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.