Research and Development

Ubuntu in Education in Finland

Belinda Lopez asked about Ubuntu adoption in schools and what one would expect from Canonical in this sector:

As I'm working for Opinsys, a solution provider in Finland, that builds systems for schools using Ubuntu, I first thought that this was an easy task - just write down a bunch of things and fire it away. But when I read the other responses around the world, I realised how little I know about Ubuntu usage in schools outside Finland. As that probably holds true for others about Finland, here's some background information in form of links: Every country has its own history and traditions, so many of the little things we do to get things working here are probably not needed elsewhere. Still many of the general computing trends apply also to Finland. Here are some things that come in to my mind in random order:
  • Finnish is a tiny language and there's a lot of local content and legacy applications that are needed. Content in English language doesn't really help here.
  • There are a lot of video formats and flash content and at least one big content provider still uses Macromedia Shockwave for some of it.
  • Many teachers expect content to match the national curriculum.
  • The trend for new stuff is towards online content and web applications
  • Internet connection speeds in most areas are not a problem. ADSL is available everywhere and more and more schools have fiber connections. There are usually no backup connections, though, so the systems must work for a few days or a week without internet connection.
  • Web applications like Moodle are deployed in a lot of places. Some are hosting it themselves, some are buying it as a service.
  • As a sparsely populated country we have long distances. As there are a lot of little schools that don't have resources to offer a lot of options, distance learning is used. This way also the pupils in remote areas have the same options as in the bigger city schools. Unfortunately there are not too many good tools for this. E.g. Adobe ConnectPro is being used in some places, but OpenMeetings is gaining interest.
  • In addition to web applications, interactive whiteboards (e.g. Smartboards) are being deployed in a lot of schools and many schools have them installed in every classroom.
  • Schools have a lot of old computers for which LTSP is a perfect choice
  • Laptops are getting more and more common, both personal and shared ones: /blog/2009/10/27/en-laptops-in-schools/
  • Even if wikis, blogs, Google Apps and other online tools are getting more common, file based documents and printing are still used a lot - easy file sharing and file transfer to/from home are needed
  • If computers are not reliable and consistent, they are not being used at all
  • Students' own mobile devices (= smart phones, etc) are being used in schools. Their utilization as tools to e-learning systems grows. There will be a need to get access to the same information as from computers
  • Teachers show high resolution videos to students. This should always work.
  • Teaching methods encourage co-operation between schools. Ad hoc information sharing is needed as well as formal interface between the systems. Security issues and privacy laws are most often neglegted but they should be seriously considered at design phase. Teachers want to "just make it work" and do not pay attention to legal issues.
  • Computer labs are gradually being dismantled. Instead computers are placed in classrooms, hallways, etc. They are often used as a quick tool to communicate or gather information.
What do these mean for people building their systems with Ubuntu? Here are some critical issues that are not always working out-of-the-box:
  • Interactive whiteboards need drivers and features that match Windows/Mac versions
  • Every laptop model needs to be tested in person before one can say how well they work - no online resource tells enough information about the models available in warehouses. Backporting drivers is needed quite often to get the newest models working with older Ubuntu versions.
  • Web applications require central user database and authentication services (LDAP/kerberos/CAS/etc.)
  • Firefox+plugins need to support all newest web applications in addition to the oldest sites there are
  • Printing needs to work every time, everywhere
  • Transferring/sharing files within and outside of the school's environment needs easy to use solutions
  • Cloud based applications are not suitable for everything (e.g. differing privacy laws make it difficult to use some cloud based services outside EU)
  • A lot of applications are in universe repository and getting fixes and updates for them means usually backporting and patching
  • Applications and the whole system needs to be updated and there needs to be good support system in place for end-users in their own language. Training is necessary to get people confident with a new system and also when there are changes or new features. Massive number of devices is not enough if no-one wants to use them.
Getting everything working right takes some work and it is certainly doable, but as a perfectionist I believe that everything can be made always better and easier.

How are things elsewhere?

Veli-Matti Lintu