The HeliOS Project is now.....

The HeliOS Project is now.....
Same mission, same folks...just a different name

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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Linux Learning - Taking a Step Forward

It's been a problem from the start.  Not a large problem...nothing that can't be overcome...

But a problem that eats time and resources.

As most people reading this already know, The HeliOS Project rescues or receives broken/decommissioned computers, refurbishes them, then gives them to financially disadvantaged kids in the Austin area.

One of the biggest challenges we face when we get on site is in familiarizing the child with their new Linux system.  Most kids have had Windows exposure from the first time they touch a computer.  Getting them through the initial system shock of a new environment has had its challenges.

In some cases, we've done a 30 day check-in to see how the child is doing with their new computer and have found the parent or guardian has put Windows on it.  Maybe because the child wasn't familiar with it...

Maybe because the parent wasn't familiar with it.

Nothing we can do about that...it is their computer.  We simply will no longer provide any software support for it.  Still, it shows a need for a more intense or comprehensive knowledge of the Linux Desktop...at least upon first exposure.

While attending the 2010 Linux Against Poverty event, I was approached by Dr. Neal Scogin.  Dr. Scogin resides in College Station Texas and made the trip to Austin to talk to me about one of his most important projects.

Neal has worked with computers in all sorts of ways since 1964.  He did his doctoral dissertation on acquiring computer based technologies by organizations - essentially coming to understand how acquiring the technology would change the way things were done and, in addition, coming to understand what was required for a successful acquisition of the technologies.   His area of teaching centered on Computer Integrated Manufacturing - that is using computers in all of the functions within a company - from design, management- purchasing, manufacturing, etc.  Now Neal's passion is to use computers as a tool to improve education - world wide.

Neal knows what many of us know...through the slow but steady processes already in place, Linux as a desktop will become an important part of the educational experience.  The operating system has become fully functional but much of the educational software as it applies to Linux itself is lacking.

What Neal sees as a critical need, is a way to teach kids about their Linux system.  What better way than through a game?

The biggest challenge is making sure we are not reinventing the proverbial wheel here.

There are tens of thousands of active Free Open Source software projects akin to this currently.  Some are public, some are not...if there are programs out there that are meeting this need, there is no need to waste time duplicating it.  Our efforts are best spent augmenting those programs.  If they do not exist, then we want to create it.

Let me give you an idea of what Dr. Scogin has in mind.  From one of the emails between Neal and myself:

"I continue to work on the Linux Learning Computer Game.  The basic structure I am working on is to have the learner be presented with a Given set of information and then be confronted with a Situation which is like a question where they have to Respond to get a Result.  The Respond time and Outcome (Correct or Incorrect) give a certain Score.  I don't have a Game background but from my earliest days (Super Mario Brothers) it appears to me this is the structure.  If anything the Linux Learning Game is simpler.  I am using this structure to learn (teach) the Linux file structure as well as the A+ Certification."

Or more aptly, a stepping stone to eventually taking the Linux + courses and tests.  The immediate function of this game would be to familiarize the child with her system in a fun but challenging way.  That of course, at least theoretically, would prompt further curiosity or interest.


I am not a coder, and neither is Dr. Scogin, however not knowing how to write the software doesn't preclude one from seeing the need for that software.


What I want to do here, aside from letting you know this project exists, is to ask you if you know of a learning tool such as this.  Time is of more value than money and finding that the six months work you just completed was to duplicate another effort is not acceptable to anyone.

I am soliciting researchers, ideas, coders, artists, volunteers, and bloggers to help us move this project forward.  Sure, the current parameters are pretty loose but that's why I have put this in front of you.

I cannot think of anyone more qualified to be a part of making this happen.

All-Righty Then




14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ken, I suggest you take what information you have currently and create a google group for this project. It may not meet your needs further down the road but for now it might be a good place to start getting this down so any community formed can meet and discuss it.

Just a thought.

Gavin said...

I skimmed an article recently about something called "Quickly":

https://launchpad.net/quickly

I will read that article more carefully tonight. It is supposed to be an accelerated application builder, and it appears to have Ubuntu packages.

A short search turned up nothing for me as far as existing projects or applications of this sort. And good luck on YouTube, et al! Linux videos online tend not to be comprehensive, to put it lightly.

If I had a say in this, I would say that audio, video, and interaction should all be present in such a learning tool, much like games made for Windows or consoles. If you have ever played StarCraft's tutorial, for instance, you would know what I mean. Combine that with the video-based menu system of a DVD movie. Something that encompasses the whole range of human interaction with computers.

Gavin said...

I have now read the article more thoroughly. The article is in the July 2010 issue of Linux Journal. Unfortunately, I cannot find an online copy of the article, but there is more info here:

https://wiki.ubuntu.com/Quickly

Quickly was not designed to unencumber application development from coding, but it is designed to get most of the extraneous details out of the way. Right now, it looks like it can create an Ubuntu ready application in less than 20 minutes - just add code! Very nice.

Not being a dev myself, it is difficult to take Quickly for a test drive, but it looks impressive and may ultimately fit into your plan. You can easily test some Python code with it and see what it can do. Basically, it creates applications, so whatever you want it to do.

kenholmes said...

Stranger things have happened, Ken. Some guy named Linus put his idea and rudimentary beginnings forth inviting others to join in.

I won't be too surprised if Dr. Scogin is familiar with B. F. Skinner and his ideas on teaching machines.

I don't know, but I think it worth considering asking for a commitment from the kids and families to use the systems with Linux for 60 or 90 days before deciding to install something else. Even if I were in you shoes, I would not just jump on this, but rather thing about and feel the situation out. It wouldn't be a binding contract, I know, because that would defeat what you are doing for the kids. But having an agreement is generally of some value.

As I attempted to say to the Lxer commandos, we are dealing with hearts and minds, not just the technical facts. It doesn't help when Windows is so ubiquitous; in schools, libraries, even motel lobbies.

If you have a moment sometime, take a look at Pen Guy (I assume that is a pun on Pen Gwen) Linux. It is interesting; even though I messed up the desktop within 10 minutes.

Best to you.

Christopher Myer said...

I don't have much, but I have a bachelors in CS, and a fair bit of free time. I run Mint, and if you would like to send me some thoughts on what you are trying to accomplish in greater detail I'd be willing to offer my services, as well as the services of my local development group to the effort.

ignatzami yahoo com

I look forward to hearing from you.

Blog of helios said...

Christopher,

Email me helios at fixedbylinux dott kommm and we will see what we can get going.

h

William said...

I am trying to learn to use Ubuntu because I am so sick of working with microsoft. I just installed yesterday and used GIMP as the graphic design tool to build my new logo for Upper Valley Web.

Colonel Panik said...

The Colonel and Mrs. Panik just had a brief chat
about this. Do you think that the reason people,
especially the kids leave Linux is because their
friends are playing some non-Linux compatible game? Maybe iTunes?

But, I think the idea here is a visual, fun tutorial?
Heck, I will use it when it is ready.

Maybe an IRC channel? Fast way to work on those little problems.

Y'all are on target, as always.

Michael Hall said...

It doesn't teach Linux specifically, but Laby is a great little game that teaches general programming skills in Python, Java, C or (I think) OCaml. I've been including it in most of the computers I give out these days.

Here's the game:
http://www.pps.jussieu.fr/~gimenez/laby/

I spent 10 minutes telling my 5 year old that the python commands told the ant what to do, then left him alone and he wrote a program to get the ant to the door!

Anonymous said...

Here's an idea: don't try to fix the user, try to fix the Linux desktop.

You know, the operating paradigm of the common GNOME desktop isn't terribly different from Windows. So maybe, just maybe, something else factors into people not accepting Linux instead of the often-cited unfamiliarity.

I studied at a German technical university. All computer pools there were equipped with Linux machines, running OpenSUSE with KDE3. But almost all students had Windows computers. Miraculously the great majority of them was able to use OpenSUSE from the start without any problems. It's simply not an issue of unfamiliarity. Or missing training.

It's an issue of egos, missing resources, and, most importantly, the mentality of "good enough".

Most Open Source developers constantly aim for "good enough". They aim for "works for me". Precious few aim for excellent, elegant, well-documented, easy-to-use programs.

So, let me reiterate: it's not the user's fault! Desktop Linux is broken at its base!

And there is no one in sight that takes up the staff and builds something around the Linux kernel that truly can challenge Windows. With Linux distributions it's just always more of the same, more of the same. But that's the problem with many Linux users: they find it quite comfortable in their niche.

Gavin said...

Anonymous #2 - "So, let me reiterate: it's not the user's fault! Desktop Linux is broken at its base!"

How dare you proclaim that the Linux God is lacking in any way! It is beyond perfect in every way, and the evil Micro$oft does everything wrong! Linux is a holy light in this world of starving children in Africa, and all the developers are giving away their time for free! Show your respect! You must be one of those who does not give back to the community!

Anyway, that is my impression of a Linux zealot, albeit with much better spelling and grammar and punctuation. Now that we have that out of the way...


"But that's the problem with many Linux users: they find it quite comfortable in their niche."

In terms of this topic, I think a major problem is that Linux users today checked out of the Windows world back in WinXP. Hardly anyone has much experience with Vista's GUI, and 7's GUI is good but not widely used in the workplace yet. So WinXP's 10-year-old GUI is still the standard by which most people compare.

To be fair, I think modern Linux GUI's compare very favorably to WinXP's, even with add-on themes, to the point of crushing it. But Vista and 7 kicked it up a notch, and there are many features of 7's GUI that I would like to see in the Linux world. As soon as more KDE and Gnome developers see what 7 has, I think the user interface wars will heat up again. (Not that they ever stopped, but less Gnome vs KDE and more Gnome/KDE vs Win7.) This in turn will spur more distribution communities to focus on integration of programs with the GUI, new toolsets, etc - much like Ubuntu has been doing.

It is all a work-in-progress in many ways, but I think the bright light at the end of the tunnel is the vast community of Windows curmudgeons (especially in IT) who are sticking to WinXP until MS takes it away from them AND are constantly making the GUI look like Win2k's. 7's GUI provides no such handholding and in fact requires significant graphics resources to run its 3D-native interface, even on "low" settings. I believe that Linux distributions will have matured to the point of general usability (in terms of the program/UI integration) by the time these Windows curmudgeons are finally forced to flee the burning building of WinXP. The flexibility in Linux to run a fancy GUI or a basic GUI or no GUI at all on a single distribution will win more converts in the end. 4 years to go!

Gavin said...

Anonymous #2 - "So, let me reiterate: it's not the user's fault! Desktop Linux is broken at its base!"

How dare you proclaim that the Linux God is lacking in any way! It is beyond perfect in every way, and the evil Micro$oft does everything wrong! Linux is a holy light in this world of starving children in Africa, and all the developers are giving away their time for free! Show your respect! You must be one of those who does not give back to the community!

Anyway, that is my impression of a Linux zealot, albeit with much better spelling and grammar and punctuation. Now that we have that out of the way...


"But that's the problem with many Linux users: they find it quite comfortable in their niche."

In terms of this topic, I think a major problem is that Linux users today checked out of the Windows world back in WinXP. Hardly anyone has much experience with Vista's GUI, and 7's GUI is good but not widely used in the workplace yet. So WinXP's 10-year-old GUI is still the standard by which most people compare.

To be fair, I think modern Linux GUI's compare very favorably to WinXP's, even with add-on themes, to the point of crushing it. But Vista and 7 kicked it up a notch, and there are many features of 7's GUI that I would like to see in the Linux world. As soon as more KDE and Gnome developers see what 7 has, I think the user interface wars will heat up again. (Not that they ever stopped, but less Gnome vs KDE and more Gnome/KDE vs Win7.) This in turn will spur more distribution communities to focus on integration of programs with the GUI, new toolsets, etc - much like Ubuntu has been doing.

It is all a work-in-progress in many ways, but I think the bright light at the end of the tunnel is the vast community of Windows curmudgeons (especially in IT) who are sticking to WinXP until MS takes it away from them AND are constantly making the GUI look like Win2k's. 7's GUI provides no such handholding and in fact requires significant graphics resources to run its 3D-native interface, even on "low" settings. I believe that Linux distributions will have matured to the point of general usability (in terms of the program/UI integration) by the time these Windows curmudgeons are finally forced to flee the burning building of WinXP. The flexibility in Linux to run a fancy GUI or a basic GUI or no GUI at all on a single distribution will win more converts in the end. 4 years to go!

Anonymous said...

I've been in similar situations - you see someone has a need for a basic desktop computer, you put one together for them out of spare parts or old systems you don't use anymore, put Linux on it and give them a decent Internet-capable desktop, and give it to them as a gift. Then weeks or months later you find out they reformatted the drive and put Windows on it. The first thing that comes into my mind is: If you had the money to buy a copy of Windows, then why the hell did you tell me you couldn't afford a computer. If you didn't buy a copy of Windows then you are running their software illegally and you should be prepared to face whatever consequences that involves.

Gavin said...

I did some more digging, and apparently Quickly is supposed to work well with something called Acire:

http://www.ubuntugeek.com/acire-browse-python-code-snippets-quickly-and-easily.html

Acire is a big Python learning tool that contains Python code snippets that can be run and tested. The idea is to make it easier to get coding with Python, while of course Quickly provides the desktop application framework, so that the two of them together can "quickly" be used to create a fully functioning program.

These could be two primary tools in this effort.