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Why as an educator you should care about Open Source Software

I’ve been invited to be part of a Becta project into Open Source Software (OSS). “What is OSS?” I hear you ask. A Google define: open source software search does a reasonable job, but for the layperson something a bit closer to home is needed.In a strange way, using OSS is a bit like buying Fairtrade products. Most people don’t see the direct results of their choice: they’re a water droplet in a beneficial deluge.

I’m sure you’re aware that creating software programs and web applications involves ‘programming’; programmers enter code in one of many programming languages. When this ‘source code’ is ready to be released, it is ‘compiled’ ready for Joe Public to be able to install it on their computers. Joe Public, however, can never read what was in the source code. Usually, that’s hidden and protected by copyright.

OSS, however, makes the source code readily available. This means that anyone with the requisite knowledge can make changes to the software. Note that even though OSS is usually free, nothing about the philosophy behind it says that the software can’t be sold for profit, just that the source code should be made available (under something called the GPL).

Strong communities often develop around popular OSS. You may have heard of an operating system called Linux. There are different ‘distributions’ (or versions) of this – perhaps the most popular being Ubuntu. The PCs in my classroom run Edubuntu, a derivative. You’d be amazed at what a community can put together and make available free of charge!

I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a situation where a program or web application you’ve relied upon has stopped being developed, but I certainly have. It’s frustrating and there’s nothing you can do about it. With OSS, however, good projects never die due to the community being able to access the code. Someone else can come along and continue developed the software.

Many people reading this post will be educators. Not only does ‘free’ usually sound good to schools, but the philosophy enshrined in OSS should appeal to. Students can contribute to these communities and projects, and real-world learning experiences can be had. Show them the alternative to capitalism. :-p

There’s a wealth of OSS for pretty much every need. Check out the following repositories:

If you want to know more about OSS and the Open Source movement in general, the Free Software Foundation is a great place to start! 😀

Do YOU use Open Source Software?

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I’ve sold my Asus Eee 4G. What now?

I’m a bit of a sucker for gadgets. I keep telling myself that I should hold out for the second generation of things, but I just get carried away again and again. That’s not to say that I don’t buy quality stuff; quite the opposite in fact. Yesterday I sold my Asus Eee 4G to @moodlehotpotato (Mary Cooch) after a brief Twitter chat, Skype chat and Paypal payment. It wasn’t because it didn’t serve a need – it was because there was so much potential there I wanted something that could fulfil that need to the max! 😀

There’s many sites and blogs that have waxed lyrical about the Asus Eee 4G. From a teacher’s point of view, this is what I liked about mine:

  • The size and weight mean I can carry it one-handed from one classroom to another. As I teach History in my classroom and ICT in various other classrooms, this is great.
  • Internet connectivity is great: wi-fi is painless to set up
  • I could take it to meetings instead of a pen and paper.
  • My use of it makes staff and students alike want one. It makes the school purchasing a set more likely.
  • It runs a version of Linux customised for that particular device. Anyone who’s used OSX on an Apple computer knows the difference this makes… 🙂

So if it’s so great, why have I sold it? Well, three reasons:

  1. The screen, whilst useable, is a bit small. Newer models have 8.9″ screens instead of 7″ which enables them to utilise a 1024 pixel-width resolution. This makes all the difference when web browsing. Who designs sites for 800×600 in this day and age? (my web stats show that less than 2% of visitors to this site, for example)
  2. It hasn’t got Bluetooth built in – I purchased a micro-USB dongle, but it was a hassle to setup. I want things to be straightforward. Newer models have Bluetooth built-in.
  3. Battery life, whilst acceptable at a shade under 2 hours in normal use, could be better. Newer models, based on Intel’s Atom processor, promise to drastically improve on that.

So what am I going to buy? Well, a post about 4P Computing over at OLPC News (Price, Performance, Portability and Price) showed that only three met the criteria for a true Netbook:

4PC Name Power Perform Portability Price
Asus Eee PC No Yes Yes Yes
Classmate/2Go PC No Yes No Yes
Elonex One Yes Yes Yes Yes
Everex Cloudbook Yes Yes No Yes
HP Mini-Note PC No Yes No No
Norhtec Gecko Yes Yes Yes Yes
OLPC XO-1 Yes Yes Yes Yes

Of those, the Elonex One only actually has a 300mhz (must have been a mistake), the OLPC XO-1 is garish and not easy to come by in the UK, and the Norhtec Gecko only has a 7″ screen. It was obvious that I was going to have to cast my net wider, which is where the Low-Cost Laptop Cheat Sheet over at Laptop Magazine proved helpful. I’ve taken off the column about US availability as well as removed any that aren’t available in the UK (at least not according to Google Product Search). Finally, I took off any that had 7″ screens, changed the price to GBP, added the Asus Eee 900 and HP Mini-Note, and reproduced what’s left of the table below:

Laptop Name Price Operating System Processor Storage Display Size Webcam
Asus EeePC 900 £329.99 Linux/Windows XP 900 MHz Intel Celeron-M ULV 353 12GB SSD (WinXP) 20GB SSD (Linux) 8.9″ 1.3 megapixels
HP 2133 Mini-Note £349.99 Linux/Windows Vista Via C7-M 1.2Ghz 120GB HDD 8.9″ 0.3 megapixels
Asus EeePC 901 £499.99 (pre-order price, likely to be c.£400) Linux/Windows XP Intel Atom 8GB SSD (WinXP) 12GB or 20GB SSD (Linux) 8.9″ 1.3 megapixels
MSI Wind £334.95 Linux/Windows XP Intel 945GMS Atom 80GB HDD 10″ 1.3 megapixels

I paid £219 for my Asus Eee 701, so as you can see my next purchase is going to cost me at least 50% more. But which one shall I choose? Here’s the main positive/negative points about each one as far as I can see:

Asus EeePC 900

Advantages: Available now, multi-touch trackpad, lightweight, same size as 701.
Disadvantages: No Bluetooth, 901 coming out shortly.
Reviews:

HP 2133 Mini-Note

Advantages: Sleek metal body, WXGA screen, huge hard disk, optional Bluetooth, available now.
Disadvantages: Some users complain of fan noise, processor quite slow.

Reviews:

Asus EeePC 901

Advantages: Bluetooth, Intel Atom processor (improved battery life).
Disadvantages: Potentially expensive, not available now (early June).
Pre-release specs: I4U (unconfirmed)

MSI Wind

Advantages: Bluetooth, 4-in-1 card reader, 10″ screen, Intel Atom processor (improved battery life).
Disadvantages: Not available now (early June), likely to be significantly bigger than Asus Eee.

Pre-release specs: PC Advisor

The Verdict

It looks like if I’m going to buy now, it’s the HP 2133 Mini-Note or the Asus EeePC 900. If I can wait until mid-June, I’ve got the option of Netbooks with the new Intel Atom processors – namely the MSI Wind and Asus EeePC 901.

I’ll probably wait. But if I don’t, then here’s the HP and Eee 900 head-to-head:

Feature HP 2133 Mini-Note Asus EeePC 900
Dimensions (WxDxH) 25.5 x 16.5 x 3.3cm 22.5 x 17 x 3.4cm
Weight 2.63lbs (1.27kg) 2.2lbs (1kg)
Screen size 8.9″ WXGA 8.9″
Processor Via C7-M 1.2Ghz Intel Celeron M ULV 900Mhz
Memory 1GB 1GB
Operating System Linux or Windows Vista Linux or Windows XP
Battery Life c.2 hours c.3.5 hours
Storage 120GB HDD 12GB or 20GB
Bluetooth Yes No
WLAN 802.11a/b/g 802.11b/g
Keyboard size 92% 80%
Multitouch trackpad No (scroll zone) Yes
Webcam 0.3 megapixel 1.3 megapixel
ExpressCard/54 slot Yes No
SD card reader Yes No
Case Anodised aluminium Plastic

I reserve the right to make a carefully-considered, well-researched impulse purchase… 😉

What is ‘digital literacy’? It’s certainly not this…

Microsoft have proudly announced their Digital Literacy Curriculum. They’ve no doubt about what they mean by the term ‘digital literacy’ – the strapline to the bold title on their site being, ‘Helping you develop a fundamental understanding of computers.’

Oh. So, they’ll be teaching you about Mac OSX and Linux, then?

Right, so it’s Microsoft-only operating systems, yes? Well actually, in theory, no. They do say:

What if I don’t use Microsoft products, or have older versions installed?

The only software required to run either version of Digital Literacy is a minimum of Internet Explorer 6…

Oh, right then. So in practice, it’s Windows only. And what else do I see?

Aha! So after 3 introductory lessons, they get to what they would term the ‘good stuff’ – Microsoft propaganda. Hmmm… I wonder what programs they’ll be using for their introduction to word processors, spreadsheets, email program and IM clients? 😉

It’s just an adult version of what’s going on in most UK schools, really. And I think it’s shameful. I’m still not entirely sure how I’d define ‘digital literacy’ (it’s the subject of my Ed.D. thesis after all…) but it’s definitely not a souped-up idiot’s guide to using Microsoft products.

And to think, this has the backing (and presumably the funding) of the following:

What would your ‘digital literacy curriculum’ look like? Mine, for one, would look at digital literacies, and involve using a variety of operating systems and programs. That would get at something underneath the processes involved for specific operating system and programs and get a bit more to the fundamentals. 🙂

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