Open Source Tools for Open Course Projects

Hello. I am one of many instructors working on a project that aims at creating Community College level digital courses that will require at most $30 in required material, including textbooks and all (there are other similar projects - mine is aimed at Washington State, and is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, but the material will be made available to the world). The course will be released under a Creative Commons BY license. Personally, I am in charge of an "Introduction to Statistics" course. The timeline is for the course to be tested in January-March, and released in the wild by June 2011.

What does this have to do with Linux? Well, on one side, I am doing this working exclusively with Linux tools - and I doubt I could do all I am doing in any other environment! But that's not why I am writing this. The project aims at making the courses available worldwide, and the organizers have made quite some noise about this global perspective.

Now, I have been mulling that there is something that could be done to make this less unrealistic, but that the organizers haven't even thought about. The issue I have been thinking about is "how would a would-be user be able to modify and adapt this course, if they wanted or had to?". You see, a statistics course has some math expressions (not as much as other courses, but still...) as well as graphics and such, so the presentation format has to be something like PDF, which, of course, cannot be realistically edited heavily, even with expensive software (I am considering XHTML/MathML too, but to hand edit this stuff is quite a pain as well). So, I would want to produce both the "pretty" output file, and the source file (the math is being written in Lyx and in Texmacs - I still have to make up my mind...). Similarly, graphic support is coming out of things like ipe, kmplot, and so on. Again, source files would be necessary for adaptation. And did I mention that, on inspection, Gnumeric beats all the competition (including OpenOffice and you-know-who) when it comes to statistical tools ready to use? I could go on, but I suppose I am preaching to the choir anyway...

So, while most (though not all) of the tools are available for Windows as well, and, in any case, can be downloaded for free by anyone, I have been thinking that it would make sense to package the whole thing in a live CD, with a streamlined Linux distribution, allowing anyone to jump right in, without having to do more than boot their computer from a CD (and plug in a USB stick to save their work). I guess I could prepare such a CD myself, but, to be honest, I am afraid I don't have the time to do it on my own. I would have to polish my (non existent) skills on creating a live CD, not to mention the need to decide where to start from (Ubuntu? DSL? Puppy? and on, and on...), as well as pick and choose what software to include, besides the specific tools I will be using. Again, I am not saying it's so hard I would have no hope, but it's not something I would be able to do as a weekend hobby, and time is short.

I wonder if anybody would be interested in giving a hand. It's nothing about the math - that's my job - it's only about the creation of a very dedicated, targeted distribution...

In case you are, give me a holler...

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