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I'm volunteering with a local school (roughly equivalent to an American 6th-8th grade) in order to setup a learning environment based on GNU/Linux - Open Source SW.

The aim is to create a system with a central "server" (teacher PC) and 10-20 "clients" (students PC). From the server it must be possible to:

  • control what's going on the students PC (desktop visualization/control and so on)

  • install applications on the students PC (possibly from a GUI)

  • manage the students user profiles, in order no not tie a student to a particular machine

Some other info:

  • the PC that will be used are a little old (2/3 years at best)

  • the interconnect is on 100 Mb Ethernet

  • the school has roughly 600-800 students, in classes made of about 20 students each

  • one class at time is expected to use the system

I'm not expert on this kind of setups, I read something on Edubuntu, which seems to have something similar to what is needed, but never tried it (at this moment I don't have access to the PCs).

Thanks for your help

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I would separate the server, and the teacher computer. –  Brad Gilbert Jun 17 '09 at 21:26

8 Answers 8

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Computers in an education enviroment can be challenging (I, know, I currently work in one, and teach in another). After finding the technology you want to use (Edubuntu looks good to me.) make sure that training becomes top priority.

Many Educators don't want to make time to learn a new system. Create excitement about the new system, work on your public speaking skills, and make them believe that this system is much better than the last.

Here's a few videos for Edubuntu common tasks. I would recommend making more of these to ease the transition to a Linux based system.

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You'll want to go with a Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP) based Linux distro. Something like Skolelinux would probably work well.

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LTSP and rolling your own distro or Ubuntu are probably your two best bets.

You should really ask people who've used them. Contact some users in the respective communities that have rolled this out in their schools and get their tips/opinion/gotchas.

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A 24oz. of the "good stuff" :)

Seriously though, WOW! That's about 30-40 classes all trying to schedule/use one lab. Knowing more than my fair share of teachers, your average class is only going to get 1 opportunity every couple of weeks to use it (assuming 45-60 minute classes). It's hard enough with 16 classes and two labs. So you really need more PCs and lab spaces.

Secondly, you are probably going to require someone (sounds like it will be you) to come in and do the regular maintenance tasks (e.g., installing applications, managing student profiles, backups, system updates). I wouldn't expect any of the teaching staff to know how to do this, do it right, or have time to do it. Maybe if they can afford to run a school with classes of only 20 students per class (vs. the 25-30 I normally see), they can afford to hire someone full time.

Thirdly, is there software available to do what the teachers want to do on the computers, for Linux? I'm pro-Linux, but I'm also pragmatic. I bet that most won't understand why they can't load their copy of Sims 3 onto the Teacher PC so their kids can have some fun (while they catch up on marking). You'll just be the bad guy that says they can't put it on.

Forth, you are going to have to train all the staff how to use Linux, often in very small words (no offense teachers reading this). There is a high proportion that are computer-phobic to begin with, and use them only because they HAVE TO, to keep their job. There's also the majority that will think in Windows only.

Unless this a court ordered "volunteer position", I would consider running as fast as you can away from it.

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The lab will be used to familiarize students a bit with word processing, simple spreadsheets and so on (OpenOffice is waaaay sufficient). There is no plan to use specific applications for now. Windows is not an option for a number of reason: cost, need of antivirus, possibility to run games (yes, running Windows apps is seen as a bad thing :-) ). –  Myrrdyn Jun 17 '09 at 18:12
    
Yes, I can see the OS can be a bonus. One more thing... what about a printer or two? We still don't have a real paperless office culture. And teachers LOVE paper. –  CodeSlave Jun 17 '09 at 18:35

This Serverfault posting discusses a problem that is not dissimilar to yours. Take a look at the 'dataless' model where /home is mounted via NFS. You can also do something similar with an /apps directory if you want, but package management is pretty good in Linux systems, so anything that can be installed via .deb or .rpm files (depending on which distro you select) can be pushed out to multiple desktops quite easily.

NIS is the simplest central identity management system available for Unix/Linux and is well worth considering for its simplicity if its security is adequate. NIS security is probably fine for a LAN behind a firewall, but you should read up on it and decide for yourself.

LDAP/Kerberos based systems are more secure but much, much more complicated to set up and maintain. A competent sysadmin can pick up NIS in a couple of hours and have a working setup in half a day - from scratch with no prior experience with NIS. OpenLDAP + Cyrus SASL + Kerberos has way, way more moving parts.

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Take a look into https://fedorahosted.org/k12linux/.

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We use an Edubuntu-based LTSP thin client system in our junior school's IT room. You'll need to buy a half-decent server and a dedicated switch, but otherwise this is a very cheap way of running a teaching room.

The 18 client machines are actually older PCs with the harddrives removed that boot from the network via PXE. You can load a small PXE environment from floppy or CD if your network cards don't directly support PXE.

Server installation was a case of installing a second network card in the server machine (a reasonably hefty Dell server) and booting the install CD, everything was automatic (note that you now install LTSP by selecting "LTSP Mode" as an install option by pressing F4 on the boot screen of the Ubuntu Alternate CD - see the Edubuntu documentation for details).

Client machines can be controlled by the teacher with iTALC. You install software once, on the server, and that's it.

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You guys might be interested in this podcast about doing linux install fests for older refurbed machines and then donating them to local schools. http://itc.conversationsnetwork.org/shows/detail3738.html#

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