Linux in Italian Schools, Part 3: DidaTux
In the first two parts of this series, I discussed how Linux is being used in technical high schools in Abruzzo and Sicily. Here in Part 3, I present a story that in several aspects is different from the previous stories. Enter Anna F. Leopardi, an elementary school teacher at the Direzione Didattica Statale Terzo Circolo of Pescara, which is the administrative center of the smallest province of the Abruzzi region. Anna is not only a free software user and evangelist; she doesn't mind getting her hands dirty doing some Linux customization hacking, which she then uses at her school. In early 2005, she also taught at a professional training course on open source and schools that was organized by the Province of Pescara.
Anna created and regularly updates an ISO image with a collection of popular, localized free software for Windows. Even more interesting is her DidaTux 2.0 project. DidaTux is a live CD distribution, localized in Italian, that Anna created from Mandriva. DidaTux is aimed directly at elementary schools and elementary school students. DidaTux ISO images can be downloaded directly from the "School" section of the Italian portal Pluto.
I find Anna's work to be noteworthy in at least a couple of ways. The short-term reason to mention the existence of the DidaTux CDs is simply that they might help to teach Italian in foreign schools and/or private courses.
Above all, Anna's work is an exception to the assumption, recently discussed in the "Women in Open Source" session at OSCON 2005, that "women in open source... do not tend to excel in the more technical aspects of software development". Projects such as DidaTux might not be as complex as kernel hacking, but they still require above-average technical skills. And, in truth, it's possible that more people need these types of projects than they do some preemptive this or that.
In addition to the projects just mentioned, Anna's personal Web site contains several step-by-step tutorials on how to perform fun tasks with the free software included in DidaTux. The covered topics range from drawing with KolourPaint to using DigiKam and building a yearly calendar with TuxPaint. Her site also provides detailed instructions on how to create and print labels and holiday postcards with OpenOffice.org.
Although all the tutorials are in Italian, Anna promote activities with many programs that also--or only--have an English interface. Programs and activities, in other words, that you might not by using now in your own school but could be using tomorrow, without any preparation or porting.
At the same time, one thing is missing from Anna's site. It's not her fault, but it does offer an opportunity for all of you to help in making her Web site even more useful to her colleagues. In recent years, English has been added to the official curriculum of Italian primary schools. Therefore, it would be great if Italian teachers easily could find and reuse programs developed for the same age-range students by native-speaker colleagues. A resource page of this kind would fit perfectly on Anna's Web site. So, if you know of any free software for Linux and Windows that children ages 6 to 10 could use to learn English, please e-mail Anna at email@example.com). Also write to her if you want to share or make available for translation free software documentation and tutorials for children in this age range.
Anna is responsible for her school's entire computer network. The Terzo Circolo has two IT labs, each containing ten computers. Unlike some other schools, these are relatively new machines, namely Duron 1300-based systems. All of the PCs are set up in a dual-boot configuration with Windows XP. The first GNU/Linux distribution ever installed in the school was Mandrake 9.1. Today, some of those computers run DidaTux. With the exception of StarOffice 7, no proprietary application software ever has been installed on any Windows partition; only The GIMP, Mozilla, TuxPaint and similar application are used. You can see the labs on-line in the school's "Galleria immagini".
Thanks to Anna, almost all of the children who have discovered free software enjoy both DidaTux and the free applications for Windows. Many of the students even wanted to try them at home. Specifically, almost all of them asked for and promptly received their own copies of the software they had tried at school. So far, about 100 DidaTux and FOSS-for-Windows CD-ROMs have been sent home with students. According to Anna, the main problem so far is many children still experience hardware incompatibilities when they try to start the live CD at home. Whenever this happens, the lack of hardware experience and/or deep interest quickly transforms those CDs into Tux-based coasters.
As for the other teachers at Anna's school, so far not much impact from Anna's work can be seen. Anna continues to be the only teacher at Terzo Circolo who uses GNU/Linux on a regular basis, and installing free software on school computers happened by her own initiative. Some of her colleagues have tried using Linux, but they still don't start it regularly because they find it too difficult to use.
On the money front, Anna confirms what I reported about another Italian school, the Technical Commercial Institute De Sterlich: when an institution switches from Windows to GNU/Linux, it is quite difficult--at least in the short term--to figure out exactly how much money is being saved, if any. Anna notes, however, that after the switch, the school immediately was able to invest in needed hardware, including new printers, digital cameras and Ethernet switches.
Initially, Anna tried free software both personally and at work simply due to personal curiosity. Today, she uses it for all the right reasons and is convinced that spreading free software as much as possible among young people is a good thing. As she herself says in her "Linux in classe" (Linux in the Classroom) essay, "above all... Linux is a choice inspired by a need of challenge, of revolution, or maybe the memory of an autistic child who didn't want to work like the other children and, every time I entered the classroom, would ask me 'will you make me use the computer today?'".
On a more practical level, Anna already has denounced the fact that "many Italian schools have indeed set up a lab to teach IT fundamentals to children, but almost all such projects explicitly mention and use proprietary software only....[as] if nothing else existed...without worrying at all whether it is correct or not to advertise, more or less consciously, these expensive products".
Anna's goal therefore is to answer clearly why Italian teachers "should 'waste' time and effort to learn the ropes of an operating system so different from the one commonly used in Italian schools". First of all, she notes, this is software that can be installed, modified and shared freely, without choosing between the risk of heavy fines and the use of expensive licenses that software companies use to lock in millions of end users. Could anybody have explained it better than this?
Another one of her Web pages, titled "Why Linux in elementary school?", states, "I want to demonstrate that it is indeed possible to teach children how to properly use a computer...without proprietary software. As a consequence, the goals and specifications for school IT projects should not mention such products.
The other reasons why Anna recommends free software are the vast amount of applications that you find in any GNU/Linux distribution, how cool they look and how much they can be customized. As she says, they can be customized "even on the fly, that is changing them all the time to match your mood or the particular work you need to do in that particular moment".
By now, you probably have recognized how all of the concerns that Anna expresses are immediately and equally valid for every teacher of the world, wherever he or she lives. As obvious as these points may be, this is exactly why I decided to write this article series--to facilitate contacts and cooperation across borders, because the problem is so common. Please do the same. Finally, as a GNU/Linux user and as a parent of Italian children, I'd like to thank Anna for her work. I hope that she can receive as much support as possible from the community.
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.