BY AARON FOWLES

This article also appears on LEARN NC.

If you’re a teacher, you’re probably familiar with the life cycle of a computer in a typical classroom. The first two weeks are magnificent. The computer works wonderfully and performs all its tasks very quickly. Shortly after the honeymoon, though, things go sour. Internet Explorer won’t load a website. The computer begins crashing frequently. A student managed to get a virus on the computer. The icons on the desktop are all messed up. The computer then spends a few years in this semi-usable state: It won’t run the newest applications or even load a YouTube video. Eventually, it won’t turn on at all. The computer ends up either unplugged in the back of the room or sitting in a closet.

It doesn’t have to be that way. There is a way to invigorate those old computers and turn them back into machines that power teaching and learning. This method is totally free, relatively painless, community-supported, very stable, constantly updated, and secure. What could this magic solution be? The Linux operating system.

Some people spin into high gear when the subject of Linux arises. Will I be able to run my programs? What about my Word files? Does the district allow it? Can I access all the websites that I need to? The short answer is “yes.” The longer answer — this article — will answer those questions in greater detail.

It might be hard, at first, for a teacher to choose to make the switch to Linux. The district is, after all, paying licensing fees for software on the computers. When I switched over in my classroom, I used only computers that were in the “dead computer” room in my school. Most of these computers had no hardware problems; Windows had just gotten too bloated to operate. Once I fixed up enough computers for my room, the rest of the school caught on to what I was doing. Several teachers then asked me to replace computers in their rooms. All in all, I replaced 21 computers school-wide. (Unfortunately, at that point my program was halted due to a district-mandated liquidation of excess computer hardware.)

Operating system basics

If you’re not 100% sure what an operating system does, pretend that you take the hard drive out of your computer, pass it through a series of high-powered electromagnetic fields, which will scramble every bit of data contained on the drive, and then plug it back into your computer and boot up. What would happen? A whole lot of nothing. The little bit of software that lives on your motherboard, the part that tells the motherboard to check the hard drive for an operating system, would tell you that there is no system disk available and ask you to kindly insert one.

The operating system (OS for short) is the most fundamental piece of software on your computer. The OS dictates how the information on your hard drive is manipulated and presented to you on your screen. The OS is also responsible for basic computer functions such as power management, browsing external media, drive maintenance, and program interaction.

Windows, Mac… Linux?

Let’s pause for a moment and quickly discuss the two most common operating systems on the market, Windows OS and Mac OS.

Windows is made and distributed by Microsoft. Windows 1.0 was released in 1985 and several versions have come out since then. At the beginning, Windows was a simple program manager, and thus was not a full-fledged OS. The underlying system, called DOS, was a command-line system that required the user to type all of the commands to make the computer work. This changed in 1995 with Windows 95, when DOS began to be replaced with a native Windows system. Windows became synonymous with PC — a designation that’s a little misleading. PC stands for personal computer, and doesn’t necessarily mean that the computer runs Windows.

Mac OS is a different story. Mac OS never had a command line and was designed from the ground up to be graphical. The greatest of benefit of Mac OS has been the fact that the same company made the hardware and the software, allowing for a large degree of specialization. While there was a period when other companies were able to clone Macintosh computers (thus allowing someone to run Mac OS on a computer not produced by Apple), this is no longer the case. Mac OS is viewed by many to be user-friendly, fun, and easy to use. It is also remarkably stable due to the close-knit nature of the hardware and software.

What’s Linux, then? Linux is an alternative OS originally created in 1991 by the Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds. One of Linux’s foundational principles is openness, which means that the source code is open and available for anyone to edit (though all changes are rigorously vetted before being released to the general public). The earliest versions of Linux were used mainly by computer enthusiasts and hobbyists, but Linux has since grown into a viable public product.

Linux basics

So, long story short, Linux is another operating system. It is not, however, just another operating system. For one thing, there is no single place to get it. Since Linux is free and open, there are several different distributions (also called flavors) available. You can visit DistroWatch to get a picture of how many are available. There are hobbyists around the world who take the Linux kernel, which is what Linus Torvalds actually created and still maintains, and build applications that run on top of it. So as to not overwhelm, this article will stick with what is considered to be the easiest flavor of Linux. That flavor of Linux is called Ubuntu.

I won’t delve into the history of Ubuntu. (If you’re curious, you can read about it on the Ubuntu website.) I will, however, take a moment to mention that Ubuntu is the most popular Linux distribution and one that strives to reach each and every user by including a wide variety of accessibility tools and language packs.

Getting started

Let’s jump right in with how to install it onto your computer. Relax: You can “test drive” it on your computer before you make any permanent changes by using what’s called a live CD. A live CD is a CD-ROM that runs a complete operating system on your computer, bypassing the computer’s existing OS. You can burn the live CD to disk by downloading a file from the internet, and then put it in your computer’s CD drive before restarting the computer. The motherboard will then load the OS from the CD-ROM instead of your hard drive, without ever launching your ordinary OS. Things will run a bit more slowly than they would from a hard drive, but it’s a fun way to try out Linux.

So, to take Ubuntu for a test drive, start by going to the Ubuntu Download page. It’s designed to be user-friendly: If you are using a new (or even new-ish) computer and want to give it a shot, then just press the big orange button.

After you’ve downloaded the file (which will be an ISO file), look on the download page for the option to burn it to a CD. Note that you can not just burn it like a normal file. An ISO file is a CD image file and needs to be burned in a special manner using special software like ISO Recorder. This is one of the most technical parts of the entire installation process, so don’t worry if you feel a bit intimidated by this step. From here, it only gets easier. If you need more assistance burning the file to disk, you can see the Ubuntu help page.

At this point, it would be a very good idea to back up your important files. Booting from a live CD isn’t dangerous, but if you decide to switch to Linux, you’ll have to start from scratch on your hard drive, meaning that all of the files and programs on there will be lost. These days it’s easy to find inexpensive external drives, so pick one up and save everything you want to keep.

Once you have downloaded the ISO and burned it to a CD-ROM, put the CD into the drive and restart your computer. Your computer ought to recognize that the CD has an operating system on it and boot from the CD. If that doesn’t happen, then you’ll have to change your computer’s boot order. (You can find instructions for doing that on this About.com page.)

Once you’ve gotten this far, it’s just a matter of following the on-screen directions to test drive Ubuntu on your computer. And if you have gotten this far, congratulations! Enjoy exploring a great, free, and easy-to-use operating system.

Weighing the pros and cons

Now that we’ve gone over what Linux is and how to get it, let’s address the question of why. Why would a teacher (or a school) (or a district) want to switch to Linux?

Benefits of Linux

First, Linux is a great way to breathe life into old computers, which somehow seem to be in abundance in today’s schools. Two versions of Ubuntu — Xubuntu and Lubuntu — are specially designed to work on older computers without sacrificing functionality. When districts buy computers, they typically don’t figure for maintenance, so the computers quickly become disconfigured, overfull, slow, and generally not useful. Linux combats this tendency in its design. The underlying operating system is pretty well streamlined, and the program that regulates the desktop can be stripped down to increase efficiency.

More important than Linux’s usability, though, is its security. Due to the way that Linux functions, the individual user does not, by default, have permission to change the important parts of the computer without typing the root password. Thus, while an ordinary Windows user can access and edit the registry, that sort of interaction is impossible in Linux without the user knowing about it. Also, the majority of people who write computer viruses target Windows users specifically, and not Linux machines. Thus, while anti-virus software certainly is available for Linux, it doesn’t need to run constantly (as is often done on a Windows machine).

There is some great free software available for Linux. While Microsoft Office is not available, a fully compatible program called Open Office is a drop-in replacement. Files created in Microsoft Office can be opened in Open Office and vice versa. The interface is pretty similar, making the transition painless.

The Firefox and Chrome browsers also run on Linux (although Internet Explorer does not). Typically, there is nothing that you can do on a Windows/Mac that you can not do on Linux with free, open-source software. Check Open Source Alternative for a pretty complete list of open-source equivalents of commercial software. To get you started, though, here are some great programs for Linux:

Keyboarding applications

  • Tuxtype
  • Gnu Typist
  • Internet applications

  • Chrome web browser
  • Mozilla Firefox web browser
  • Empathy — messaging application
  • Creativity

  • Tuxpaint — an intuitive drawing tool for children
  • Gimp — an advanced photo editor
  • Avidemux — a video editing tool
  • Audacity — an audio editing tool
  • Education

  • Childsplay — a suite of educational games for children
  • Celestia — a space simulation
  • GCompris — another suite of educational games
  • One of the most compelling features of Linux is its stability. As a result, most of the web servers and supercomputers in the world run Linux. No more blue screen!

    Oh, and did I mention that all of this is free?

    Challenges

    If Linux really is all that, then why doesn’t everybody use it?

    Linux is somewhat more of a technical experience than is Windows. Ubuntu has a command line that, from time to time, needs to be visited in order to solve certain problems. It’s not impossible to manage, though, and the help available online details the steps that need to be taken in a very clear fashion that tells you exactly what you need to do. It’s an exercise in problem-solving, to be sure, but it’s a refreshing feeling to come out of a problem knowing that you’ve learned something along the way.

    Linux is also just different from what most computer users are used to, and making the change can be daunting for some people. Linux has a different file structure and different menus, both of which take time to master. Fortunately, ample help is available from the Ubuntu help page. And even though the file system is different, it’s not difficult — in fact, it’s fairly intuitive. All of the user-generated files like documents, songs, downloads, and personal preferences are in /home while all of the user-installed programs are in /usr.

    For many people, the biggest pain with Linux is trying to connect peripheral devices, like printers, webcams, scanners, or generally anything that gets plugged into the back of your computer (flash drives aside — those work fine). This is because the makers of these devices don’t often design drivers for Linux as they do for Windows and Mac. Ubuntu has caught up, though, and most devices that are released on the market are soon supported, although sometimes getting a device to work requires a trip to the command line.

    Linux in schools

    Aside from its value as an operating system, Linux is a great choice for schools. The simple act of using an unfamiliar operating system requires students to think about what they are doing and to solve problems on the spot. Students want to use computers and will figure out how, learning what they need to in the process. In addition, switching over to Linux can be a welcome change of pace for students who are tired of doing the same things over and over on the computer.

    Learning Linux involves learning about basic computer concepts, so getting students involved in the installation process can provide them with real-world skills that can serve them very well in their futures. Just about every kid can say that they’re good at Microsoft Office, but how many kids can say they work their way around GNOME, KDE, LXDE, XFCE, or Sugar — all desktop environments for Linux.

    It’s not easy to bring Linux into your school. It takes some reading, some studying, some experimentation, and some hard work. But the benefits of adopting Linux are vast. Take some time to download the Live CD and give Ubuntu a test drive. Don’t be surprised if you’re soon ready to tap into the power of those (seemingly) dead computers.

    Ubuntu Download page

    Related stuff

    Ditch expensive software with Open Source Alternative

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