Ubuntu 11.04: The Ultimate Educational Desktop?

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I’ve been using Ubuntu 11.04 since it was in Alpha testing and it’s my primary OS for the various netbooks I have floating around my house. Regular readers will know that I’ve used Ubuntu for quite a while, whether as a server or desktop OS. I spend a lot of time nowadays on my Mac, which is great, but I can’t help but feel that this latest version of Ubuntu just might be the ultimate educational desktop for a lot of reasons.

For that matter, it just might overthrow OS X as my personal favorite, but that’s another story for another day. Education has more to gain from Ubuntu 11.04 than I do. Here’s why.

I first tried Ubuntu on aging school desktops a few years ago in an attempt to save money with free software and extend the life of some ancient computers. It worked, but Ubuntu has come a long ways since then. And so have our users, both adult and student. We all now use Android and iOS phones and navigate an interface that isn’t Windows with aplomb.

Which is where the new Unity interface comes in. Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols interviewed Canonical founder, Mark Shuttleworth, who described it this way:

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Shuttleworth opened by saying that the main point of Ubuntu 11.04 with Unity was “to bring the joys and freedoms and innovation and performance and security that have always been part of the Linux platform, to a consumer audience.”

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In education, far more than in most industries, our users are very much consumers (or at least most carry a consumer mindset towards technology). There are many notable exceptions, of course. I wouldn’t call Karl Fisch a consumer, for example, and many of the people who are using technology in really transformative ways definitely aren’t.

However, our students, wired as they are, generally neither know nor care what’s happening under the hoods of their iPhones and Windows 7 PCs. Unity, whether you love it or hate it (and there are plenty in both camps) does a great job of masking the inner workings of Linux that bring out the Windows fanbois like flies to honey. All that is surfaced in Unity is what you need.

In schools, that amounts to the web browser of your choice, productivity software if you haven’t adopted some cloud-based alternative, and whatever educational software you decide to use. The less students and teachers see, the better (outside of courses that need them to see more or do more). The focus, after all, should be on the learning and not on whatever tech toys, goodies, or distractions are at hand.

In fact, Unity feels much more like Android than any other desktop OS before it. Ubuntu has finally stopped trying to be Windows or OS X with Gnome and KDE user interfaces and is now a uniquely positioned desktop operating system with the feel of a mobile device that resonates with a broad cross-section of users. Users will pull out their Droids and iPhones and happily move between workspaces and screens with icons organized for their most frequently used apps. The same now goes for Unity, simplifying navigation, and making for a free, stable experience.

There’s that word again. Almost 6 years ago, when I first used Ubuntu in that miserable lab, it was because it was free of malware and free of cost. The malware is still largely a non-issue and the OS is still free in every sense of the word.

Obviously, if your school has mission-critical applications that simply won’t work on Ubuntu, then you need to look elsewhere. However, without even looking at Edubuntu and the volumes of free educational software available in the Ubuntu repositories, most schools will find their needs served extremely well by the clean, simplified interface that is Unity. It doesn’t hurt that it boots incredibly fast, is easy for users of all levels to adopt, and works nicely on machines ranging from full desktops to the smallest netbooks. No more netbook remixes, just a “unified” interface that works nicely across machines.

Shuttleworth will be the first to admit that it’s a work in progress, but this is one project that has taken a major leap forward in “doing something different.” Those differences can have a direct benefit to teachers and students, if they’re as willing to be flexible with their desktops and laptops as they are with their smartphones.

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