Linux in Italian Schools, Part 1

by Marco Fioretti

In many Italian high schools, general use of information technology as well as what is taught in the classroom is limited to proprietary software. Some institutes, however, are using GPL products daily, and this is the first article in a series that focuses on these schools. The reasons why these schools discovered and switched to free software are quite varied. Some simply needed basic network services, including e-mail, shared printers, Internet access control and so on. Others wanted to run their Web sites and maybe offer e-learning services through them. Finally, some teachers and other personnel turned to free software to help them produce didactic material for students or simply to manage unavoidable paperwork.

The Istituto Tecnico Commerciale De Sterlich of Chieti Scalo in Central Italy, uses free software for several of these reasons. The school, which offers specializations in accounting and information technology, serves about 700 students with 80 teachers. Linux adoption started at the school thanks to a small number of teachers and students, but today the entire teachers council as well as the principal are backing it.

The first penguins entered De Sterlich in 1998, when the school decided to build a local area network to serve the whole building. On that occasion Linux was selected over Windows NT, thanks to its price and the fact that one of the business economy teachers already had some professional experience with Linux.

After the initial enthusiasm, simply having an internal network turned out not to be as useful as some had hoped. Therefore, the school decided to set up a Web community. They knew that a system of this kind could not and should not substitute for traditional face-to-face interactions, but it was believed it could be a complement. Still, the school wanted a better and more integrated infrastructure in order to share resources and guarantee better communication among school management, students and their families.

For this reason, in September 2000, De Sterlich started to use the Harvey content management system (CMS). This product was selected by the teachers because of two things they read on its Web site. First, Harvey was created specifically to improve on-line school communities, not to make some nice HTML course brochures. Second, all registered users of Harvey, be they teachers, students or parents, can participate in and monitor closely the activity of all other members.

Harvey was installed on the school server by a recent graduate, the only skilled person available at that moment. Initially it was accessible only inside the school, because no permanent Internet connection was available. Even in this phase, however, the teachers managed to localize the user interface and part of the documentation.

In January 2002, a new permanent broadband connection made it possible to offer a whole series of independent Harvey sessions, each devoted to a separate school service or study subject. Following the launch of this official school portal came a separate space where students can learn how to use the system by being the administrator of their own sub-sections or simply fool around and greet friends.

During this same school year, Harvey also was used to run the on-line portion of a training course for new teachers. Each pupil had 25 hours of lessons from home, under remote supervision of a tutor.

In January 2001, the school found itself with about 25,000 Euros available to renovate its oldest computer lab. This facility, devoted to word processing, sported about 15 Pentium desktops, each equipped with 32MB of RAM and Windows 95 with Office97. Having been shared by many classes over the years, the machines had became unusable. Students continuously messed up the configurations; worms and trojans were usual guests; and it was impossible to track who had done what. This is what led the school to try building its first Linux-based computer lab, running Red Hat 7.0 and Star Office 5.2. The choice was simple: Red Hat already was running the school's server, and Star Office was mandatory for compatibility with MS Office file formats. This first experiment took three weeks to set up, because no school technician had ever worked with Linux before nor used a command line.

The management strategy of this new lab was as primitive as it was effective. Every student always had to work on the same machine, using a single account for the entire year. Although computers were shared across classes and students, accounts were not, and they only existed on one machine. They also were easy to track as they were named ComputerNumber_ClassName. The password for each account was known, theoretically, of course, only to the one student who would use it for the duration of that course. However, because everybody had his or her private home directory and always used the same machine, abuses practically disappeared. And when they did happen, they were much easier to track, because everything was logged.

The end result, as the teachers said, "were amazing". A course that had become practically impossible to teach came back with no problems. Everybody could see first-hand the great benefits of free software in education: more stability, efficiency, features and, above all, learning.

Encouraged by these successes, in March 2002 the school created a new computer lab to be used by students and to host courses for CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate) certification. The effort required to build this second lab was smaller, as this time the necessary Linux and networking know-how already was available in-house. All the computers had the same configuration, both hardware and software. The system administrators had installed the entire reference system--Red Hat 7.3 plus Java, StarOffice 5.2 Free Pascal and others--on a single machine and then mirrored that setup on all the other computers. This time the accounts were set up with NIS, so the only manual configuration left was the IP address of each host. Eventually, the total savings in software licenses amounted to several thousand Euros, which was used to buy more hardware. The school also started to offer on-line classes with excellent results through the GPLed Web-based learning management system ILIAS.

What Next?

As of May 2005, Linux is being used at De Sterlich in four labs:

  • lab 62: about 24 PCs in dual-boot configurations (XP plus Linux Mandrake 10.1) for several tasks

  • lab 67: about 22 Linux-only PCs (Mandrake 10) to teach math, information technology and business economy

  • lab 94: 27 additional Linux-only PCs (Mandrake 10.1) for the same courses. In this lab, authentication is managed centrally through NIS; a migration to LDAP is scheduled for next year. Already, though, each student has his or her own desktop and private files always available with the same configuration from every computer in the lab.

  • lab102: used for word processing, this lab has 27 PCs running Red Hat 9. It also is expected to migrate to Mandrake 10.1 or 10.2, because in general, Mandrake has been found to be more user friendly than its predecessor.

Was It Worth It?

Linux is at De Sterlich to stay, even if some obstacles remain. Money-wise, the result so far has been quite different from what some teachers expected from reading the literature available when the project started. For example, in one of the labs it was indeed possible to save about 6,300 Euros on Microsoft licenses. At the same time, however, it also was necessary to buy 500 Euros worth of manuals and one boxed set of Red Hat 7.0 (150 Euros). To this must be added 2,000 Euros in consultant fees and 1,100 Euros for an 18-hour internal course for teachers to train them for the migration. Their conclusion is you do save money with Linux but less than you thought, because the costs and effort for the initial setup cannot be ignored. At the same time, the switch greatly increases productivity and reduces maintenance costs even more. Overall, the school is quite happy to have taken this path.

The most common obstacles still found by De Sterlich Linux fans are of a cultural nature--the simple fact that most computer users simply don't like change. Sometimes, even the interface differences between MS Office and are enough to stifle enthusiasm. Unfortunately, this problem is made worse by the objective fact that many school manuals "teach" word processing, databases or spreadsheets simply by listing which buttons should be pushed in their enclosed screenshots of MS Office, Access or Excel. If these manuals explicitly covered as well, probably much of the perceived difficulty would vanish.

Credits and Contact Information

It would be great for the teachers and students of De Sterlich to share experiences and work together with colleagues of other nations, be it on Harvey or any other Linux-in-Education project. To find out more, contact Professor Paolo Del Romano. I'd also like to thank him and the school principal, Mr M. Salardi, for their assistance in writing this article.

Marco Fioretti is a hardware systems engineer interested in free software both as an EDA platform and, as the current leader of the RULE Project, as an efficient desktop. Marco lives with his family in Rome, Italy.

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