacher expressed it:
The FUSS group has done a truly excellent job, they have been well
prepared and quick to come to the school to resolve problems, but
this is insufficient in the long term. The schools need somebody
who works just to keep the system running. If this work gets
dumped onto a teacher (who may lack, as in my case, a technical
background) the system will never work correctly.
(All quotes translated from Italian by your editor).
By most accounts, the key software - OpenOffice in particular - is working
well for both students and teachers. The big exception is documents with
macros; those macros must be rewritten to work on the new system.
When asked what they would most like to see improved, most teachers talked
about printers and related issues. There were also requests for better
ease of use in general, and an interface closer to Windows in particular.
A couple of teachers noted the relative scarcity of documentation in
Italian, and one complained that Linux was bloated and slow.
In the end, though, the transition appears to have been successful, and
most of the
teachers seem happy enough. Not one said that the schools should
go back to the previous, proprietary systems. And these teachers - some of
them at least - are beginning to see the advantages of free software.
Here's a few quotes from various teachers:
Naturally some things still need to be fixed, but we maintain that
the change is important at both technical and cultural levels. The
benefits are not just the savings, but the fact that it opens a way
of access to technology which is more honest and aware.
The biggest advantage is the fact that it is free (libero)
software. This has drawn a fair amount of interest from the
parents of our students. I teach in a middle school and our kids
are between 11 and 14 years old. They still don't really
understand what free software means, but their parents do.
I maintain that it's natural and obvious that the schools, as an
institution, should use free software. The sharing of knowledge,
the freedom of access to information, etc. should be at the base of
any instructional process. It seems to me that the philosophy of
free software rests on the same principles.
The fact that you're not tied to licensing problems lets you move
with a certain confidence; you're forever inspired to look for
something which works better, which is closer to your needs. It's
a great and beautiful thing.
Of course, not everybody is quite so pleased. As one instructor put it:
For a teacher there is no advantage [to Linux]; just problems using
documents produced with other software and only partially
recognized by free software (example: Excel and Word macros, which
I use heavily in my teaching work, must be reconstructed).
How do the students feel about it? As we know, children tend to be more
flexible, and, as a rule, they have smaller investments in old Word
macros. So they seem to have taken the change in stride. Some amusement
can be found in this
article (in Italian); one school opened up a forum where 9-year-olds
could post their impressions of the new systems. Here's a few:
Linux is cool it has programs which Windows doesn't have like
educational games...and it's also FREE (GRATIS
The names are changed and with Linux I have done well and there
have been some differences. And with Linux the CD's are free
(gratuiti). When is my CD arriving?
There's more things than we had last year. With Linux the programs
are free (liberi).
Changing the names of the programs gave me some trouble at the
beginning but now I'm starting to get used to it. The programs are
much better; there were good things in Paint but more good things
in tuxpaint! With regard to payments the fact that you don't have
to pay is beautiful. And being able to download it at home for
free is even more beautiful!
I think Linux is better than Ms Window because Linux is free
(gratuito) and it turns us into a community.
The theme should be clear by now.
As can be seen from these comments, the students are not yet, in
general, ready to think about where free software comes from and why it
exists. Don't expect any patches from the students in Bolzano in the near
One of the goals of the Linux transition was to give each student a CD with
the software; that way, they could use the same tools at home and at the
school. At this point, however, it seems that, while some students are
using free software at home, most of them have not made that change. Part
of the problem here is that the promised live CD distribution has not yet
been made available. This CD is evidently ready to go, it's just waiting
for the obligatory launch press conference with the education minister.
Once this CD goes out (which could happen within a week), there may be more
students using Linux at home.
Another obvious question which comes up is: will other school systems
follow the FUSS project's example? Bolzano has two parallel school
systems: the Italian-speaking schools (which moved to Linux) and the
German-speaking schools (which did not). If any group of schools were
likely to be inspired by FUSS, one might expect it to be the
German-language schools of Bolzano. Views on whether that might happen
soon were varied, but a number of teachers noted that there is some free
software use in those schools now, and that the German-language schools
were certainly watching to see how things go. Most teachers seem to expect
that change to happen sooner or later.
Finally, your editor asked the teachers if there were anything they would
like to communicate to the free software development community as a whole.
The answers ranged from the short and simple ("Documentation, people,
documentation!") to the lengthy, but most shared the same theme. Thanks
for the work that you do, please continue and make it even better and
easier to use. Oh,
and, if you could, make the printers work please?
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