Review: Is Edubuntu truly the operating system for families?

Filed under: Work Life, Media, Toys

Edubuntu - Linux for Young Human BeingsWho says the Linux operating system is for nerds? Not Mark Shuttleworth and the folks at Ubuntu, whose mission is to create a Linux desktop computer "for human beings", regardless of language or disability. (And yes, "Computers scare me" is considered a disability for Linux purposes.)

Why does this concern readers of Blogging Baby? One of Ubuntu's editions is Edubuntu, a Linux desktop designed especially for kids. Edubuntu bills itself as an operating system chock full of educational software and games, desktop publishing applications, and even painting and 3D rendering software - all free of charge, courtesy of the devoted Linux community. If Edubuntu takes off, it could be a boon for everybody: low-income families needing a low-cost computer; middle-class families who want their kids to have the power and flexibility of the rich Unix operating system; and schools looking to equip students with the most power at the least cost.

But how easy is Edubuntu to set up for the average, non-tech-savvy family? How easy it is for kids to use? Does it offer major advantages over using Windows XP? To answer these questions, I spent a night installing Edubuntu, and then let my children - eight-year-old Neve, six-year-old Jaxon, and four-year-old Veda - use and abuse it for a day. Throughout the whole process, I tried to act every bit like the average, low-tech parent, and not like the software developer I've been for the past 12 years.

Blogging Baby's final judgment: Edubuntu is not quite ready for the non-tech-savvy family - but it's featureful enough even now to keep both the kids and adults satisfied. Given a year or so of additional development, this distribution of the Linux operating system will prove a significant challenger to Windows for the hearts and minds of families.

Before we go on this adventure, let me specify what a household needs in terms of computer equipment to get up and running with Edubuntu:

  • A computer on which to install Edubuntu.
  • A second computer for downloading and burning the installation CD-ROM. Unless I missed something, there's currently no place where you can order an installation CD mailed to you.

If your family doesn't own a box with a CD burner, you can always rely on a somewhat geeky friend to do the download and burning for you. Hopefully in the near future, someone will produce Edubuntu CDs that you can order. Ideally, someone will sell machines with Edubuntu pre-loaded on them. That would be a Good Thing; as you're about to find out, installation is the least glamorous part of this enterprise.

Selecting the Installation Machine

I reasoned that many families would want to allocate an older computer for the use of smaller kids, rather than buy a new box with no operating system installed. So I decided to wipe the Windows XP installation off of our old eMachines box, which runs on a Celeron 550 MHz processor with a 17GB hard drive, 4GB secondary drive, and 192MB of RAM.

Not the world's speediest beast, to be sure, but I figured it was more than sufficient for Edubuntu. It had a tough time running my previous installation, but that install was years old and was bogged down with 1/3 of the Windows programs and system extensions known to mankind. I hoped - and prayed - that a fresh Edubuntu install would provide a snappier experience.

Downloading and Burning the Installation Package to CD-ROM

Downloading and burning were easy, if slow. It took a little over an hour to download all 600MB+ of the Edubuntu distribution onto my Windows XP computer. Once that was done, however, burning was a snap: on Windows XP, I right-clicked the .iso file I downloaded, selected "Burn to CD", inserted a blank CD-ROM in my CD burner, and - voila! An Edubuntu installation CD.

Installation

Here's where my misery began.

First, I had keyboard issues. The CD boot installer prompted me to specify through typing whether I wanted to install the "server" or the "workstation" edition. The problem? I have a USB keyboard, and the installer didn't recognize it. This wasn't a major issue - I just plugged in the other computer's keyboard and used that. Once I got past the boot prompt, Edubuntu picked up the USB keyboard and I could use that. Not a tragedy, but annoying nonetheless.

Second, the installation asks you to choose between "server" and "workstation" installs. This allows you to log in to this machine remotely from other Edubuntu installations. But how many parents know what this means? I opted for the default installation, which is "server". (Why is that the default for a home operating system??) Don't repeat my mistake: type in "workstation" instead. If you don't know what the server option is, odds are you don't need it.

Third, the setup menus weren't what I would call "parent-friendly". Setup always gave me progress bars and status messages; however, many of the messages were pure geekspeak. How many moms and dads will know what "Configuring LTSP chroot" means?

Fourth, Edubuntu couldn't detect the computer's Ethernet card - which meant I would have zero Internet access. Considering that my kids spend 75% of their computer time on Web sites, this was a deal-breaker. This is where my inner geek took over: I opened mIRC and joined #edubuntu, a chat room devoted to the operating system. There I talked with a user named ogra - a.k.a. Oliver Grawert, Edubuntu's lead developer. It took us a while to figure out that there was a bug in the Debian kernel (the Linux distribution used by Edubuntu) that prevented my specific network card from being used. There's a patch for the problem, but it didn't make it into this version of Edubuntu.

Figuring I had already done more than most non-tech-savvy parents would, I decided not to install the fix myself; instead, I bought a new NetGear Ethernet card and switched it out for the old one. Sadly, Edubuntu wouldn't dynamically recognize the new network card on reboot. Since I had decided I didn't need a server installation, I went ahead and reinstalled the system as a workstation.

Fifth, the user account configuration leaves something to be desired. Near the end of installation, Edubuntu prompts you to create a single user account - and this account has root permission to modify anything on the system. Not a wise idea, especially if you have computer-savvy tweens and teens in the house! It would be better for the menu system to ask the installer to create one "super" account, and then provide additional prompts for creating either (1) one account with more limited permissions, or (2) one account for each child in the household.

But I finally made it through that morass and, after approximately seven hours of installation, debugging, and re-installation, I was up and running with Edubuntu - network connectivity and all.

Pant. Gasp. Wheeze.

Edubuntu: A Parent's Initial Impressions

Edubuntu screenshot

(Note: this article previously stated that Edubuntu uses the K Desktop Environment. It actually uses Gnome, but includes the KDE Education Suite. I've corrected it to reflect this.)

First, a bit of terminological confusion. Many of the programs and graphical features that comprise Edubuntu are properly part of a project called Gnome, which provides the desktop experience on top of Linux; Edubuntu adds additional ease of use and bundled applications on top of what Gnome offers. This is both the beauty and the bane of free open source software: there are so many people contributing to make the system work that it's often difficult to know whom to praise when things are great, and whom to lobby when things could stand improvement.

In the analysis below, I won't make an attempt to distinguish between "Gnome" and "Edubuntu". Geeks will know which belongs to which, and parents won't need to know the difference.

That said, I was very impressed once I began navigating Edubuntu. I found the interface clean and fast, even on this old box. The system comes pre-loaded with a variety of "kid-friendly" desktop themes and icons from which to choose, which is a nice visual touch.

The applications packed into the distribution are impressive, and make this system usable - for both kids and adults - out of the box. This has to be the best attribute of Edubuntu/Gnome: the system comes pre-loaded with all of the programs you need to write documents, draw images, edit photos and movies, and research projects. The Firefox Web browser is included by default, so if you and the kids use Firefox on Windows, this transition is a no-brainer.

What's more, the programs pre-installed with Linux are more amenable to learning than the bloatware you'd usually install. With more packed into less, the developers of Gnome and Edubuntu included only what they knew most users would need. OpenOffice 2.0 is more straightforward to use than Microsoft Office, whose applications comes packed with more options than the average author needs.

One of the features I absolutely love as a parent is one that's been part of Linux desktop systems for a while: virtual desktops. Windows XP has a similar concept called Fast User Switching, which has been a big boon for a family with two adults and three computer-using kids; instead of having to shut down everyone else's applications when they use a computer, the kids can just switch desktops. Unfortunately, Fast User Switching is slower than molasses. Virtual desktops on Gnome/Edubuntu, however, are easy to use (the icons are in the lower-right corner of the desktop toolband), and are infinitely faster. Even on this dog of a computer, it takes only an instant to switch from one desktop to another.

One major quibble for me was the naming of programs. The KDE development team, which provides the KDE Education Suite, has this annoying tendency to its programs cryptic names prefixed with the letter "K". Even my eight-year-old daughter Neve wondered aloud what was up with the "K" nonsense. Parents and kids are left not knowing what a program is until they open it. Why name the touch-typing educational program "KTouch", when you could call it something indicative of its actual function, such as "TouchTyping Plus"?

Another disappointment: there are no parental controls built into Firefox, and thus no way to restrict kids in this kid-friendly operating system from surfing to Internet content explicitly rated for adults. Edubuntu bears some of this responsibility with Firefox. Sure. Firefox should include this feature by default - but, lacking that, Edubuntu should provide a plug-in that enables it. Is it too much to ask that if a site rates itself as containing explicit sex, I have the ability to block my kids from surfing to it? Why not at least bundle the BlockXXX extension with this distribution?

Edubuntu: A Kid's Initial Impressions

Here's the thing. While many of the programs that come bundled with Edubuntu will likely prove useful to my kids as time goes on, the one they care about most of all is the Web browser. Most of the games they play are online. And, indeed, that's where all three of my computer-savvy kids initially gravitated. Which is fine. After all, if all that young kids need is a desktop and a Web browser, wouldn't you rather get these for free, rather than paying out the nose for them every three years?

At some point, I decided to get the eight-year-old, Neve, out of the Web browser and show her the other applications that Edubuntu had to offer. Of course, she had a lot of fun with the games. (I hadn't realized until last night that she had never played Minesweeper. Egads. WHAT KIND OF LOUSY PARENT AM I??) She even had fun with the "educational" games like KHangman. (Damn K.) She's been using Paint Shop Pro on Windows for ages,  so she took right to using Gimp, the image editor included in the distribution. And she was fascinated with KStars, the astronomy application - which is unfortunate, as it takes 10 years to load on this suck-ass machine I used.

All in all, the kids took right to Edubuntu. The younger, Web browser-obsessed ones didn't even notice that I had secretly replaced their Windows XP with Edubuntu flavor crystals. I imagine that, as the weeks progress and school projects come and go, I'll be able to ease Neve into using the more advanced features of Edubuntu without much difficulty.

Conclusion

Edubuntu still has some work to do. If the Edubuntu project expects parents to install the system themselves, it needs to streamline the installation process, or eliminate the need for installation altogether. And it needs to work with the Gnome team to tweak the interface to make things a little more intuitive for young minds. The system also cries out for interactive tutorials that can introduce kids of various age levels to the features and capabilities. And additional parental controls would be a very good thing for those parents who need them.

Once these issues are worked out, Edubuntu should prove a powerful force in the family personal computer market. The low cost of the system and software - i.e., free - makes it ideal for families and for distributing to students. Between Firefox, OpenOffice, and the suite of multimedia applications included, Edubuntu guarantees that the system has everything to offer a kid as she grows from occasional Web surfer into a full citizen of the digital age.

You can bet I'll keep tracking this product as it matures. I have high hopes for Edubuntu. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to order a faster secondary computer...

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.