UES Sevilla

Education, Free Software 3 Comments »

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The Ubuntu Education Summit has been quite good so far. Today people from various projects and distributions were giving presentations and talks, and tomorrow we’re going to have a workshop discussing the problems that were presented and discuss possible solutions. I talked about tuXlabs and about some of the lessons we learned in South Africa.

David Trask

I also got a chance to play with the Intel Classmate PC. At the moment users have the choice of KDE 3.5.1 (not sure which distribution) or Windows XP, and apparently it supports the XO interface too. It’s probably not as innovative as the OLPC machine, but it certainly is a nice piece of hardware. I’ve love to have one.

Classmate PC

Also got some Ubuntu and Edubuntu CD’s, they look really nice!

[Ed,U]buntu CD
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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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Buh-bye 2006!

Education, Free Software, Jonathan 3 Comments »

Tomorrow is the last day of 2006. Wow, it’s been a wild ride, and the beginning of the year feels like a lifetime ago. It started out well, the project that I’m most involved with, tuXlab, reached a big milestone with the installation of the 200th lab. Since then, many replications has happened in South Africa. I don’t have an exact number, but I estimate there’s close to 300 schools in the country that currently follow the tuXlab model. The first 200 was set up with funding from the Shuttleworth Foundation, while the rest has been set up by other funders and projects, such as the Gift of the Givers Foundation, Netday.org.za, Ubuntu Education Fund, Engen, Ikamva Youth, and others. The first 200 labs was also set up by volunteers, and support and maintenance have been funded by the Shuttleworth Foundation.

Another exciting turn for tuXlabs, is that it was installed into two prisons (blog entry) as well. The prison tuXlabs have been used for adult education, and providing OpenICDL courses. Lab administrators in the prisons also wrote and passed LPI exams. The prisons project has been an amazing success, we have proved to the Department of Correctional Services that GNU/Linux works, and that it’s maintainable and affordable. Don’t be surprised to see a large number of lab roll-outs in our prisons next year :-)

In March, I also went to the most amazing concert I’ve ever been to, and saw Metallica, Collective Soul, the Rasmus, Simple Plan and a whole bunch of other bands we never see here in South Africa live. The great local guys were also there, such as Fokofpolisiekar and Seether (even though they’re not quite local anymore these days). I hope we have something like that here soon again.

Within the Foundation, our team was reaching all the targets set out two years before that, and with some of the changes in focus within the Foundation, some of us felt that the new projects wouldn’t specifically interest us. Not because they’re not good projects, but because we specifically wanted to continue working with the projects that we have put so much energy into already. We put together a proposal and business plan, and presented it to the Shuttleworth Foundation Trustees. They were happy with our ideas, and were happy to fund us to start a new organisation. This happened in June, and our first month was chaotic. Previously, we lived in the comfort of the Foundation and all the internal services that was running there. Outside, a lot of our old processes didn’t work, and we had to quickly re-work them. We also had to find new systems for our financial stuff, and quickly slam together a management system that worked. By August, things were already coming together nicely, and I’ll go as far to say that the last month or so, we’ve become a well oiled machine. Besides the prisons project, we’ve got a good amount of government work as well. What stands out most is the Digital Doorway project, for which we implemented the software solution (custom tuXlab system) and we’ll also be implementing the next 50 stations and upgrading the existing 25 from HP441 based Mandrake 9.2 systems to Ubuntu multiseat tuXlab machines.

This year, I also had the privilege to get to know a very large part of the Ubuntu community, which include many amazing (I’m so overusing that word, but it can’t be helped) individuals and have learned a lot from them. I also became a member of the Edubuntu Council, where we vote in new Ubuntu members that have made significant contributions toward Ubuntu. I also attended the Ubuntu Developers Summit in Paris, it was at a complicated time that I left for Paris, but it was also uplifting to see how such a large amount of people could work together so incredibly well. I took a lot with me from that summit, and applied much of it to the tuXlab Ubuntu derivative, which we’ve released to tuXlab schools earlier this month. A public version will also be available next month, also in various flavors. That has also been a huge milestone for me, and our new company. We’ve attracted some attention from huge multinational companies. Oh, and you can also expect to see local laptops (very popular brand) soon that will be available with Ubuntu (and no Windows)- I am also very excited about that… although I should really keep new news for my hello 2007 post ;)
We also did Software Freedom Day again this year. We did it in one of the most poorest areas of Cape Town, where I also learned a lot from. Locally free software has had quite a good year besides that too. Our local LUG, CLUG, had a fundraiser to raise money for our LUG to attend one of the big, very commercialised computer fairs (Futurex). It was one of the two Linux/Free Software stands there, and the stand generated huge interest from many people, although many people just couldn’t understand how software can be ‘free’. A local Python users group has also been founded, and the first meeting was very well attended. I hope that the group continues to do more fun stuff into 2007.

The biggest free software news in 2006 was of course that Sun GPL is being released under a GNU GPL license, which is definitely good news for many users and vendors of free software. The other big news is the Novell/Microsoft deal. Some view it as the best thing that has every happened, while some view it with lots of sceptacism. I have a theory that, no matter what happens in the free software world, that it will ultimately benefit free software. So far I haven’t seen proof to the contrary of that. The Free Software Foundation has also been busy, releasing Gnewsense, an Ubuntu derivative free of proprietary code, and also running an end of year fundraiser, that has already passed its half-way mark. The GNU GPL version 3 is also being reworked, and it’s been a big source of controversy in 2006. FSF has also launched a campaign against Windows Vista, and bought a game and released it under a free license (see comments).

Coming back to my personal life, I’ve made some tough decisions the last month. Two years ago my father and I moved into the same house, and we decided to go everything 50/50. I had some strong moral objections to some of the things he’s been doing lately, and decided to move out. It’s had some strange effects on me. Since moving out, and adding some more space between myself and both my parents, my anger levels have come down drastically. I also discovered that anger has been a big part of what drives me, and when my anger went away, it’s like I didn’t have any energy anymore. I think Yoda is so right about anger in so many ways. In only the last few days, I’ve found new, positive energies that gives me just as much energy. Just in time for 2007 :)

I’m quite excited for 2007, I have so much ideas and plans for it, and the future. I’ll blog about those just after the new year. In the meantime, I wish everyone who manages to read this far a happy new year, may 2007 treat you well and wishing you good health and happiness. Buh-bye, 2006!

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I’m bringing edgy back

Education, Free Software 10 Comments »

Wow, we did it. Today is the official release date of the tuXlab GNU/Linux distribution. It’s probably the first distribution that can be considered an Edubuntu derivative. It also benefits from other Ubuntu derivatives, Kubuntu and Xubuntu.

So why a tuXlab distribution? Well, as part of the tuXlab project we have always maintained a set of customisations on top of Ubuntu. Often, these customisations have been hacky and hastily put together to satisfy the needs of an end user. Now that tuXlab is managed by a commercial entity, it is possible for us to release whatever we code we have and get it out there, and get it improved. The tuXlab GNU/Linux distribution will contain as much functionality and ease of use that we can possible give our users. Our policy is to contribute back to upstream Edubuntu (and the other Ubuntu derivatives) as much as possible. This will be largely dependent on the quality and relevance of the new software we create, since any software that goes into Edubuntu needs to go into the main category.

So currently, what’s different from tuXlab to Edubuntu? Here’s a quick list of things I can think of right now…

1. LiveDVD chooser

When I told people that we will be installing using the Ubuntu live CD infrastructure, there was lots of grumbles because Ubiquity (the live CD installer) and a full desktop environment takes up quite a bit of memory. I immediately thought that we could put in some kind of simple GUI that would allow a user to skip the desktop interface, and run Ubiquity directly. This now makes it possible to install using the graphical installer on a system that has 128MB of RAM.

2. Xfce Desktop

The Gnome desktop proved to be very user friendly in our labs. In two schools that had an additional Windows lab, the kids preferred the Gnome desktop to the Windows one. Some teachers felt that Nautilus should be more like Windows Explorer, but otherwise Gnome is widely loved. The problem though, is that in many of our schools, the schools received further donations of equipment, and used it to expand their tuXlab network. In many cases, the load on the server was too heavy, and once an LTSP server starts to swap, you get into big trouble. We had to find ways of getting our memory usage down, and I’ve been using Xfce on my laptop with Debian before, but it has never really looked integrated and user friendly enough to implement in schools.

Then two important things happened. The coming of age of Xfce 4, and the Xubuntu project. Xubuntu started a community project to support Xfce in Ubuntu. I installed the xubuntu-desktop as soon as it was available and was very impressed with the results. The new Thunar file manager was just as simple to use as Nautilus, and I will even dare to say it works better. More importantly, memory and cpu time requirements fell drastically, and in the ~20 labs that we have tested it, there was a major improvement in speed, and users were happy. It was an easy decision to settle on the Xfce desktop for the tuXlab system. We were also largely influenced by Andy Rabagliati of wizzy.org.za, who have also used Xfce for a long time in his labs here in South Africa. We have also use custom menus, for which we will implement translation support in the next release.

3. tuXlab Home

The large majority of local content here in South Africa is web based, so tuXlab Home is a simple bash script that is run in postinst after new content is installed, where an icon of the installed software is added to the tuXlab Firefox home page. It’s very crude, and simple, but we have lots of plans for it. It already works great even in its current, simple form.

4. Xola

Xola is the tuXlab On-Line Assistant. It’s a python script that you interact with via a web interface. It’s a troubleshooting tool that asks a user questions about their problem and suggests possible fixes. It also features a diagnostics page, showing which services are running and which services aren’t, which means that our help desk doesn’t have to explain to our users how to type “ps aux | grep dhcp3-server” in a terminal anymore. It’s also still quite crude, but it’s helpful and we will continue to improve on it.

5. J-Zee

J-Zee is the universal wrapper. We found ourselves wanting to add all different kinds of wrappers to all kinds of scripts and programs, and decided that it was silly. Instead, it was decided that we get all the functionality of all our wrappers into one script. At the moment it does very little, it logs which programs are used by a user for statistical usage. It also kills some programs at startup. For example, in some of our schools teachers have reported that the younger kids open up multiple copies of Ktuberling, GCompris, Tuxpaint, etc, hogging up memory and eventually causing the whole network to be slow. J-Zee has a list of programs that you would ideally run only one copy of (like gcompris), so if you run gcompris, and then Ktuberling, your gcompris session will be killed. And if you are running Gcompris and open another copy, your old one will be killed. J-Zee will do and log much more in the future. We are interested in statistics of which software people of different ages, sex and culture are interested in.

6. 2Pack

2Pack couldn’t be included in our first release, since it’s not complete enough yet. We want to take a gdebi-like approach to installing new software in our labs (in this version we will in fact just use gdebi), and make it extremely easy for teachers to install new software. We also want to create an environment where 3rd party software vendors can easily port their software to 2Pack for installation in tuXlabs. We have already debianised software for 6 software vendors, but would like to make even more options available to our schools.

7. SOS Childrens Villages Wikipedia Distribution

We use the SOS Childrens Villages Wikipedia distribution in our labs. It comes in at just above 200MB, and contains many important and crucial articles with pictures. Previously, we used to include the entire Wikipedia snapshot in our labs (two years ago it was 12GB, and it has doubled every six months since then). The problem with the full Wikipedia was not so much with its size, but the content. We received some /really/ ugly faxes from schools where children have discovered pages such as Vagina, and pages linking from that (such as BDSM). Of course, there’s nothing wrong with these subjects, it’s just that Wikipedia can sometimes get quite graphic, which is totally inappropriate for young kids. Something that this
smaller distribution has fixed for us.

8. Localisation

We’ve included all the available local language packs. Ubuntu currently includes translations for 8 of the 11 South African languages (including Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu), not too bad at all. We’ve also customised the Ubiquity installer to ask less questions. The South African version only asks two questions, and that is how you’d like to partition your disk, and to confirm your action.

It doesn’t get much easier than that! :)

Besides the above listed features, it contains everything you’d expect from a modern educational distro, the KDE edutainment suite, Pysycache, Gcompris, Tux4kids, Firefox, Evolution, OpenOffice.org, and more.

We’ve released the internal version that will be sent to all our schools. It contains some proprietary bits that are sponsored to all tuXlab schools by various content providers. The content will be removed and a public version will be uploaded over the coming weekend.

This is really our ‘edgy’- release early release often version. We plan to do some real big innovating stuff for our Feisty release, some functionality is already half-way implemented. We will also have more that we can submit back upstream to Edubuntu, although I’m already quite excited by this release :-)

Screenshots are available on the tuxlab-os website (slightly outdated, will get an update soon), and there’s also a Tectonic story.

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Software Freedom Day 2006

Free Software No Comments »

3 Days after the fact, but when you have lots of work you constantly have to re-prioritise :)

The past weekend we celebrated Software Freedom Day in Cape Town. It took place at Khayelitsha, which is one of the poorest areas in the city. It happened at a community center there called “the lookout point”. It was really nice, since it gave us a huge view of the informal settlements below.

We received a lot of help from the Geek Freedom League, who sponsored the venue, refreshments, and some cool geek gear and lots of copies of The Open CD.

Attendees initially mostly included members from local Linux communities and people who don’t live in or close to Khayelitsha. We were initially disappointed because we expected more people from the local community to attend. It was probably due to the weather that has gone bad, we expected most of the locals to walk to the venue, and bad weather would most certainly discourage that. We were lucky though. Right next door, Nedbank, a large South African bank was holding a big meeting. They were happy to announce the SFD event and many people came over to see what software freedom is all about, everything worked out fine.

We still had many copies of the OpenCD and Ubuntu left, so some of the guys went outside and left a disc with each car in the parking lot. The one security gaurd was very eager to help out. He took some CD’s to take home to some of his friends (unfortunately he doesn’t have a computer himself). I told him to keep one CD, then he’ll have it when he has a computer one day, but he said that he thinks it’s highly unlikely that he’ll ever own a computer.

We also had a very energised kid running in and yelling some loud things in Xhosa. We gave him an Ubuntu CD which we thought would calm him down, but he got even more excited.

This was a much simpler SFD than the last two we had in Cape Town. Previously we had events at Canal Walk, a fancy shopping center in Century City. It was easier there since most people there would have computers, and many of them even had laptops that they could bring to us to install software on. Khayelitsha was more high-risk, but I think it was worth-while, we certainly learned from it. The issue more from the local community is access to computers, they don’t really care too much whether the software is free or not, any computer access would do. There were many questions whether the computers we had there would be there permanently, and where they could get cheap Internet access.

Photos: http://photos.jonathancarter.co.za/sfd2006

Software Freedom Day in other places in South Africa:

Potchefstroom: http://www.flickr.com/photos/opencafe/sets/72157594287671392/

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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´┐Ż Andreas Lloyd wrote.

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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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