Monday, September 29, 2008

Trying Out Free OSes & Giving Back

My high school computer class got a start trying out free OSes on the school's computer systems about two weeks ago. I brought in a stack of CDs and DVDs with free OSes on them like Linux, FreeBSD and OpenSolaris. I passed them out to teams of two or three students apiece and had them start testing them on our different systems.

Almost none of the students had never booted an operating system other than the one a computer came with. Few of them had ever worked on an OS other than Windows, except perhaps for a short session with Mac OS on one of the Macs we have in the lab. Likewise, almost none of them had ever interacted with the system BIOS.

This activity was a success on so many different levels:
  • We had a lot of fun. The classroom was in a state of productive chaos throughout.
  • The distinction between hardware and software was demonstrated. That is, that there is a division between the operating system and the hardware it runs on.
  • Students were able to see and interact with new operating systems.
  • Students discovered that a different operating system was not so alien. They were able to find the applications they wanted and do at least basic tasks.
  • Things don't always work, and that's OK. There are ways of dealing with it.
  • You don't have to rely on any one OS. If one isn't working out for you, try another.
  • Different OSes and different applications give you lots of options for doing things your way.
As a conclusion to the activity, we took the next step--giving back to the community. To start with, we discussed how all these OSes came to be, and why they are free. We reviewed the history of Linux and BSD in particular. How large things have happened as a result of the contributions of many, many people, each giving what they can, from detailed bug reports to programming. Then I let them know that they could make a contribution to the community by reporting their test results.

I had the class post their final results on the Linux Compatibility Database.

Afterward, I did a quick informal survey. About 80% of the class is interested in trying out some of our new OSes on their home systems to use as an alternative to what they have now. The holdouts are apparently not sure what their parents would think. We're going to have a future activity where we duplicate some disks for use in class and for the students to take home.

This activity turned out really well. It accomplished my goals for the class admirably. I wanted to give the students something in the way of a hands-on activity that would really make them feel a sense of control over the computer systems, and break through any remaining shyness. I also wanted to instill a sense of confidence beyond that, confidence that they can handle new programs and ways of doing things. Even experienced users have shown some resistance to trying something new to them at times. Further, I wanted to broaden their horizons a bit.

We've achieved all these things, and the fun that came with the activity has left the class hungry for more. It's a great base from which to continue our learning.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Trying Out Free OSes

As a class activity I had my high school students try out several different free operating system distributions on the school's different computers in the lab. I brought seven different Live CDs, and we have five different computer types in the lab. I had the class break up into teams of two or three and go round-robin to the different types of systems and test each OS.

The computers we have include two desktop PCs, one a Dell, the other a generic PC (perhaps assembled by our tech, I'm not sure.) We have some Fujitsu laptops for student use, and two models of iMac. I didn't pull all the system stats today, I'll do that next class on Thursday for when I publish the completed test results.

The partial test results can be found here. This document will be updated with further results as we get them.

Today we tried out iLoog 8.02, Edubuntu 7.10 (the last Edubuntu on a LiveCD--it still frosts me that it takes a second disk under 8.x), Belenix 0.7, Ubuntu 8.04, and OpenSolaris 2008.05. If time permits, we can also test Sabayon 3.4e and Mandriva 2008 Spring. These are on DVD, and only about half the lab's systems can read DVDs, so that limits their value to us.

This turned out to be a good class activity for all the students at different skill levels. Some of the students had no experience trying to boot to some operating system other than one preinstalled on the computer. For them, we got to learn about modifying BIOS settings to change the boot priority on the drives on PCs, and using the Option key to select a boot device on the Macs. I'm sure I'll have to review this during out lecture period in our next class to make sure it sticks.

For others, it was good for them to get a chance to try to boot an OS with no idea of what results they were going to get. Getting to see failures during boot and having a sense of what was going on, why the boot failed, and learning when to give up was informative for them.

I tried to hand out OS disks to the teams based on my assessment of their skill level. I gave the OSes I expected to be more compatible and to have the least problems to those teams that were probably less skilled. This turned out to work well for a couple of the teams, but it didn't matter much otherwise. As it turned out, the skill levels had a greater effect on the speed at which a team could try out an OS and move from system to system than it did on how they could deal with the compatibility problems. Just about all teams needed the same level of oversight. Only one team got caught up in games enough to need a comment.

This testing was not only educational for the students, in some cases giving them their first exposure to an OS other than Windows, it was also very helpful for me. Once we do some more testing I'll be able to see which OSes I should duplicate to use with my middle school class on the basis of what works where, and what apps are installed. For that class, it would be nice to have one OS that works on all lab systems, but splitting between two different ones with the same apps would work, as well.

I'll also be offering copies of the disks to students when we complete this activity. In fact, I'll probably make an activity of copying the disks on those systems that can do so. Then the students can try the same thing on their home systems.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Reliable Website? Ask the Conscious Burritos

Today I had my high school class do a second assignment on finding reliable information on the web. I used part of the excellent ICYouSee: T is for Thinking guide to critical thinking about what's on the web.

Specifically, I had the students group in pairs then go out to look at sites on the Mayan Calendar and The Sixties. The selection of sites given is excellent. They cover the range of reliability well, and different sites draw in different students. The result was that no two teams did full evaluations on the same sites, but there was enough overlap to make things interesting.

While I asked the students to evaluate how reliable the information was on the websites they chose for deeper evaluation, I did little to define reliability for them beforehand. We had one prior exercise in web research during which I covered the idea. In the course of the class I had the question raised, as one group struggled with the distinction between honest but misinformed and reliable.

This triggered a short conversation about the distinction between belief and demonstrable, or at least supportable, truths.

When the groups finished their evaluations we did round robin reports of our findings.

The link to Conscious Burritos on the Dreamspell site pretty well sealed that site's degree of authority with the class.

The evaluations opened up a number of conversations about reasonable measures of authority. We agreed that the appearance of a website definitely affects the perception of its authority. If, for example, a science website has images of little pink ponies dancing across the screen it'll be hard to take seriously, even if it's written by an authority in the field with excellent supporting links. On the other hand, sites that have a spartan design say less in a direct fashion about reliability one way or the other.

The subject of quantity arose, as well. One of the student groups felt that the volume of data on a site added to its authority. In another case, a large volume of information on a wide variety of loosely related subjects was felt to detract from the site's reliability. After I provided some possible counter-examples in each case, it seems like the class pretty well agreed that volume of content had no direct bearing on the reliability of information on the website. However, in each case I think the students were expressing feelings concerning the approach to organization of the website, and how that reflected the thinking of the creators.

We also had a discussion about supporting material. We talked about sites that link to like-minded sites while ignoring divergent points of view, as well a the idea of "sock-puppets" and other techniques for creating a false appearance of supporting data. We also discussed potential conflicts of interest and how these might color the information that people post on the web, as well as the fact that a single conflict of this sort may affect a large number of people, having a similar effect on them, creating what appears to be a large body of consensus, when actually we're seeing a small community that's heavily cross-linked.

I saw more lights going on in people's heads today than after our prior exercise. It turned out really well, and the feedback I've gotten from the students so far has been positive. Time constraints kept us from covering things as well as I would have liked. For example, I would have liked to have the class study some websites with very authoritative appearances and find the "gotchas" that undermine their reliability as sources of information.

I may yet do this in a future class. The number of sites on subjects such as health and ethics that maintain a very authoritative appearance while having a decided slant and underlying purpose are many, and I would like to give my students an introduction into applying their critical facilities to these sites.