The little Linux school house

June 24, 2009 1:52 PM EDT
As I pointed out recently, open-source software in schools isn't just a good idea, it's becoming a financial necessity if we're to keep enough teachers for our kids in classrooms. So, it's particular good timing that Sugar Labs and openSUSE have released free Linux distributions expressly designed for education.

Sugar Labs, for those of you who don't know them, is a software non-profit spin off from the OLPC (One Laptop per Child). Sugar Labs provides the Sugar desktop interface, which runs in turn, on top of a version of Fedora 10.

On June 24th, at LinuxTag in Berlin, Germany, Sugar Labs announced the immediate availability of Sugar on a Stick v1 Strawberry. As the name indicates, Sugar on a Stick is a live USB flash drive distribution. It requires at least a GB-sized drive. With it, you can boot Sugar on any PC. It was designed to work on older PCs, netbooks, and other low-end hardware. You can also run Sugar with the provided virtual machine software on both Intel-based Macs Windows PCs.

According to Sugar, this distribution "is designed to work with a School Server that can provide content distribution, homework collection, backup services, Moodle [a popular course management system] integration, and filtered access to the Internet."

In a statement, Sugar Lab's executive director, Walter Bender said, "One year after its founding, Sugar Labs is delivering on its education promise for its second million learners. Sugar is preferred because it is a superior learning experience for young children: engaging while being affordable. Sugar on a Stick is a great way to try Sugar without touching your computer's hard disk."

The organization also states that "Sugar on a Stick includes 40 Activities to interest young learners such as Read, Write, Paint, and Etoys. Hundreds more Activities are available free for download at the Sugar Activity Library. Most 'Sugarized' Activities have student collaboration built-in; students and teachers work, play, and learn on the same Activities together.'

While this release of Sugar is meant for young learners, openSUSE's release of openSUSE-Edu Li-f-e(Linux for Education) live/installable server DVD. can be used from kindergarten to high-school graduation.

This is a Live DVD, that's based on openSUSE 11.1. As set-up, this is designed to be used as a server, not as a desktop. It comes pre-configured as a KIWI-LTSP server.

LTSP (Linux Terminal Server Project) lets a single server run multiple thin-client Linux desktops. The KIWI part is operating system imaging software that makes it very easy to get remote desktops up and running with minimal work from either the server administrator or desktop user. Another plus for this approach is that you can network boot your PCs with PXE (Preboot Execution Environment) without installing or modifying anything on them.

It also includes, of course, a large variety of educational programs for both students and educators. With a good collection of development tools and office suite software, you might also consider using this distribution as the foundation for a small developer or business office. With its thin-client design, almost any school or office has the hardware needed to use it productively.

The two distributions are very different. Sugar is really meant for young children and their parents' desktops, while Li-f-e is more for a school's IT department. Either way, though, both can help save individual and school system money, while providing an excellent, reliable, and secure computer educational experience.