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How to start a project: Education

July 13th, 2011 by

Edu Li-f-e DVDThe Education project provides parents, students and teachers as well as IT admins running labs at educational institutes with education and development resources for their needs. Jigish Gohil, lead developer of the Li-f-e (Linux for Education) distribution and Lars Vogdt, founding father of the project, tell us in this interview how they started their project to share their knowledge and experience with people that want to start something own as part of openSUSE.

Question: Tell us a few things about openSUSE Edu Li-f-e?

Jigish: openSUSE Edu is Linux for Education, provides a complete education and development resources for parents, students, teachers as well as IT admins running labs at educational institutes.

Lars:Well, Li-f-e stands for „Linux-for-Education“ and that is what the Project is about.
Teachers and students can run and test Linux – and all the beautiful Educational Applications shipped with the ISO – without installing anything to their local hard drive.

Everything runs directly from the Media. Teachers can also save the environment by burning only one DVD: all other things are in their Computer LAB already: some (old) PCs for their students and a network. Via the pre-configured LTSP (Linux Terminal Server Project) system on the Media, it is really easy to boot a dozens of Clients from one central PC – and again: everything runs without touching any hard-drive.

We hope to get some answers from our primary target group (schools) about the installed applications, can answer their questions, help with further setups and give the feedback back to the upstream developers of those applications.

The Li-f-e Media helps us and our „customers“ to get fast results: our customers can test the Media easily without any fear and give us feedback. We can use the feedback to fix bugs and implement new features – and the Open Build Service helps us to integrate and release new Medias shortly after.

Question: How did the idea for creating openSUSE Edu Li-f-e came up?

Jigish: It had nothing to do with the bath. Lot of things falling into place lead to the creation of Li-f-e. Lars Vogdt the lead developer of openSUSE Education and everyone else on the openSUSE Edu team were working on creating a exhaustive repository for Education, online on openSUSE Open Build Service instance as well as an addon media containing those software. Then KIWI came along that enabled us to create live medias, so once we have so many useful applications and tools available to create live distribution it is only the natural next step in evolution.

Lars: We started with the openSUSE Education Add-on Medias for openSUSE 10.2 years ago (wow! Is it really such a long time? Yes!). We got a lot of positive feedback from a lot of people (see http://old-en.opensuse.org/Education/Press for some Press announcements) – but also got the feedback that users just want to test our applications to see if they fit in their curriculum.

As the folks from the openSUSE Build Service started to integrate KIWI for easier Product Building, we were the first project that used the new technology directly in the Build Service. Special thanks to Jigish Gohil who was driving this.

Question: What do you think about similar projects such as EDUBUNTU? What does openSUSE Edu Li-f-e have to offer that will make users choose it over the other Education distributions?

Jigish: Many more educational Linux distributions are out there, they are all put together by hard working communities, many of them have software selection overlapping the ones we have. It would be nice if the users explored each of them thoroughly and used the ones that fit their requirements best.

What make Li-f-e stand out are the unique features that other distributions do not have, like:<
* Single hybrid ISO to make a live DVD or USB stick
* LTSP server to network boot your entire lab from a single server is integrated and easily enabled by anyone who can follow the instructions on the wiki page
* YaST, easy to use GUI system administration tool
* Stable versions of the major desktop environments like KDE and GNOME are included
* Multimedia works out of the box
* many more…

Lars:We are not in a competition with other Education centric distributions. Far from it: we already work together and try to increase this collaboration wherever possible. Some examples:
we started http://www.linux-for-education.org together with people from Edubuntu;
we attended a student working on a GUI for LTSP which is now available also for other distributions;
Heinz-M. Graesing from X2Go gave an introduction during the last openSUSE Conference – and even if he is more Debian centric, he assigned us to have more up to date X2Go packages.;
same happened for Sugar (and David Van Assche now also helps us with the li-f-e.org webpages);
Seminarix allowed us to us some of their training Videos;
the Open School Server team integrated our Add-on;
HP used some of our packages on their pre-installed desktop machines;
we are in good contact with upstream developers from GCompris, Tuxpaint, Tuxmath and Tuxtype (the three last three ones came from Debian and help us packaging their applications in the Build Service)

…So what makes openSUSE Education different? Maybe the idea of collaboration and working across borders is something that makes us different?

Question: Are you in any way related to education?

Jigish: I went to school, does that count? Professionally, I run Linux solutions and training business, mostly corporations, I sometimes also teach at the University here.

Lars: I studied to become a teacher – but this is years ago. Currently my wife is a teacher – and my daughter will go to school in a few years.

Question: Are you taking feedback from users about openSUSE Edu Li-f-e? And what is the quality of the feedback, I mean does that feedback actually help you (the developers) to evolve the distribution?

Jigish: Yup, we value all feedback (See Communicate on Portal:Education). People who care to give feedback are mostly well informed, that benefits the project a lot.

Lars: We have different „channels“ where users can gilve us feedback. And from time to time we receive feedback that equates to the used channels.
People in IRC (#opensuse-edu on freenode) or in the forum (on forums.opensuse.org) mostly want a fast solution for their current problems. People writing us via our Mailinglist (opensuse-edu@opensuse.org) are often interested in collaboration or promoting. People using bugzilla (bugzilla.novell.com) have a deeper technical knowledge and most of the time already a patch for their problem at hand.
We are also present at fairs like the big educational fair „Didacta“ in Germany,“Lange Nacht der Wissenschaften“, Linuxtag in Berlin or go to schools in our region (like Yogyakartha in Indonesia or Universidad de Panamá in Panama). The schools are the most interesting ones to get direct feedback, as there’s no one who is more direct than a child.
The quality of the feedback is very good and helps us to improve the packages, add/remove packages from the Li-f-e Media – and also helps us to get more contributors. The different boot-splash themes and wallpapers are coming from a student who likes to help us. Others helped us to write documentation or increase the translation quality of the applications they use. It’s often just a small step from requesting feedback to getting contributions. People want to help – they just need someone who „is there“ and can lower the technical level or solve their initial problems.

Question: Do you see a world that schools will use a Linux distribution as an educational tool?

Jigish: In many parts of the world it is already happening, I live in one of those, Gujarat, India over 5000 schools are all running Linux, other states in India like Kerala, Tamil Nadu etc are also into Linux big time. Indonesia, Russia, China etc seems to be going Linux as well.

Lars: I already know some schools that use Linux for education daily. I personally also know at least 2 schools that migrated their LABs and also some of their teachers workstations to Linux.
But most of the schools I know are using their computers as an additional resource to fulfill their curriculum. So the computers are not standing on their own: their applications need to fit into the environment.
My answer for schools asking me if they should switch to Linux is always a counter question: what is your plan for computer usage in your school? – Instead of aligning their applications to their needs – teachers often align their courses to the available software, which is wrong in my eyes. If I want to learn something new, I’m not trying to learn it with tools that are far away or not helpful for my educational objective.
My hope is seeing a world that schools define their goals together with their teachers and students and afterwards evaluate their needs in an objective way. I saw schools using kino, gimp, blender and OpenOffice in their marketing courses. Other schools use Eclipse or Netbeans for their programming courses. For endorsers it should not matter which OS they use – but they should know that learning the position of an icon can not be the goal for a trained computer user.

Question: Why Linux for Education instead of a proprietary software solution, apart from the cost of it?

Jigish: Ease of use, availability, administration. No more tracking licenses, hunting for virus, reinstalling, frequent rebooting. Everything required comes bundled on single OS disk, anything else that is required can be installed easily via 1-click, there is an option of running proprietary OS virtualized on Linux for things that are not available natively.

Lars: Because you can look behind the scenes and adapt the software to your needs, if you like, instead of adapting your mind to the software.
I know „Windows Gurus“ that are Gurus because they know the „right“ installation order of their software stack – if they use another order, Windows becomes unusable. They could not tell me the reason for this order, they just know (after thousands of test-installations) that it works this way. I know Windows Administrators that know where to click to start their DHCP server – not knowing what a DHCP server is. I can continue this list of „technical idiots“, if needed, but I think you know already what I mean.
I know „Linux Gurus“ that can tell me the problem inside my network just by analyzing 100k tcpdumps. They could tell me the header details and payloads of every package inside that dump. They invite me to watch them analyzing FCOE traffic problems with an Intel ixgbe driver.
I know that it’s not fair to say there are no real Windows Gurus with the technical background of the Linux Gurus – but I’ve much more respect for real Linux Gurus.

Question: How did you recognise the needs of such a distribution? What were the criteria for the included software?

Jigish: There is no OS including software specially created for Education that can boot from DVD or USB stick and can quickly turn into LTSP system to boot up a classroom. Software is carefully selected based on various age groups and grades, for example we have gcompris for very young students, math applications for primary to secondary level students, LAMP stack and other development tools for University students studying IT. There are applications like Moodle for teachers and Student Management Systems for administrators of educational institutions. So the popular applications that users demand are usually picked, of course maintainers for the packages on openSUSE Build Service are required first.

Lars: This answer is simple: discussions at schools, feedback from our customers.

Question: What is the purpose of openSUSE Edu Li-f-e and in what percentage that this purpose has been accomplished?

Jigish: The purpose is to provide a complete Educational OS for students, teachers, parents and administrators of school labs, with everything they require for work or fun. Going by the wide array of applications included, I’d say Li-f-e pretty much accomplished what it is meant to do.

Lars: I do not think that we’ve a general purpose of openSUSE Edu Li-f-e, so I just can tell you my own purpose: I’m learning by creating packages, ISOs and other stuff for openSUSE Edu Li-f-e and I like it if others find my contributions useful. I also hope to interest people in Linux and Education in general. I like people who are not happy until they know the deep details behind something like an OS or computer.

Question: Do you interact with other projects generally or is openSUSE Edu Li-f-e the only one? Who are those projects and what are they related to?

Jigish: Some of them, yes. KIWI-LTSP project is LTSP built with KIWI imaging system. I also worked with Compiz for some time, openSUSE Education as a team interacts and actively works with many other projects such as Gnome, KDE, Build Service etc.

Lars: Most of the projects I interact with are influencing my daily work here at SUSE. As my team is responsible for providing some of the infrastructure behind openSUSE, I like to say that I’m in contact with many other projects – and I really like to have more time in my life to get more insights in those projects.

Question: How do you see the future openSUSE Edu Li-f-e?

Jigish: Students should get the best available tools for Education, hopefully openSUSE Edu Li-f-e will fulfill the need for software and IT infrastructure of the next generation schools. Currently very few schools are using Linux, once all of them do, Li-f-e should at least be on a modest number of them.

Lars: Green? :-)

Question: How do you promote openSUSE Edu Li-f-e? Do you think you get the promotion you need?

Jigish: Social media, blogs etc. Some team members give out DVDs at events, nothing on a grand scale. No amount of promotion is enough, we have a great distribution, unfortunately the target users are unaware that something like this can even be available, that too for free.

Lars: Depends: promotion is always double edged. If you promote your project aggressively, you get much feedback that you need to deal with. If you do not promote your project, you get no feedback and end up in not respecting your customers.
If you get promoted by others, they might promote you wrong – on the other hand, they take the work away from you and show (you) their view of the project.
In the first 4 years, I did not like promotion – as there were too many rough edges that need to be fixed first. But starting with 10.2, our work promotes the project. It became a fast-selling item: people start using it and showed it to other people. And as we worked on the project since years, we were (and are) a good team knowing how to help. This also brings positive feedback and promotion.
I like to „promote“ our work with our work – and let others do the „marketing stuff“. I also like meetings with real results and action items – and no meetings where people attend just to talk.

Question: Is there anything else that you would like to add? Close this interview the way you like.

Jigish: Get involved in the project in whatever way you can, maintain packages, test, triage bugs, help new users on IRC/forums, write/improve documentation on wiki, spread the word.

Lars: I like to thank all the wonderful people I had the pleasure to meet during all the years. In the end, the „Linux for Education“ folks are just a small group – comparing to that fact, the outcome of this group is very awesome. I hope to see more people in the future who take the reins and start helping childs to grow. It’s really easy – if you find the right way to start…