Edubuntu for Burundi

http://www.edubuntu.org/

The original idea behind inexpensive laptops for the third world was supplemented by the powers of capital depreciation. Specifically, why try and design a new $100 laptop for developing nations’ students when a first world $1500 laptop will be written down and donated to charities and volunteer groups within 2-3 years?

edubuntu desktop

edubuntu desktop

We recently had the opportunity to take advantage of a situation like this – a school in Burundi would benefit from 25 nice HP laptops, netbooks, and convertible tablets if we could find OS and education software for them. Laptops work well in this situation, since power is intermittent, and the load that can be taken from generators when they are available should be minimized. The mix of existing license keys for Windows XP through Vista and 7 were not going to be easy to work with, so I chose Ubuntu as the OS and an education package that included GCompris (140+ education mini games), Marble (Goolge Earth), Celestia (astronomy), and of course LibreOffice. Here are some of the things I learned and can pass on to save you a few minutes in a similar situation:

  • Try the Edubuntu Distribution at http://www.edubuntu.org/. It has GCompris and the other software already in the image
  • HP Laptops play very well with Ubuntu 14, from Wifi to webcams and even stylus/tablet. Models included Elitebook, 8170p (17″ machines), and 5101 Netbooks. (Linlap is a great reference for linux/laptop compatibility based on community feedback.) Very little configuration was needed aside from some wake up changes to etc/NetworkManagaer/NetworkManage.conf file. Specifically, setting the Wifi controller to be explicitly managed. This only had to be done to a few of the 5101s
    managed=true
  • Ideally I wanted to install an offline version of Wikipedia and wikibooks. I found that Xowa could do the trick, and that English wikipedia without photos was about 5GB. Wikibooks was around 1GB. In order to have images and media, the Common package must be downloaded as well, best done from within Xowa’s download manager. This is still a bit of a work in progress, though, since I would like to install this from a stick, not n/w download
  • Edubuntu run off a stick runs well with no known issues, good for machines missing hard drives, since storage space can be allocated on the USB stick at the time of creation.
  • Install time is about thirty minutes per computer from a USB stick, Some care and feeding is needed during install, a fully automated install with all options preselected would be the next step for a project any larger than this one
  • The Unity interface is intuitive for teachers used to Windows or OSX, though the applications menu via the default search icon is somewhat non-intuitive (a bit like windows 8 where you can’t just see all apps immediately)

Lesson learned – the Linux community is thinking about computer literacy for developing countries, and it shows!

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Splitting Learning into Foundations and Differences

Analogous function but different solutions to arms and wings (source: http://mrsgebauer.com/bats/birds/bird.html)

Analogous function but different solutions to arms and wings (source: http://mrsgebauer.com/bats/birds/bird.html)

My favourite techniques in extending technical knowledge are a “Parallels” method and the “Hub Analogy” method.

Parallels Method: For example, if someone knows how to solve a particular problem in Java, map each step over to the target language – say Objective C, and line up the equivalent functionality. Then, differences are much more easily explained, as they stand out from this common basis. This method works great when laterally moving through equivalent topics.

Hub Analogy Method: I recently had the opportunity to do a presentation to new pilots on how airplanes land at an airport. The aviation terms and language really make no sense to a newcomer, especially in 5 minutes, so I started with the idea that landing at an airport is a lot like going through a Tim Horton’s Drivethru: you line up, follow the signs, make a radio call with your request, and keep yourself away from other traffic. This had the benefit of allowing us to ‘hang’ new ideas off this solid mental model which everyone could be familiar with. For example, you can call the Tim Horton’s person the ‘Tower’ and introduce the concept of ‘runway clearance’ as the equivalent of, ‘please drive up to the second window’. A familiar and flexible hub analogy allows better student recall by splitting new learning into Foundation and Connected Differences, i.e. Hub and Spokes. This method works best when introducing less familiar or totally unfamiliar topics. (It is most notoriously misused in science documentaries as the classic units of measure: “Human Hair”, “elephants”, “Golf Ball” and “Football Fields”)

No technique is going to work as well without examples. Popular books from Gladwell and Kahneman are completely saturated with examples because they know that we learn by generalizing, not by making up specifics after memorizing some abstract framework. Humans evolved to think, “I don’t eat that fish because that one time I did was pretty bad, therefore, no yellow-striped fish for me of any kind.”, not, “anything that is sending a signal it is poisonous is highly visible as opposed to camouflaged, therefore I will not try that fish over there.” Examples are also a form of storytelling – which is just a way of conveying a personal experience like, “In and Out: That One Time I Ate That Yellow Striped Yuck Fish”. We love stories because humans are empathy machines, and blur our Specifics into Generalizations.

Oh yeah, the Arduino

$T2eC16d,!)kE9s4,BL5tBRnWzK3EZg~~60_35The California Science Center is now home to the Space Shuttle Endeavour, and while I get together my article on the exhibit, I wanted to share a bit of fun that was had with the Metal Earth laser cut “metalgami” model I picked up there:

These little models are precision made and kind of make you wish you were precision made to the same level. This is somewhere between origami and “Slot A into Tab B” kind of work and the fun is definitely in the assembly.

Still, it is a little bit of genius to see how each 3D form comes from a piece of a common metal sheet, and all you really need is a pair of tweezers and maybe a few wooden dowels and a straightedge to get some of the curves right.

Is it for Kids? Certain kinds of kids – the ones that work with Lego Technic or Kinex or, of course, origami. Is it for Engineers who grew up with the Shuttle? Heck yes.

Arduino for time-lapse

The time-lapse video was made with an arduino board that triggered the infrared remote receiver of an EOS-M every 2 seconds or so. Extra parts were a 9V battery (in the 5V board power input) and a standard IR LED. The EOS-M is a cheap way to get a good APS-C -sized sensor in a tiny package, but has no straightforward way to remote trigger via a cable.