Friday, August 28, 2009

Linux on Netbooks and Whiskers on Kittens

This is going to be a long post, but I think (hope?) it will be worth it to many of you.

I’ve blogged previously about the Inspired Writing project that began this summer in my school district. Briefly, all 5th grade classrooms, all 6th grade Language Arts classrooms, and all 9th grade Language Arts classrooms now have ASUS EeePC 1000 netbook computers. (We hope to expand it to grades 5-12 eventually.) Those teachers also went through staff development this summer based around improving reading and writing skills through the use of technology.

At Arapahoe this means that we have 198 new EeePC 1000’s this fall. This gives us a 1:1 ratio in our 9th grade Language Arts classrooms (we have a few sections using Dell laptops that we had previously purchased with grant money), plus we purchased an additional twelve for our Special Services Department, four for our Study Center, and twenty-four for our media center for student check out. (For now, students can check out a EeePC for use in the media center for a class period at a time. Once we get settled in, we’re hoping to expand that for longer time periods and not restrict it to the media center.)

Our district settled on the EeePC’s for many reasons, two of which were licensing costs and imaging issues. We ordered EeePC’s with Xandros Linux, and they utilize our PODnet wireless network to connect to the Internet, meaning that we don’t have to worry about Microsoft licensing costs (they’re running Open Office). And the Eee’s have a built-in restore mechanism that will reset them back to factory condition, thereby minimizing technical support issues (which is critical as my district, like most these days, has had to cut positions).

So one of my self-assigned jobs this summer was to learn more about Linux in order to both support and hopefully improve the implementation of this project. So at NECC I approached Steve Hargadon, who is my go-to person in my PLN for all things open source. For those of you who know Steve, you won’t be surprised that when I finally tracked him down he was running from one presentation to another, but he kindly gave me several names to contact that he thought could help me out. They all did, but one in particular ended up helping me out more than I could’ve expected.

Jim Klein is the Director of Information Services and Technology for the Saugus Union School District in the Santa Clarity Valley in Northern Los Angeles County. When I contacted Jim with some questions, he answered them, but then also mentioned that he had an imaging process I might want to take a look at. Well, not only did he have an imaging process, but he had extensive, step-by-step documentation for how to do it. This documentation is so good that even I, pretty much completely new to Linux, could figure it out. (Jim and I did end up trading well over fifty emails over a variety of questions, which was way above and beyond the call of duty on Jim’s part, but that was mostly due to one typo on the documentation that we eventually figured out and my apparently inexhaustible capability for asking questions.)

So why am I blogging about this? Because I think this is a process that many of you should take a look at for your schools. Basically, here is why I think this image is so good:

  1. Jim (and his team) have created a custom Ubuntu Netbook Remix image that's optimized for battery life and made it available for anyone to download and use (with step by step directions). You can use their image or modify it for your own needs. (For my school, this included customizing the launcher to add the apps and shortcuts we wanted available to students on the main screen, changing the default save settings in Open Office, changing the homepage and security settings in Firefox, adding the Diigo toolbar to Firefox as well as the Compact Firefox extension, adding the right printer, and running a script at startup to change the keyboard settings – more on that below.)

  2. This image installs from a flash drive in about six minutes.

  3. It uses open source software, so less of your limited dollars are going to licensing costs. Linux is also a relatively "thin" OS, so it runs pretty well on netbooks even though they have less horsepower.

  4. The image has a built-in, 10-second system recovery option on reboot (adds 10 seconds to the normal reboot time). Yep, I said 10 seconds. Wait, it gets better. The recovery preserves user documents. (You can also choose to wipe out user docs, but that process takes a little longer.) And, unlike the built-in recovery option in the ASUS Xandros distribution, this doesn’t restore to factory settings, but to your image – with all changes, settings, and printers preserved. This is also a recovery process that a teacher can do, without having to track down a tech support person or wait until they have time to troubleshoot it – they can restore on the fly in the classroom (assuming it’s not a hardware issue), so it minimizes impact on instructional time.

  5. It uses the Netbook Launcher interface, which I think is more productive for students and also looks nicer. (IMO, the Xandros interface doesn’t look as professional, which I think makes a difference for high school students, and also requires more clicks to get to what you want.)

  6. It doesn’t lock things down (although you could if you really wanted to) – students can make modifications as they need to. And the beauty is that if students make a modification that causes a problem, you’ve got that 10-second restore option. To paraphrase something Jim said to me, instead of trying to lock everything down, let’s allow students the flexibility to do creative things with their devices. We protect our servers and infrastructure with solid security, but instead of locking down their devices we focus on quick recoverability. (This fits in well with my school’s overall philosophy of having high expectations of students and trusting them to do the right thing most of the time.)
So, what did this mean at my school? After tweaking Jim’s image I then put that image on sixteen 4 GB flash drives (the image would actually fit on a 2 GB drive). Creating that initial set of flash drives did take several hours, but now they are ready for any subsequent image I want to put on them. (And you can quickly add two files that Jim calls “Simple Updates” that I used for adding the printer I wanted for each cart.) We have 32 in each of our carts, so I then imaged half of the cart in about 10 minutes, then the other half in another 10. After about 20 minutes, I had a cart of 32 done, with all the apps, shortcuts, printer and settings I wanted, and with a built-in recovery option. Compare this to the Xandros distribution, where I was looking at 30-45 minutes per machine out of the box to get them ready to go, and without a recovery option that kept my settings. (Plus the Xandros by default doesn’t have things like Audacity or Gimp that are part of my image.) When I went to the next cart all I had to do was replace two small files on each flash drive to add a different printer to the image. I was able to have all 198 netbooks ready on day one with students, with the apps, interface and settings we needed.

Here are some screenshots:

Now, full disclosure, it did take me longer than twenty minutes per cart, but that’s because I decided to do one more thing – switch the functionality of the right-shift key and the up-arrow key. On the Eee 1000’s the up-arrow key is in the place where you naturally press when you try to shift with your right hand. During our staff development, that meant that every time someone tried to capitalize something on the left side of the keyboard, they ended up arrowing up instead of capitalizing. So I went out and found a script on the web, figured out how to modify it for the Eee 1000, and that’s now part of my image. It runs at startup and switches the functionality of those two keys. The reason it took me more than twenty minutes per cart is that after I imaged them, I also took the time to physically switch the right-shift and up-arrow keys on the keyboard. This is not difficult, but it is a pain, and about every ninth or tenth one I messed up the little connector and it would take me anywhere from two to twenty minutes to get it fixed. But, if you chose not to do this, it’s about twenty minutes a cart.

If you have netbook computers in your district, or are considering them, I would urge you – or your tech folks – to take a look at the wiki documentation Jim and his team have created (which includes a ready-to-go image you can download). Also, keep in mind that his image should work on most netbooks, not just Eee’s, although you may have to do a little tweaking. Thanks Jim and team, for making a difference for the teachers and students at my school (not to mention for me personally), and for being willing to share your hard work.

With apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein . . .
Linux on netbooks and my great P-L-N;
Jim Klein, his wiki and Steve Hargadon;
Meaningful learning tied up with (virtual) string;
These are a few of my favorite things.

When NCLB bites,
When the filter stings,
When I’m feeling sad,
I simply remember my favorite things,
And then I don’t feel so bad.


  1. Once we remember what "public" once meant, I think the schools will embrace Linux.

    I use it at home, and loaded it on the computer in my prep room--I hope to charm the IT folks with it this year.

    Mr. Gates is actively working to destroy the "public" in public education. Linux works well, and works as well as MS Office for school (or perhaps even better, since it is cross compatible with just about everything).

    You cannot beat the price, and the tech support for Linux is phenomenal.

    You are stating the obfuscated obvious--please keep us up to date on this. I have a couple of administrators who are listening to me.

  2. Thank you for this post. We too are using Jim's custom image key for our recently purchased eeePC's. We are a small, rural district in SE Oklahoma (Howe Public Schools) and have added 150 netbooks for a HS 1:1 roll-out. We have operated a 1:1 in grades 3-8 for the past several years - with Macbooks.

    We hated to switch from Mac, but to expand the 1:1 to our HS was not financially feasible. We were very excited to find Jim Klein's site (thanks to @wfryer) Jim's documentation is remarkable. I totally agree on the simplicity - we created the key and imaged our first box w/o any issues. We are currently looking at the customizations that will fit our district, and look forward to the roll-out in the next few weeks. A big thank you to Jim and his team!

  3. Looks like a first class laptop solution, well done!

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  5. Thanks for sharing. My school has also purchased six classroom sets of eeePC's, four English classrooms and two special ed classrooms. I look forward to hearing how teachers are using them in the classroom. We'd all benefit from hearing best practices and lesson ideas for one-to-one classrooms.

  6. Definitely a different approach than we are taking in Irving, TX - AND, I'm really glad to read about schools tackling open source on the OS!

    User control is too important to our technical department (controlling viruses, network access and what kids can do on the machines) to take the OS step at this point.

    Is there a solution for creating simple videos on this image? That could certainly be an important piece in ELA instruction...

  7. @Jerram - I looked at kdenlive as a possible video solution, but it seemed a little too clunky and the machines a little too underpowered, so I ended up not including it (but I could have, and could still add it if we need it).

    For now, we're going to rely on web-based alternatives and/or utilizing desktops if we need a more robust video editing solution, and then my hope is that a better open-source alternative will present itself, combined with slightly more powerful netbooks that can handle it.

  8. Thanks on behalf of the students (although they may not know it) for switching the Right Shift and Up Arrow. That will make adapting to the eee much less frustrating. And, great job on finding solutions and sharing! I know, that's what it's all about - ya do the Hokey Pokey.

  9. It's good to see that open source is finally finding a place in education. The open source software that is available for Linux, and Windows as well, is important for students to know about.

    Photoshop costs money, and if a student wants to use it, they will have very few means of doing so. Maya, an animation program, costs thousands of dollars. If a student uses this at school and wants to continue using it at home, they have little chance of doing so. By using it's open source alternative, Blender, or in the case of Photoshop, which is GIMP, it shows students that an easy way to continue learning and exploring what they are passionate about is out there.

    Not to mention the money it saves, as well as the licensing issues.

  10. Thanks for the tweet and this post. I'm concerned about going from our ibooks to netbooks for a number of reasons: 1) it will seem like we're going from a mercedes to a yugo; 2) we block a lot of the web; 3) teachers won't want to live on a 7 inch they'll probably get a laptop while the kids get netbooks...meaning, a classroom teacher then has to understand two systems; 4) online testing will be harder to accomodate b/c of the screen size; 5) we'll have to use animoto instead of iMovie; 6) it will be harder for students to create digital projects than it is now. I like the costs, battery life, and feel it would be great if we started with netbooks. But our middle schools have had 4 years of ibooks and I wonder if the netbook will be seen as a backward step. The high schools use a Dell, and it's always hard to have two systems/platforms in one county.

    Are my fears unwarranted? Will netbooks win me over?

  11. @Mike – Those are mostly valid concerns. A few thoughts.

    It won’t be a 7-inch screen but most likely a 10.1 inch screen, so it’s not that drastic of a difference. Also, if they’re iBooks, they’re a little older, so the newest netbooks (especially if you can wait to purchase until this latest chip from Intel is put in them) won’t seem that much slower.

    If you’re comparing, you will miss the Mac OS and particularly iLife. If you’re planning on doing a lot of video work, then a netbook is probably not the tool of choice. (Although look at OpenShot Video Editor).

    If you block a lot of the web, then that’s a big issue (for lots of reasons, not just for the netbook discussion). Can’t help you much there.

    I think teachers can adapt to using the netbooks as well, but may not want to if they’re used to a “full” laptop.

    Depends on your online testing, of course, but if it’s designed well it should work on a 10.1 inch screen.

    Whether it’s harder to create digital projects is debatable (assuming you had open access to the web). While it’s definitely true that creating high-end, sophisticated projects will be harder, when you have netbooks you start gravitating toward using resources in the cloud which can actually increase the use of digital resources (and effective use of those resources if we’re doing our jobs right).

    As far as netbooks vs. Dell, of course Dell has their own netbook, and you can choose to go with Windows on a netbook if you wish. But then you have many of the same issues if you’re going from an iBook to Windows – apparently having two systems in the same county wasn’t such a big deal when the high schools chose to go Dell . . .