"Linux? No way," I'd start out when someone asked me to consider it. "There's just not enough educational software out there for it, it's too hard to install programs, and what's really out there for it?" Besides, I always imagined a command line, clunky interface, and balding 40-year-olds singing the praises of a Microsoft-free system.
However, in November, 2004, my curiosity finally got the better of me (I also took one step closer to 40 even as my hairline receded). What finally convinced me was going to the Ubuntu site and installing UbuntuLinux on my old, original iMac. Where I thought I had a completely worthless computer system, obsolete and ready for the junkyard, I discovered I now had a system using the latest version of Firefox and OpenOffice, a MS Office compatible suite. When my wife used it to access the Web version of her gradebook, incompatible with Mac OS 8.6 running Internet Explorer, I knew I was onto something.
Moving My Own Cheese: Considering Linux as an Alternative
After seven months of trying new things at all hours of the night, I've learned a few things about Linux's usability. While I do not advocate a 100% switch to the Linux Operating System in all situations, I can definitely see its use in many classrooms and computer labs. Most certainly, Linux has a place in the homes of our students and teachers as an alternative to proprietary software and products. That is, instead of buying software to put on your computer, you can get Linux and use the software that comes for free on it.
A big surprise for me about Linux is that there is so much software available for download and installation. If you want a program in Windows, you buy it or you can go seek it out on the Web. While you can do the same thing in Linux, you can also run a program on your computer and do a search against the extensive software library available.
How to Get Started with Linux
Before we look at the different software programs that are available, it might be appropriate to discuss how one might get started with Linux. To get started with Linux, you will need to obtain a Linux CD-ROM (and a personal tutor!). The first step in entering the Linux world is getting your hands on a live CD. A live CD allows you to experiment with Linux without actually changing anything on your computer. You can find a wide variety online at DistroWatch.com.
For starters, I recommend you get the SimplyMepis Linux CD. It comes with both the utilities I mention below. This is one of the easiest Linux Live CDs, and installation on your computer is straightforward. You can get an image of the CD — essentially, a digital copy — in a special format known as an "ISO." You "burn" the CD using the digital copy then restart your computer with the CD in the drive. A free program that works with Windows XP is available online at TeraByte Unlimited and is known as BurnCDCC.
SimplyMepis — as well as other Linux distributions — have built-in software to help you find it WITHOUT having to go to a command line reminiscent of DOS. The greatest shock in terms of software is that almost everything on Windows that you need for work is found on Linux. It's just a matter of finding out what that software is called.
Now, a quick clarification. There are different types of Linux. While I'm not sure of the distinguishing features, I do know that the ones recommended here — SimplyMepis and Ubuntu — are Debian-based. Apparently, it is easier to install software on Debian-based distributions. And, based on my experiences, that's definitely true.
Another clarification: in spite of your distribution, there are two graphical user interfaces to the Linux command line. The most developed is known as KDE, while a no frills GUI is Gnome. SimplyMepis uses KDE while Ubuntu uses Gnome (although you can get Kubuntu which is Ubuntu with KDE GUI). As a newbie, I would recommend starting out with KDE since it has every program imaginable loaded.
Once you have explored Linux, you can easily switch to Gnome for a slimmed down GUI. There are other GUIs that are even simpler and less memory intensive (for example, for slower computers) such as XFCE. All these different GUIs — Gnome, KDE, XFCE — provide an interface to Linux.
It is during installation that you can tell quality Linux installations apart. Hands down, UbuntuLinux and SimplyMepis were the easiest installations because they either came with detailed installation instructions or came preloaded with everything you could imagine. For example, there is a detailed installation guide that helps you prepare UbuntuLinux online at UbuntuGuide.org. Of course, SimplyMepis comes preloaded with almost everything imaginable that you would want. Both distributions have extensive online support with dedicated volunteers to answer questions. I used both online forums with great success.
SimplyMepis was incredible since software came pre-loaded and ready to work. For example, Firefox Browser, MPlayer (plays both Quicktime and Windows Media Player media), K3B (a CD-burning software that rivals Nero CD Burning software), Open Office, and much more were ready to go. Within 20 minutes of starting the process, I was ready to go with SimplyMepis.
Best of all, SimplyMepis came on a single CD-ROM as opposed to three to four CDs — as a "live CD." If the SimplyMepis Linux LiveCD boots up on your computer, and everything works, then you know you can install it on your machine with complete compatibility. I did my installations as I surfed the web. This was wonderful — everything worked from the get-go. Also, I could access any data on my Windows partition. This was important since I didn't want to have two versions of my data, one on the Linux section/partition and another on the Windows. Think of this as great for accessing MP3s, other documents you only want to work with as a single version.
Open Office which includes word processor, spreadsheet, and Web page editor
Compatible with MS Office XP. Only minor formatting differences but I've switched to OpenOffice instead of MS Office. I can read from and write to Word, Excel files. It's not perfect, don't get me wrong, but it's darn near close. I don't use Access database since most my databases end up on the web.
As a writer, I prefer smaller and leaner word processes rather than the behemoths. So, I use AbiWord on Linux and/or Windows when writing articles. AbiWord is free and can be easily installed.
Gnumeric Spreadsheet program
A spreadsheet program that is powerful and is compatible with MS Excel.
Desktop publishing software. Although native to Linux operating system, it works fine on Windows, and, with a few tweaks, on Macintosh operating systems. Unfortunately, it does not come with a wide range of templates like MS Publisher, but it does have some basic templates to get you started.
Allows you to burn CDs, whether copies or from CD image files known as "ISO." Very easy to use and offers more functionality than some commercial programs available on Windows.
This free web page editor works on Linux, Windows and Macintosh. While it still has a ways to go before it's in the same league as Macromedia Studio MX 2004, it works very well for home or classroom use.
If you've used Adobe Photoshop or Macromedia Fireworks, then you're familiar with this type of image manipulation/editing software. Once again, very powerful software at no cost.
Allows you to run Windows software on Linux platform (works quite well with specific software). Costs about $40. Allows you to run Macromedia Studio MX, MS Office XP, and a wide variety of other software. Graphic organizer software — Inspiration — runs great on it. This software does not come standard on Linux installations since it is "non-free." However, for those who must have a Windows application available, CrossOver will meet your need.
Allows one to run Windows games on the Linux platform. They have quite an extensive list. Cost is extremely low, more of a subscription than anything else.
Allows you to create concept maps — similar to Inspiration/Kidspiration. This is a full featured program that you can download — and it has both Spanish and English tutorials — online at: http://cmap.ihmc.us/download/index.php?myPlat=Win
Some miscellaneous software I have found useful (all free) includes the following:
- Krusader File Management Software to work with files, file transfer protocol (FTP).
- Gannt Project: This project management tool — which works on Windows, Linux, and Mac — can be downloaded online. This program is essential if you need an MS Projects type program to help you do project management.
And, of course, a wide variety of other programs exist on the Linux platform.
The strangest thing is that I have gone through withdrawal from Windows. I'm always looking for free stuff to run on Windows...in Linux, all the free software is already there in multiple varieties. It's an amazing feeling I can't explain.
While I have left out volumes of information on using Linux, you now have more information than I did when I started down the Linux path. Has the journey been worth it? Definitely. I enjoy a freedom from proprietary software and feel part of a greater community of users.
More importantly, Linux software provides a whole new world of tools I can use to enhance my computing experience. To obtain similar tools on the Windows side would certainly have forced me to make a sizeable investment. With Linux, I can lessen my own total cost of ownership.