ECDL: Enjoying Computers, Discovering Linux

by Federico Pellegrin

The course should have been based on the ECDL (European Community Driving License, syllabus even if, due to various bureaucratic problems, no final official examination would be given. In my eyes, this was a good opportunity to strengthen the point that learning how to use a computer was the purpose of the lectures, not getting a certificate.

General Course Plan

The ECDL syllabus is quite generic about the operating system and packages that should be used during the steps of the course, even if some of the terminology makes if quite clear what operating system they are discussing. Nevertheless, as the high school was provided with an almost fully functional Linux based lab, the choice for the platform to use for the course was obvious.

The Basics

The first few lectures of the project were dedicated to an introduction of the hardware organization of the computer. A general, not too theoretic, view of the main computer parts was introduced, pointing out the advantages different solutions can bring, what types of performance problems can arise depending on usage, and how they can be solved without changing the whole computer. Some of the most important input/output devices were closely examined and their usage explained. As a final hands-on portion of the lecture, a computer was opened and most of the theoretical topics took a real shape for the participants.

Knowing something more about the body part of the computer, the time came for a look at the soul of the machine, the software. Some definitions were given about the operating system and usual applications classes, from general system tools, like editors, to more complex software, like word processors or spreadsheets, and development and network tools. We also took a look at the various licenses available, with a special mention and description of the GPL given to the attendees. It was interesting to watch as the concept of GPL, which at first sounded unusual and strange, become clear to the attendees as an extraordinary concept based on collaboration, education and knowledge sharing, not money, lawsuits and pure profit.

As the last step before the attendees took command of the computer was an introduction to the software they were going to learn to use. The basic Red Hat system had a complete KDE distribution installed for general system usage, StarOffice for the word processor and spreadsheet part of the course and the usual network tools and browsers were used on the internetworking lectures. The choice of StarOffice was mainly made by considering the availability of this package on platforms other than Linux, so the attendants should be able to easily use the package in their school laboratory even if it isn't a Linux machine. Anyway, the course was based on making people understand the concepts, not the peculiarities of one piece of software or another, making them able to find things and adapt, not complain about an icon in the wrong place.

Working with the Window Manager

The first portion of the practical part of the course was dedicated to the basics of the window manager. After some words about the username/password paradigm and a short introductions to network computing (the laboratory network is based on NIS/NFS), the KDE desktop filled the monitor for the first time. The menu, windows and icon system were quickly learned by all the attendees, so after some practical examples and some free try-it-yourself time, everyone was soon playing with the usual KDE applications, like the calculator, post-it and so on, and moving their windows up and down the desktop.

The next step for computer usage was dealing with filesystem organization, and the concepts of files, directories and mounting were unleashed. A good amount of time was spent, with plenty of examples and easy exercises, dealing with file ownership and file permissions. Setting good permissions to files and directories is very important when dealing with multiuser systems, and the attendees were made aware of these points. The risks of not paying attention to such thing and the risks of using an operating system that doesn't implement file ownership and permissions were exposed, maybe even too dramatically. Once they had acquired the theory, the next step was using all this in practice: straight to the file manager to test everything and, after that, some basic commands typed directly from a shell command line.

Before moving to the next part, wordprocessing, some more file information was discussed. The difference between binary and text files was explained, and the idea behind compressed files and some well known file extensions were enumerated and described. KEdit was now introduced as a generic editing tool, all the menu options were explained and experiencing its features was soon the goal of everyone.

StarOffice for Wordprocessing and Spreadsheets

The central and biggest part of the course was based on mastering the most useful StarOffice operations in order to write a document and create some tables or graphs from given data. First of all, the generic file (like open, save, import, print) and text (like copy, paste, search, replace, undo) menus were introduced, then the toolbar and its correspondences to the menus were explored. Working on the text required some practice to master; attendees learned how to change fonts types, styles and dimensions, align the text correctly and manage pages and paragraphs.

Our next step toward successful wordprocessing was inserting special units in the document. Simple tables were generated and modified first, then ordered and unordered lists, special characters, mathematical formulas, footnotes and finally, for the eye's sake, images. All of these new objects needed quite a bit of practice to master, and the best break was given by browsing the nice graphical library in StarOffice.

With a bit more information about page formation and printing, everybody was ready for the simple test of writing a document with some tables and things on their own.

The second big portion of the StarOffice lectures were dedicated to spreadsheet generation. The parts common to wordprocessing were repeated and examples with tables were given. The most interesting and powerful part was indeed the automatic calculations of table data. Using the calculation helper and some intuition, some general and then more complicated formulas were implemented. It's interesting to see how everyone was able to find personally interesting procedures already built in, so everyone was experimenting with their personal test spreadsheet. Another chunk of time was spent on representing data graphically. Besides having a simple and fast graphical interface, we tried to point out the importance of how the data is represented and the elements that have to be focused, like the data variations, by giving the proper ratios to the coordinates. No matter how good and colorful a graph looks, it will remain useless if it doesn't make the user get the message we intended.

Connecting to the Internet

The last big portion of the course was, of course, using the Internet. Everybody seemed to know something about it and felt excited about finally getting in touch with it. Some needed theoretical and historical notes were made first. IP addressing, host names, services on the Internet, security issues, types of connections, connection speed, gathering information with typical tools, search engines, chat systems, e-mail and a small revival of the first lectures with a deeper descriptions of modems and network cards were the players in the first set.

Ready for the experience, people were armed with Netscape and soon managed to search for information on their favorite topics. Some guidelines were given on intelligent information gathering using appropriate search queries on search engines. A better look, always keeping a global view in mind, was given to the Netscape Mail system. Apart from composing and reading e-mail in various forms, the configuration steps were clearly explained so everyone could be able to set up personal preferences on their own account. This discussion included a small introduction to mail-delivery system, mail filters and the idea of unsolicited mail. A small digression was made to cover secure transactions and secure mail, and starting links for the interested were pointed out.

A quick look was given to IRC, newsgroups and mailing-lists concepts. Due to the special interest on these topics, some discussion time was given to new technologies regarding music and video broadcasting on the Internet, including a few practical examples from the network.

Final Words

It was a very interesting experience to introduce Linux to other people in this rather short, practical course fashion. I got lots of positive feedback and was proud to have made the concepts of GPL and Open Source interesting to the attendants. Everyone, having mostly heard of only commercial platforms, was astonished by the quality, ease of use and completeness of the previously unknown Linux system. Being that this course was presented in an educational environment, I was even happier to have chosen this platform. I think this choice should be always preferred and encouraged, since one of the basic ideas of Linux is educating people and not just making money and advertising its products.

Federico Pellegrin is studying Computer Science at the University of Udine and maintains a small home page at He enjoys computers, music, literature and poetry. He'd like to thank his brother, Christian, for all the help he is always ready to provide.

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