Linux in Italian Schools, Part 4: Progetto "Mottabit"

by Marco Fioretti

official report

on FOSS in Italy says, among other things,
"[the standard usage] of Free Software can be reproduced in elementary
schools only with difficulty". Luckily, says
Italian Linux activist Antonio Bernardi, "Nobody in Costabissara had
read that report, and we hope they never do."

Costabissara is
a small city in the province of Vicenza, which is in the northeast corner of Italy. The
first signs of human activity in the area date back as far as 900 BC.
Work on the city castle began in the early 7th century AC. Today, in
Motta di Costabissara, the city hosts one of the
few Italian
elementary schools
in which free software regularly is used.

The program, known as
(Project) Mottabit
, is spearheaded by
Anna Galtineri (, a teacher at the
school, and Giuseppe Barichello (, the
school's system administrator. The project started three years ago, when
the school decided to solve for good a serious problem it faced. The single,
four-year-old multimedia personal computer available in the school did
not allow teachers to work with a whole class--it didn't even have an
Internet connection. The teachers used the machine to illustrate basic IT
concepts in their respective classes, carting it around from room to
room. All of the teachers also used it, taking turns, to write reports,
home project texts and other didactic materials.

When the school decided to improve its IT equipment, it had two
possible choices. One would have been to purchase at least three new
computers, plus licenses for all of the necessary software and didactic
materials, such as interactive encyclopedias on CD-ROM. As many fellow
teachers worldwide probably can imagine, that solution had to be
discarded quickly. The school did not have enough money for these
purchases, and most of the current students would have graduated before
the money came from the Italian public schools administrations. The
second option, as you may have guessed, was free software.

As soon as they realized that money was a key factor in making their
decision, the teachers started to look for ways to cut down IT costs
by centralizing both hardware and software administration. In this
phase, another main advantage seen in the free software solution was the
possibility to have the same desktop environment always available
to all students. Regardless of the software and hardware platforms being
used, shared Internet access had to be granted. And it had to be granted
in a controlled way, considering the young age of their students.

Once the school discarded the "all new HW, all new proprietary SW" route,
the school staff began looking for ways to achieve acceptable performance
and functionality rates with older, possibly donated computers. In this
way and not out of any ideological need or desire to become programmers,
the staff discovered the school section of the
Italian Linux portal. Once they read about
other institutes that had succeeded in achieving these same goals
with free software, the teachers knew they had found their new platform.

A notable difference between Costabissara and the other schools discussed in this
Ragusa and
Pescara--is the city
administration was involved and contributed financially to Progetto
Mottabit. If the school provided the computers, the administration said,
Costabissara would chip in about 1,500Euros to cover the costs of
networking equipment. Labor costs were not an issue, as a technician was willing to install and
configure the computers for free. As for software license fees, well,
the lack of them was part of the decision to go with free software in
the first place.
The Gory Details
Once Progetto Motti decided to go with GNU/Linux software on recycled hardware, things
went even better than expected. The initial hope was to have three PC
clients, but in the first six months, 11 computers were donated to the
school. The resulting network contains one firewall/gateway machine
and one application server. All the other machines are configured as
X11 graphical thin clients.
The Server
The server in the new network was the school's old computer. The
original AMD K6-2 350MHz CPU was upgraded with as much RAM as could be
placed on the motherboard--768MB--and a new Maxtor 40GB, 7200RPM hard
disk. Once up and running, this computer has proven itself able to run
applications such as Mozilla and AbiWord for 5-7 clients simultaneously.
Nothing more to report here, except the initial comment of the technician
who actually put all of the pieces together: "Debian really is one nice distribution!!"
Besides Mozilla and AbiWord, the server offers TuxPaint and several
didactic packages written by another Italian teacher devoted to free
software, Ivana Sacchi.
The Gateway
The firewall/gateway machine is a Cyrix 166+ CPU with 24MB of RAM and a
gargantuan 2.4GB hard disk. This box also functions as a proxy server
with its own cache. Initially, because no ADSL was available in the
area, connectivity was ensured through an external analog modem
connected to an internal ISDN card. This computer runs the custom
distribution IpCop and is
administered remotely over SSH.
The Clients, of Course
Ten of the 11 computers arrived in the first batch of donations and were
installed in two adjacent classrooms, hosting the second and third
grades. The final client was put on a trolley, allowing teachers to continue to work
even when moving from classroom to classroom. Talk about mobile computing!

The clients mostly are Pentium I, 133MHz computers with 16 or 32MB of RAM,
a 3.5" floppy disk drive and SVGA video cards with 2 or 4MB of RAM.

The software chosen to turn the Pentiums into X11 clients was, not surprisingly,
the package from the
Linux Terminal Server Project.
Because all of the PCs had a local hard drive, a partition was created
to enable the installation of another (local) operating system. The
Linux partitions contain only binaries and the LILO configuration files.
All of the clients boot from the network. LILO has been configured to use
the Etherboot images for
the Ethernet cards present in each box.

Barichello notes that he initially chose GRUB as the bootloader,
because he had read that this utility supports booting from the
network. In the end, he didn't succeed in configuring it properly and
instead followed the LILO configuration procedure provided
here. This LILO
procedure is not simpler to follow, says Barichello, but once you
understand it, it works like a charm.

Apart from booting, the only real difficulty in setting up the LTSP
clients was the video card and monitor configuration, which was different
for each machine. The solution Barichello recommends for this problem is,
he says, "empirical, but really effective". He simply booted Knoppix on
each computer and copied the configuration file created by the excellent
HW auto-detection utilities Knoppix provides.
Did They Make Any New Penguin Fans?
Has all of this new hardware and free software managed to convert anybody
in Costabissara to the cause of free software? In short, yes--but with the
same difficulties found in other schools.

Since the beginning of the project, all of the teachers have been asked to
contribute and express their opinions on everything from logistic
details to the software choices. Predictably, advocating free
software was not the easiest part of this project. Hesitation and resistance were more
the norm than the exception. The two most common questions were
"Why should I struggle to learn a new way to do what I already can do with Word?" and
"What sense does it make to expose the children to an environment different from
the one they will find everywhere else, from family and friends' homes to
high school?"

Galtineri and Barichello also noted, however, that in some cases the
diffidence was not towards a new, different operating system. In other
words, the perceived problem was not the use of GNU/Linux, but the use of
computers at school in the first place, because this guideline was imposed
from the outside. There is a diffused feeling that teachers already are alone
in the trenches, with many responsibilities imposed by and little support from
the government. They don't need other tasks imposed from above. I
suspect this may be another point that is familiar to teachers from
other nations.

On a less gloomy note, the students' reaction quickly displaced any real
or invented doubts. Although GNU/Linux initially had been
advocated by only Galtineri and Barichello, the ease the children
experienced during their first-ever WindowMaker session closed the issue
for good. Linux is not a menacing black screen with an unfriendly blinking
cursor, the children said, it is easy and fun too! Since the initial
impact, the children have continued to react positively, quickly
adapting to the new environment. It turns out that many of them were
looking to discover a way to do tasks differently from the one they knew
from the home PC. The teachers also made sure that children were not
passive receivers but active contributors to the Project. Students were
responsible for deciding, through internal contests, the names of
each client and the desktop wallpapers. The latter were drawn by the
kids themselves. Both activities were carried out with satisfying results.
What's Next?
Progetto Mottabit didn't end with a wallpaper drawing
tournament. After the initial deployment, the school had to implement
a centralized backup procedure. It also installed extra servers for
e-mail handling, the management of the school library and databases.
Some of these activities are ongoing. Today, the school has an ADSL
Internet connection, and the clients run version 4 of LTSP. XFCE4 has
become the official window manager. In addition, all of the FOSS activity at the
school is being monitored by the
Italian RASIS project, which studies,
among other things, open-source networking solutions.
A Final Word of Advice
The last question I asked Galtineri was, "what is the first [piece of]
advice you would like to give to any other teacher trying to do the
same thing today, or [what is] the error that you would not want others to
repeat?". Here is her answer:

Probably the key to convincing the school world (especially the teachers)
is to demonstrate that the same tasks that today are done traditionally
can be performed at least as efficiently with a computer. In other words,
you have to show with facts that IT is an instrument, a solution, not
yet-another isolated subject that everybody (starting with teachers)
should study because somebody says so. The best way to achieve this goal
is to show it during your normal work. Believe in what you are doing,
and demonstrate how useful it is in your daily teaching.

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,

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