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Free Upgrade South Tyrol's Schools

Emanuela Atz is an English teacher, from Salorno/Bolzano- South Tyrol - Italy. She tells more about a project with Italian schools in the province of Bolzano which switched from Windows to Linux in 2005.

The project is called "Free Upgrade South Tyrol's Schools - FUSS" and it was funded by the Italian Scholastic Intendancy of the Province of Bozen, the European Social Fund and the Centre for Professional Training in Italian (CTS "Luigi Einaudi").

The important issue in this project is freedom, as you can understand from the project site page:
“The decision to use free software in schools is indeed, beyond economic and technical reasons, an ethical and political choice. It is a choice to rebuild from the start using and teaching computing, with the values of freedom and sharing, and not just in the use of software which is efficient, stable, and secure It runs on older machines, and is not subject to licensing costs.(…) There are benefits of free software, and work can be improved and made more pleasant with the use of cooperatively-developed tools. “

In September 2005 the entire computing infrastructure for the region's Italian-speaking schools – a total of 2640 computers - was migrated to a free software platform by 40 IT professionals. 

The project developed its own version of Debian, which it calls "FUSS Soledad GNU/Linux," or just "Soledad". Soledad is based upon the Sarge release, but the FUSS developers have made a number of changes.

The installer and default configuration have been adapted to the schools' needs, and a special GNOME-based desktop has been put together. The mix of packages has carefully selected for the target audience, with a strong bias toward educational software. The package list for the desktop configuration is available; there is also a version of Soledad for server deployments.

ISO images of Soledad are available from the FUSS download page. The project has also developed a CD which has been handed out to students and teachers so that they may all run the same software at home. The students of these schools will be able to do all of their schoolwork using free software. The local structure made it easier to convert the entire school system at once: the autonomy of the province for instance helped a lot, since decisions are made locally. Furthermore the Italian schools of this area are organized around a central purchasing structure for information technology and the relationship between the schools and the central IT coordination team is good.

First results and impressions from schools
About forty teachers were asked, after some months of teaching experience with FUSS, to point out the problems and solutions. Their answers have shown a successful experience, even thought a not-entirely-smooth transition. Most of the teachers seem happy enough and no one has said that the schools should go back to the previous, proprietary systems. According to this, the teachers have pointed out not only that free software may have saved money for their central IT department, but they have also underlined the ethical aspects of free software:
“I think it's natural and obvious that the schools, as an institution, should use free software. The sharing of knowledge, the freedom of access to information should be one of the basic points in any learning process. It seems to me that the philosophy of free software is based on the same principles.”

Anyway, there were some complaints as well. Printers above all, but also other peripheral devices were problematic and often required the intervention of the central FUSS staff. Many teachers have difficulties to see a Linux-based network as something they can themselves administer:
“The FUSS group has done a truly excellent job, they have been well prepared and quick to come to the school to resolve problems, but this is insufficient in the long term. The schools need somebody who works just to keep the system running. If this work gets dumped onto a teacher (who may lack, as in my case, a technical background) the system will never work correctly."

The key software – Open Office in particular - is working well for both students and teachers, even though there is a big problem with macros, which must be rewritten to work on the new system.

Plans for the future
Will other school systems follow the FUSS project's example? This is an important question. South Tyrol area has two parallel school systems: the Italian-speaking schools (which moved to Linux) and the German-speaking schools (which did not). If any group of schools were likely to be inspired by FUSS, it would be the German-language schools of Bolzano. Most teachers seem to expect this change will happen sooner or later.

Truelite SRL, an Italian GNU/Linux consultancy company co-ordinated the deployment. Christopher Gabriel, Truelite chief technical officer, was responsible for the technical aspects of the migration, software development and teaching the courses: “There are some similar projects here in Italy, all in an embryonic phase. FUSS is the only project which has already installed software onto schools' computer systems.”

Project co-director Antonio J. Russo, speaking for the Italian Scholastic Intendancy of the Province of Bozen said: “Due to its proximity to Austria, Switzerland, and Hungary, the Italian South Tyrol region is a major intersection for people speaking multiple languages. New ideas in educational software - especially those without licensing costs - were needed”.

Russo, co-director Paolo Zilotti, and Gabriel are continuing to direct the team: they offer support for system administrators and individual teachers, and plan to develop more educational software with the collaboration of all the schools' teachers, technicians, and students.

Read more: http://www.fuss.bz.it/ ( in Italian)


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