Enterprise OS: How hard can it be?

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Linux fights Creationism in UK schools

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It hurts to say this, but in the early 2000s you knew where you were when it came to school PCs. We all used Windows 2000 Pro.

It worked OK and countless children and their teachers based their understanding of ICT on it. It was also at this time that Exam boards and accredited agencies created numerous schemes of work and certificates to prove how ICT as taught in schools was in tune with the real world.

Schools like their computers to be predictable. Many teachers, administrators and students who obtained their ICT 'competence' certificates between 2001 and 2006 felt secure in their 'learn-once, use-forever' skills acquired on what appeared to be a 'final' version of the PC.

Sysadmins for their part loved Win 2000 and proudly bearing their MSCE certs were slowly rolling out the XP upgrade (after all XP is not too different to Win 2000).

But in 2007 XP was ruthlessly deprecated by Bill and Steve in favour of Windows Vista. Or so it seemed.

The trouble was no one in charge of schools actually wanted Vista or could use it on their hardware. At much the same time super cheap Linux sub-notebooks aimed squarely at the education sector exploded onto the scene. These devices are already springing up in the very middle of the mainstream and can be found not only in PC World but also at Toys 'R Us. You can even get one from Tesco's through their link with RM plc!

The Tower of Babel

I do love Linux, it's so..., well..., so not-boring. The laptop I am writing on is using Fedora 9 and KDE 4, my big laptop is using Ubuntu's Hardy Heron with all the 3D twirly bits on a Gnome desktop, my Asus EeePC sometimes uses Xandros' Easy interface and sometimes good old Puppy Linux (soooo fast) and I'm not sure what my Elonex One is running. I nearly forgot, my Mac-book, it's running an OS named after a large cat.

To cap it all, this month's Linux mag shows yet another small laptop, this one from Gdium is booting Mandriva Linux from a USB-stick and so doesn't even have an OS installed, embedded or otherwise: I need one of these sticks.

You will soon get where this is headed. I love this rapid spurt in PC evolution, but to a school or any big institution such diversification looks like the Tower of Babel; they'll not be happy.

Creationist vs. Evolutionists

I would posit, with some 30 years experience as a school teacher, that schools are by and large 'ICT Creationists' by disposition. 'ICT Evolutionism' with its fits and starts and sheer pointlessness is unlikely to have any real appeal.

A Creationist-deity approach to ICT: on the day (late in the week) God-Bill created Windows 2000/XP he saw that it was good and would no doubt have rested there with his finished work. Unfortunately, because of not really being God and therefore not omniscient, he forgot that he had already created the upgrade cycle on the very first day and so after a day of rest, reluctantly and against his better judgment made to start over again. I think this twist on the creation story would have had interesting consequences if applied to humanity but we should digress no further.

Evolutionary-Atheist ICT: Note how the changes in ICT happen - sometimes rapid, sometimes slow; sometimes you think you can see a purpose and a direction then it veers away or even goes extinct; suddenly new species pop out of unpromising beginnings; sometimes even mighty, unchallengeable dinosaurs die quite suddenly. No doubt Darwin would recognise this pattern well.

If you were an ICT user in a school for the stable period mentioned at the start of this article you could not tell (during the dominance of Win 2000/XP) whether the stable status quo existed in a regime of creation or evolution, to all intent they would appear the same.

Well now we all know which it is. The 'Creator' has retired and the dinosaur is dying. All sorts of odd creatures are evolving pretty fast. Real world computing in education is becoming highly diverse after a period of relative stability, not least as my own eclectic collection of OSes illustrates.

Such a situation though will not do in education. The emphasis in this sector is on delivering standard products measured against fixed criteria. It comes as no surprise then that the usual response from pedagogia when faced with the messy diversity of the real world is to develop a parallel but more controlled world.

For example 'school science' is a separate entity to any other science, ditto 'school foreign languages', 'school history' and so on. Following the logic above, obviously what is required now is the creation of 'School ICT'.

'School ICT' will be like real world ICT but will change in a controlled way and as such always slightly out of date and unsettlingly irrelevant. This may seem a touch insulting to the teaching profession, it's not meant to be because education and training have always had a tense relationship, but my response has to be 'you should get out more' if you don't recognise this situation.

What then will characterise 'school ICT'? Some of the must-have features include:

  • Being quick on all computers (including those 50 laptops you bought in 2004 that no-one wants to use now)
  • Easy to customise creating standard applications and interfaces for particular teaching groups
  • Securely access school web based resources
  • Very very cheap, ideally free and could be given away to students
  • Work on nearly all computers old and new
  • It must not be installed on school computers, thereby eliminating maintenance (this is key, read on)

What is being described above though is a lightweight operating system and applications, running from a LIVE DISTRO.

Live distros evolved/were created to allow users to try a new Linux OS running from a CDROM without installing it on the hard drive. Recent developments have shown that they can be so much more.

Puppy Linux, for example, uses very light applications (e.g. AbiWord and Gnumeric in place of Open Office) and runs incredibly fast just like computers used to do. Puppy can also be run from USB-Memory stick or a cheap Flash card. Mandriva, that ever so slightly quriky French Linux distributor, is so fired up by the possibilities of non-installed OS's that they distribute Mandriva Linux on a bootable USB drive and have partnered with hardware gurus GDium in developing another so called 'netbook'.

Conclusion

Non-installed lightweight Linux operating systems will allow educational institutions to side-step the evolutionary mayhem and create stability and consistency with their own 'School-ICT' OS and applications. They will be able to use their legacy laptops and new sub notebooks side by side in class.

There will also, I predict, be a race to create this putative product. Which major vendor will define school computing? Will we see a Capita-RedHat OS? or say RM-Suse OS operating on a range of hardware from Dell to HP? Maybe it'll be Mandriva-GDium....whatever, thanks to the electrifying pace of Open Source development we had better just hang on to our hats and enjoy the ride.


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