Linux in Italian Schools, Part 6: GPL e-learning in Turin

by Marco Fioretti

In the 19th and 20th centuries,
, born in the northeastern Italian region of
was one of the greatest living mathematicians. The
Industrial Technical Institute
named after him serves the 5th district of the city of Turin, which is
the capital of Piemonte and headquarters for the
XX Olympic
Winter Games
next February.

Linux and the Plone
content management system are a consolidated presence at the Peano School.
Its Information Technology department has a history of offering students
both proprietary and free software platforms, to make sure that they have
as complete a vision as possible of the software landscape.

What makes Peano different from the other schools I featured in this
series are its regular contacts with local Linux Users Groups (LUG) and,
above all, its e-learning portal. Nowadays, the school board knows
that LUG members have the experience and technical skills needed
to provide advanced technical support for the school's IT projects. In
addition to the technical reasons, the partnership also is an excellent
opportunity for the department to be exposed to fresh ideas and to absorb
some of the passion and enthusiasm that usually emanate from LUGs.

In this context, two years ago Peano started to host the afternoon
session of the Turin Linux Day. During the event, every novice can
discover free software in what Sophia Danesino
(, one of the most enthusiast
Linux supporters at Peano, defines as "a really enthralling
atmosphere". Besides the usual InstallFest, the
for this year included two particularly interesting
talks on PHP for
(P4A) and Ufficio Zero. According to its
Web site, P4A is a PHP framework used to "build web applications as you
would do with the most evolved rapid development tools". Ufficio Zero is a
fully localized Ubuntu derivative, optimized for inexperienced office users.

As I already mentioned, Peano is interesting because it has the
most stable, rich and regularly used
e-learning portal we've
seen so far in this series. The service runs on a platform whose basic
building blocks are Zope and Plone, which
Peano teachers have found to be flexible and advanced object-oriented
environments. Above all, the
Italian Zope Community is
very active, and one of its members, webmaster Giuseppe Masili, is an
former Peano student. He supported Sofia and the others during the
installation and configuration of the portal's software.

Once logged into the portal, Peano students can subscribe to courses,
publish their blogs, or participate on the school discussion
boards. The
on-line lessons
currently available reflect the entire range of subjects taught in the
school. Electronics, computer security, operating systems, Python and similar IT
classes sit beside Literature in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Dante
Alighieri's Divine Comedy. A separate
Project Area
hosts materials written by the students.

The rationale behind this multi-faceted portal offering is the wish to fight a
serious problem afflicting many of the students in Peano--one that we
suspect appears in many other places these days--lack of
motivation. Sophia believes that

a school Web site offering only
distance teaching is doomed to fail. In and by themselves, not even
forums, chats and similar "recreational" ares would be enough. It is
mandatory to involve the students directly. They can't be looked at
[as] passive receivers of training; they have to play an active role
and be architects of their own education.

After defining the terms of the problem and project in this way, Sophia and her
colleagues chose to complete their e-learning platform with
Future Language Environment (Fle3) and Moodle. The first is a GPL server
built on Zope and written explicitly for computer supported
collaborative learning, CSCL for the initiated. The Peano team discovered that Fle3 is designed
to create and manage, through the coordinated work of different teams, seminars and courses
that take place partly on-line and partly in traditional
classrooms. The software is developed and maintained by the Finnish
UIAH Media Lab of Helsinki.
And, we all know that they know how to write good code up there, don't we?

Didactically speaking, Sophia says that "Fle3 immediately charmed us, but
we couldn't just download it without figuring out first all the
support, upgrades and documentation issues." Eventually they came to
feel comfortable with the application for many of the same reasons why
other users choose free software: free on-line documentation and
mailing lists, maintenance options for worst-case scenarios and other
features that come from the large and supportive user community. In
addition, they liked knowing that Fle3 already was being used in similar educational
settings--the Art and Design and Psychology Departments at Helsinki University.

Another reason that pushed Peano towards adopting Fle3 was
the awareness that, according to Sophia, a great interest in it already
exists in Europe. In other words, there are possibilities for more
support and partnerships. Namely, she told me that
European Schoolnet
regularly checks out the several European deployments of Fle3.

So far, the interest in this e-learning platform has been
high among the Peano teachers and others as well. After the portal was launched on the
Internet, Sophia said that "even some private users from outside the
school have come to us to get more informations and help to set up
their own installations". For these reasons, Peano has opened a demo
area inside its Web site. Several teachers have committed to translate
all of the Fle 3 documentation into Italian, in addition to their
regular schoolwork. The underlying attitude, they say, is the same as
is found in the Free Software movement: knowledge must be shared to make
true progress possible for all of mankind.

In this sense, the Peano team considers its Fle3 setup to be not only a collaborative
teaching package, but a living example of how to work together for the
common good. Sophia says:

when our students realize that, everywhere in the world,
there are communities willing to translate, code and share information
in this way, they see with their own eyes what Free Software is all
about, and this is an important moment in their growth as human

In other words, the real results are not the IT skills gained
on the path, but the method used to get there and the fact that the
more you learn in this way, the more doors open. In Sophias's words
"it is beautiful. Truly beautiful".

This collaborative development with Fle3 isn't confined inside the
school. Peano already shares it work on hacking and IT security themes
with the Economics University of Turin. In addition, other schools have
become involved this year, creating "a nice working group, full of enthusiasm".
In practice, Fle3 doesn't carry the whole burden of e-learning on the
Peano Web site. It is assisted by a more traditional, LAMP-based content
management system. Moodle is
software written specifically for the creation of on-line classes. Thanks to it, every
school department at Peano has its own place to prepare and publish
courses. Peano teachers, including those less comfortable with
computers, have found Moodle to be easy to use. In spite of this
simplicity, Sophia points out, Moodle is not restricted to use by
beginners with only basic needs. She says, "it can be used both as a simple
container where you upload any didactic material you want to make
public or to realize completely on-line classes, with any structure
you want and self-evaluation on-line tests". She still likes Fle3 better,
due to Moodle's more conservative architecture, but she acknowledges
that the latter has a lot of useful functions and is faster and simpler to use
for teachers with only basic IT skills. To get an idea of how Moodle is
used at Peano, take a look at the course pages mentioned above; they
are, of course, in Italian.
Of Students and Teachers (Again)
Sophia doesn't preach what she practices only inside the school. Recently,
she gave a talk on e-learning and open source at the
in Biblioteca"
(Penguin in the Library) events organized by the
Multimedia Library of Settimo Torinese near Turin. Both in and out of
school, however, she often finds herself in the same situation we have heard
about from the beginning of this series: it is difficult to
involve many teachers in these kinds of activities. Some have no real interest
in any kind of information technology. Others don't feel up to the task or
simply find it unfair that all the (re)training needed to use computers
effectively for teaching must happen as a personal, unpaid effort after
work. In some other cases, the main obstacle is not technology but
adjusting to the idea of involving the students directly. The use of CSCL
methods is seen as a risk that can lead to loss of control over the
educational process, and this, Sophia thinks, scares some teachers. In her experience,
as we saw in the other schools, computer-induced fears simply don't
exist, or are a much smaller problem, among students. The fears don't
exist after, she emphasizes, one has found the right technical solutions
to involve them directly.
When it comes to e-learning, Sophia's secret dream--well, not so secret
anymore--is to cooperate with other Peano teachers and students and with
schools in other countries to create more on-line
classes with Zope, Plone and Fle3. She is excited especially by Fle3, because the latter is
"very well suited to this kind of cooperation". Her first proposal,
therefore, is to work together on a common, Fle3-based project area on any
teaching subject. If interested, contact her directly
( to define
the details, but please let me know what comes of it! A much more
rewarding project for Sophia, though, would be teaching others how to
customize Fle3, but she admits that it is more difficult. She tried once, but only a
limited group of students was skilled enough to follow the subject.

When I speak with teachers who are succeeding in using free software in their
workplaces, I often ask: "Given your experience, what is the first error
that everybody else willing to follow your steps should avoid, or what's
your best tip for success?" Sophia's answer is: "Don't think
or hope that all the other teachers will immediately feel some
unstoppable need to get involved. Involve the students from the very
beginning, instead".
"Linux in Italian Schools, Part 1",

"Linux in Italian Schools, Part 2",

"Linux in Italian Schools, Part 3",

"Linux in Italian Schools, Part 4",

"Linux in Italian Schools, Part 5",

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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