Ubuntu in Education

In September 2009 I began teaching in Mourne Independent Christian School, a small private Primary and Secondary school in Kilkeel. Along with my teaching responsibilities I also inherited the privilege (and it is actually a privilege) of setting the IT policy and managing the IT infrastructure. With the blessing of the principal and school committee I set about replacing the ageing computer room expanding the network to allow teachers to have IT resources in their classrooms. Through the Community Microsoft Authorised Refurbisher (MAR) programme, we were able to get  2-3 year old, ex-governement Dell desktops, very capable machines which met our requirements and then some. Although having never heard about it before this programme allows WEEE disposal contractors to refresh and resell old hardware.A few weeks ago we took delivery (actually I collected in the back of a Vauxhall Agila) of our new desktops and over the course of the past week, with the help of some very eager pupils, we stripped out the old and connected up the new.

Open source software has always been of great interest to me, both from a moral and from a geek point of view. I've always preferred Linux as an alternative Operating System to Windows and especially over the last few years it has grown into an incredibly useable everyday system. The maturity of the Ubuntu distribution would allow us to have a secure, reliable and fully loaded learning platform, for free, which would work the way we wanted. Without even a second thought the decision was made to switch from Windows to Ubuntu 9.10 (with Edubuntu packages installed) for desktops, using the default GNOME desktop for high school pupils and the OLPC Sugar interface for the primary school. Having tested it in Parallels, for a server we choose  Ebox, itself based on Ubuntu 8.04. Configuring it as a content filter, print, file and OpenLDAP server we have been able to set it, and the Ubuntu desktops, so that each pupil and staff member has a roaming profile with private and public networked Documents folders. Having installed several similar, larger Window Server based solutions, this was not only easier, more user friendly and free but after a long hard week it was a real feel good moment to see the new computer room booted up for the first time yesterday.

With ICT classes resuming after half term, pupils in the midst of CLAIT exams will be able use Microsoft Office under CX Office, but by September all pupils will have migrated to OpenOffice.org.

Teachers will have to learn the new system, but as some have already commented its very user friendly and intuitive. The biggest challenge will be fully utilise the huge range of educational software available in our lesson plans. I don't think it'll take long, the level of excitement and interest among staff and student alike is not something you'd see after rolling out another C2K network. Ubuntu is going to be a real asset to the school for the foreseeable future and as a friend alluded to earlier will help produce pupils with some real IT skills.

Andrew Gribben @grib