Kusasa Analytical Education

Education, Free Software, Gadgets 1 Comment »

Previously, I mentioned the Shuttleworth Foundation’s Classroom Coders project. It seems that it may soon be a reality under the Kusasa Analytical Education project. Kusasa is real innovation, it fundamentally changes some of the few 100 years old teaching methods we still use in classrooms.

Kusasa screenshot

It makes use of Mathland, Squeak and Python to achieve this. From the Kusasa site:

The idea is not that learners gain tools they use for the rest of their lives. That’s not realistic. We don’t use any specific theorems or other mathematics constructs from school today. Learners should use tools at school which help them develop a general ability to learn new tools. This general ability is the skill of analysis. It is the ability to break a complex problem into pieces, identify familiar patterns in the pieces, solve them using existing tools, and synthesize the results into a view or answer. We want to ensure that learners graduate with this ability, making them effective, successful, productive and fulfilled members of society.

Kusasa is a Zulu word that means “tomorrow”. Take a peak at the Kusasa website for more information. I think it could potentially be a good educational program to run with OLPC/Classmate type PC’s, and even more importantly, have a major influence on the way the future generations learn.

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OLPC and Windows (and Microsoft and the education system)

Education, Free Software, Gadgets 11 Comments »

Warning: This post ended up longer than planned, if you are bored easily, only read the first two paragraphs ;)

I’m a bit surprised that there haven’t been noise about this on the planets, but it’s probably due to the long weekend and people generally spending less time with their computers.

Via Slashdot, the OLPC XO Laptop will (be able to run) run Windows when it is sold in the US. The writer of the article considers it to be a heavy blow to the open source world, I think that “heavy blow” might be an overstatement.

I can understand why a lot of people, especially in education, would want to run Windows on the machine. The vast majority of educational software out there is written for Windows, and often in such a way that they can’t be ported to a free operating system in an easy way, or at a low enough cost to make it worth while. The problem is very much similar to running games on GNU/Linux. In some cases, the design of the game makes it incredibly easy to port over. In some cases, especially where very specific technologies such as DirectX are used, it can quickly become very complicated.

In South Africa, we’ve seen some shifts, even though slight shifts, to make educational software more web based. In the tuXlab project, the number 1 request from the schools are for more educational content. The Shuttleworth Foundation and Inkululeko Technologies have sourced some real good educational suites for these schools, and it got the attention of some of the other software vendors who didn’t get a slice of the pie. The shift that we observed was that more of the local educational software companies were using more and more web-based software tools, and also making more use of Flash (hopefully that will shift again to svg/javascript or even something better), specifically so that schools running free software could run their software. Now and again, we had a school asking us whether they may install Windows on their machines, so that they could run the same educational software in their tuXlab than in their Windows lab, and we would just explain to them that it would kind of defeat the purpose of their tuXlab, and since the lab run as an LTSP network, that it would be difficult to do it from a technical perspective too. As time progressed, and the availability of pre-packaged software grew for the lab, teachers started to prefer using GNU/Linux. A few schools even said no when they were free Microsoft labs to replace their tuXlabs. In my opinion, that is very big, considering that the one particular school ran their tuXlab on second hand computers, and that they were offered brand new Windows machines as replacements.

Sorry, back to the XO. I think that the interface truly innovative, and the system has the potential to provide a high quality and stable environment to develop and deliver software and content. If you look at DirectX again, for example, the latest version requires you to run Windows Vista, and some of the technologies, which is widely used in educational software (such as DirectDraw), is being deprecated. For schools that use Microsoft labs and use Windows based software, this causes a huge admin overhead, which is an overhead that most schools can’t afford to have. For the developers of the software, it causes even more problems. Firstly, they have to spend money to port their software to the new Microsoft technologies. Secondly, they have to get their clients to upgrade to a new version of Windows before they can get a return on updating their software.

If you consider a GNU/Linux system though, the application interfaces are quite stable, and even when new technologies are introduced, you are still able to access the older technologies to support your application. I think that, over time, software development houses will discover the benefits of using cross-platform technologies to develop their software, and gradually move away from technologies that limit them and their clients.

One specific educational revolution that might take place would be an ideal application for the XO Laptop, and that’s the Classroom Coders project (that’s just a working name), here’s Mark Shuttleworth’s blog entry about a two day workshop on it that was held last year. Hopefully we can teach kids to think for themselves again, instead of teaching them how to shut up and listen. All that the current schooling system is good for, it seems, is to teach kids how to look busy when they are working in an office one day, and I personally think that it is ridiculous. People are discouraged to think for themselves and just to blend in with the masses, I hope that if I have kids one day, that they wouldn’t have to go through a pathetic system as I did.

Apologies again for the long rant…

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Free Software No Comments »

Tectonic is running a story on tuXlabs and its evolution to Inkululeko.

All the bits and pieces are coming together quite nicely, we still have a way to go, but I think we’ve had a real good start. July was especially difficult, since I had quite a bunch of tasks to do in the new company, and at the same time I spent a solid three weeks working on a project for a new client.

Just to clear up on a previous blog post, leaving the Foundation doesn’t imply leaving the Ubuntu project. My efforts on the Ubuntu/Edubuntu side has always been a community effort, and completely seperate from TSF, and it will continue, even though I’ve been very quiet the last month or so.

Having said that, I’ve been chasing bigger stuff in Ubuntu, and need to delegate some tasks and responsibilities. First, there’s the Edubuntu website. We have someone at Canonical’s side that will take care of upgrading Drupal (the CMS that Edubuntu uses), etc, but we need people to help us manage and add content. We will also need some moderators and people that will generally keep an eye on the Edubuntu forums, which will be set up soon.

If you are interested in contributing to Edubuntu, or Ubuntu in general, take a look at this great document that� Andreas Lloyd wrote.

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So long, and thanks for all the fish!

Education, Free Software 4 Comments »

Friday I handed in my resignation letter at the Shuttleworth Foundation. So did 8 other people who work with me. Sounds hectic? Well, it’s all on good terms, and there’s big excitement about it.

What’s happening? Well, some of the open source projects at the Foundation has approached the end of its funding cycle, and we’ve had some ideas of bussiness models to make some of these projects work commercially. The Foundation offered us startup capital, so that we can start a company and sustain the projects, which we accepted. During the last few months, we’ve been putting big parts of this company together, and during the last weeks, we’ve glued the biggest parts of it together. The new company will be called “Inkululeku Technologies”, and yes, we occasionally get our tongues twisted when saying it too :)

Inkululeku means freedom, and we will aim to provide the best free software solutions available to our clients. Initially, our focus will be narrow and specific. We will target schools and educational institutions, as part of the tuXlab project.

People have asked, what’s happening to the existing 200+ schools? Well, they won’t be dropped, we will continue to provide them with software updates, and the help desk will still be available, as it were before. We will also continue to monitor monthly meetings, open days and other community events, and implement a new incentives scheme to stimulate the communities in the current 200+ tuXlab schools.

We have some exciting jobs coming up, and we’re a very young team, and collectively we have lots of knowledge, although there’s lots of things we haven’t figured out yet in the past short months. Some erm… ‘older’ people (for lack of better term) have expressed concerns around governance. It’s something that we admittingly don’t have as much insight into as many of the old gaurd bussiness men, but we’re getting lots of external input and advice from lawyers, financial advisors and other consultants. We feel confident that we’ll push through, I guess this is our chance to proove ourselves. Financially, we require relatively little money to keep the company going, we’ve agreed to keeping our salaries low, and to make money first before moving into fancy offices, buying new cars, etc. We’ve subletting some office space from a local ISP. They are also big open source guys in Cape Town, and there might be some future collaboration between us too. We’re moving in on Monday, and another thing that is quite cool is that we’ll have a 10mbit Internet connection there, something that is almost unheard of in South Africa.

Working for a non-profit was weird and interesting and educational. I think everyone should try it at least once, and if possible, when you’re young before the big corporates have put your brains on a track. We’ve had visitors who have, for example, had big difficulty understanding that our Return on Investment was a non-financial factor :)

My day to day work will also change quite a bit. Instead of doing a little of everything, I will focus on our product development, of which a large portion will be software development, something that I’ve been wanting to focus on a long time. This gives me a chance to get more involved with some of the upstream projects that we have benefited from, such as Ubuntu, LTSP, Tux4kids, etc.

I get a feeling that the next few years will be very interesting. Watch this space :)

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New Kid on the Block

Free Software 1 Comment »

I used to be a huge fan of Slackware and SuSE Linux. I loved Slackware for being so heavily oversimplified. And I enjoyed SuSE for all it’s bloat and YaST and all the things that came with it. I used to use SuSE on all my bigger machines, and Slackware on the older, slower machines.

When I started working at TSF, I thought that it might be a good idea to start using Debian. I’ve installed Debian before, but hated it. All the software was outdated, and it still shipped with Gnome 1.6 and used GTK 1 applications (yuck). I asked Thomas Black, open source program manager at the time, to show me what he thinks is cool about Debian. He showed me how to dist-upgrade to unstable, and it was awesome. Every single day, there were new packages available, and I had the latest and greatest software all the time. I very quickly started moving all my machines to Debian, and learned to love it very quickly.

Thomas then told me that Mark is looking going to support updates to the unstable Debian branch. Putting it like that sounded a little strange, but then he handed me a CD that he downloaded from http://no-name-yet.com. He said that it was made by “the warty warthogs”. For the most part, it looked like a standard Debian install, although there were less questions and somehow it felt more pleasant. I remember how we laughed when we saw the first naked people mockups on GDM. And how nice it was to have a Debian setup that just works more the way you’d want it to.

Since that first release, many things have changed. In Warty, the main section was only a bit more than 500MB large. Now, if my calculations and assumptions is correct, it’s about 3.5GB. Universe has also grown, and now Ubuntu gives you one of the finest collection of packages you’d find in any operating system.

What’s more is, the installation options have grown. Every release after Warty, a new baby distro was born. The first baby was Kubuntu, and has grown up very quickly. So much in fact that other commercial distributions, such as Impi Linux has based their distribution on it. Then came Edubuntu, an Ubuntu setup that saves lab administrators time by automating much of the setup, by including as many educational software on the CD that will fit on it, as well as automatically setting up the LTSP environment. Edubuntu has also come a long way since its first release. LTSP now uses much, much less RAM on the thin clients, and it boots up very quickly. Congratulations to ogra, your hard work had really made a difference to many :)

With the 6.06 LTS release, however, we see a new Ubuntu kid on the block. This time it’s Xubuntu. Xubuntu fills that gap a bit nicer for what I used to use Slackware for. It ships with the Xfce desktop environment, which is clean, simple and fast. It’s also less CPU and memory intensive, and is great for use on terminal servers. Jani Monoses has been incredible, and have done some great last minute work to get LTSP into Xubuntu. You can now choose “Install LTSP server in Xubuntu, just like you would with Edubuntu. Happy birthday Xubuntu! Welcome to the tribe!

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Prison ^C

Free Software 2 Comments »

Yesterday I attented the launch of the first tuXlab installed in a prison. This tuXlab has been installed in the womens section at Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town. The second prison tuXlab is due for installation shortly in Malmesbury Prison, which is a medium security prison. The problem with many criminals are that they are in for petty crime, and they have a poor education, when they get back into the ‘real world’, they are jobless again and end up in prison again quickly. As a measure to fix this, the Department of Correctional Services are putting renewed focus on rehabilitation and skills development. The tuXlab set up is primarily designed for kids, although it works great for the inmates, many of them who haven’t ever seen a computer before, and some of them who can’t even read or write.

The minister of the DCS, Ngconde Balfour also attended, along with the deputy minister and commisioner of correctional services, and we had a brief breakfast as part of the launch. Zelda Holtzman, CEO of the Shuttleworth Foundation, also talked and stressed the importance of rehabilitation and public social partnerships.

There’s a strong possibility that another 30 prison labs will be rolled-out in the next 12 months or so, meaining that many people with lots of time will be able to learn more about Linux and open source software, and by the time they have finished their sentence, they may be skilled enough to make a living on their own.
Inmates will receive training at least 4 days a week, alternating between OpenICDL training and LPI training. Initially, 20 people from each prison will be eligable for writing the certification exams, although training will be open for nearly everyone who is interested.

The mood at the prison yesterday was very serious, yet optimistic, a combination that I don’t see very often, but a combination I definately enjoy seeing. There’s a great sense of support from the government, and co-operation from the prisons, even the inmates. I think it’s great that people who really have absolutely nothing, can get another chance to make something of themselves, and also that they get to do this using Ubuntu, although, there’s been some controversy over this before on the CLUG lists. Some people still have the old-fasioned notion that prisoners are in prison just for punishment, and that rehabilitation programs are just an incentive for people to get into prison. The good thing about that thread was that it made people think a bit about prison reform. TBC…

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Free Software, Project Mayhem 1 Comment »

Volunteerism has been a hot topic the last few years, especially if you work for a non-profit company as I do. I’ve always believed in the concept of volunteerism, and the past few years of working in the tuXlabs project have re-affirmed what a change volunteerism can make. I’ve seen change in many people who have been involved, from troubled kids at school who got a chance to prove that they can be good at something in the computer labs, to people who have learned new skills that have helped them getting better jobs. Even I, myself, have grown since I started volunteering for the Schools Linux Users’ Group in 2003. I still volunteer to this day, although my focus is on other projects, and if I’d have more time, I’d volunteer on more ‘fun stuff’ as well, like cleaning penguins at SANCCOB :)

However, this post isn’t about the warm and fuzzy feelings that come from giving to a project or working with other people to achieve something bigger than yourself, it’s about a darker side of volunteerism. Now, while I’ve always felt that no one should ever be excluded from wide-scale volunteer projects, such as tuXlabs, or a large open-source software project, I also feel that it’s up to individuals to consider whether they are capable of committing themselves to the project to the extent they really want to. It happens often, in many projects, that people commit themselves further than they are really capable of. For instance, someone might have a personal crises, perhaps their girlfriend just got pregnant, or their parents got divorced, or the person is having financial difficulties. Either way, if you’re having big, big problems, it’s better to take some time to work on your own problems for just a bit, before committing all your time to a project. Even though it’s a bit cliché, if you want to fix the world, the best thing you can do is start by fixing yourself. I’ve had to do this myself, and I’m still busy working towards this. For me, it’s been a bit of a sliding scale, I’ve volunteered a bit, worked on some of my problems a bit, and the more stable and predictable my personal life becomes, the easier it becomes for me to work on bigger, more exciting things.

Sadly, though, I’ve also seen people who haven’t done this. They’ve jumped in, giving everything they have, to the detriment of their own lives. I suppose that, in some ways, volunteering and helping solving someone elses problem may be a source of escapism for some people, but when it hurts you and those around you, you should really consider whether it’s worth while. Recently I’ve seen an individual who have put in a huge amount of effort into a project, loose pretty much everything that they have, and has now turned a bit bitter toward the project, and has posted some not-so-nice posts that in my humble opinion, borders very closely on extortion. In this case, both this person, and the project would be better off if this person took a break from the project, and took some time to find a job, spend some time with the family, and got some general stability in their personal life, before committing real hard to the project.

Now, while there’s many benefits in volunteering, even when you’re down and out, such as networking, gaining exeprience, etc. There are certain things you should be aware of when volunteering for a project:

* Don’t spend your own money on the project, unless you are specifically making some kind of donation or sponsorship. More specifically, don’t spend money on the project if you can’t even pay your own bills.
* Don’t commit yourself beyond your means. It never works out. Sooner or later, things start catching up with you. There’s only 24 hours in a day, and you have to sleep (and eat and shower) too.
* Don’t expect that volunteering in itself will land you a job. Even if you’re volunteering for a big organisation/company that’s constantly recruiting many people. READ POINT 1 AND 2 AGAIN!
* Don’t neglect your family and friends. It’s not worth it. It will ultimately lead to some bad emotional stuff that will have an impact on both yourself and in turn the project that you work on. If you really care about the work you’re doing, take care of the people close to you.
* Don’t bad-mouth the organisation(s) you’re working with when things go sour. Every industry is getting bigger and bigger, but the world is getting smaller and smaller. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing. If you make one enemy, you’re making many enimies. Don’t burn bridges.

Now, I’ve just typed this out without much planning, and I could probably have put more thought into it, but I feel that I need to get this accross, having seen 1 or 2 people go through this hasn’t been fun, and I had to post this before I got too busy and forgot about it. Having read through some of the things I’ve said here, I realise that I myself have to listen to what I’m saying here. I hope that you too, will put yourself first, and be able to make a good, lasting contribution to society.

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