Monday, December 10, 2012

Why are the USB Ports Locked?

I was at a school recently where the USB ports of the computers are locked down (on the student's log in). This struck me as counter to learning. Your students ability to share is greatly diminished. So what's the justification? Security. They might get virus'.

This to me just means that MS Windows is not fit for the purpose of education. If education needs to suffer to keep a computer system secure in a school, then it's a no brainer. Chose something that doesn't require you to sacrifice education - especially if that's your primary purpose.

I know MS Windows is good for some things. Microsoft Office is a top notch application for example. You can do things in MS Office that you can't in other office suites. But that's only important if those features of MS Office used.

Is the ability to create a pivot chart all that important in education? I would argue that if it's only in MS Office, then you've probably got more important things to be learning or teaching. Database theory i.e. relational databases - is probably more important anyway.

I think Linux has something to offer here. A lot of people would probably be surprised by the amazing things that can be done using Open Source software - and for the most part, without software licensing costs. Take GIMP for example. Although not photoshop, it is incredibly capable. You can do all sorts of things in it that teach a whole range of interesting concepts such as layers, filters, super imposing etc. There's a social lesson in there too - just because you see a photograph, doesn't necessarily mean that something is real. Removing a few pimples, stretching out a persons neck etc. isn't all that hard.

So what's stopping Linux in schools?

Firstly, the perception that Windows if free for schools. Actually, quite a lot of money goes towards the MS schools agreement - money that could be used elsewhere.

Secondly, who offers schools help with Linux? I was replaced in my last job by a Windows person - not a Linux person. There seem to be very few companyies offering Linux desktop support. Given that school I.T. support is tied up in just a handful of I.T. companies, who are all willing to perpetuate the "Windows is free for schools" mantra, where do schools go for Linux support?

Thirdly, is there any real efforts into making Linux suitable for schools? Some might argue that edubuntu is going in this direction but... well look at their goals:
Our aim is to put together a system that contains all the best free software available in education and make it easy to install and maintain.
So the first part talks about free educational software. The second part is pretty much what Ubuntu provides anyway. So basically, it's a copy of Ubuntu with a few education applications added. And while I hate to criticise Open Source software (although I do fairly often), a lot of it is made by geeks for geeks. This is incredibly evident in the educational software sector where educational games often lack lasting engagement.

When looking at what schools are already using on their desktops it's not unusual to see a set up identical to what a secretary in a small business might have. The operating system, a browser and MS Office. All of which (LibreOffice rather than MS Office) are installed in most desktop Linux distributions anyway.

What does Windows offer? A whole lot of management. This isn't a road I would like Linux taking as I think it just stifles education anyway. Instead, I think a school set up should be concerned with keeping kids safe - an I.T. system should look after itself without limiting education.

So what does this look like to me?

Kids as the admins. They should be able to install whatever applications they need to accomplish a task.

A fall back position - currently there are PXE boot options. I think it needs to be more local than that - a rescue partition. Perhaps PXE for the initial load OR usb sticks. A compete restore should taken less than 10 minutes.

Some small amount of management - applications that can or cannot be installed for example. Internet security done on a network level, not an individual machine level.

If you find yourself justifying something on the desktop for security, then you have to ask seriously ask yourself, what is it that you're protecting? It should no longer be enough to just play the security card by default. There's a cost to security. This needs to be understood.

Cloud or server based storage. The individual machines should not hold files vital to a child's work. This makes back ups a whole lot easier - even better if you can outsource that to someone else. Of course, there's the whole "off shore" issue. i.e. government agencies do not store information offshore.

I guess this post is really just a great big justification for Tartare Source. It's not the only use. I think a similar set up could be incredibly beneficial to a business for example. Less overheads in terms of licensing tracking and security concerns. Freedom for people to work in the way that they feel most comfortable etc.

So I guess the question is still, where would you find the support? With the user in mind and "best practise" considered inappropriate in civilised company...

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