Five years with Skolelinux

By Knut Yrvin, July the 14th 2006 (draft)

At a summer party in June 2001, Petter Reinholdtsen (the project's system architect) and Knut Yrvin were talking about how sad it was that most local schools had little besides old computers and a few applications running on Windows, and very little money for upgrades. It was frustrating to see that software in use at Norwegian schools prevented pupils interested in technical, under-the-hood things from learning by example - from source code written by expert programmers. We decided there and then to stop talking about it and simply do it. 13 participants (with 12 other interested parties unable to attend) had a kick-off meeting on July 2, 2001.

At the meeting we decided to go for a server centric solution with full support for centralised operation and maintenance. The will be a out of the box support for thin clients and workstations. The server would run a lot of standardised services. User should have their own user account, and they could use many programs and net services as e-mail and Internet. The Debian GNU/Linux distribution was selected as the basis for our work. The steering model was do-ocracy, where they who does something decides (and you cant hinder others to make good positive contributions to the common goal). We got the first CD-build ready by 16. august, and pre-release 06 was the first that installed October the 22th 2001.

Political contacts

Early in the project we got a contact with the Norwegian language union, and got to know their struggle getting support for New Norwegian language on computers. The support for New Norwegian was already in place on Linux since KDE 2.0. On the meeting with the political leaders at the Ministry of Education September the 17th, we decided to send and applications for a project report which investigated how to found free software development for schools in Norway. The last thing the Labour governed government did was too support this report with 25.000 Euro with the following goals:

The core goals of Skolelinux is to ensure that there are no language barriers keeping the majority of pupils whose mother tongue is not English from finding their way to the information highway. Another key goal is to lessen the burden on teachers and school system administrators. It has to be a concept for simple installation and maintenance of the software in the schools. We also wanted to achieve a realistic introduction and spread of the software to use in a learning environment. One of the basic concerns for the project has been that computer tools in the schools should be based on pedagogical principles and not be guided by whatever software is most widely used.

Deliver is king

After 3 months the number of contributors had increased to 50. Someone had started translating the graphical interface of February the 1th to 3th we had our first developer gathering. The NUUG Foundation gave a contribution that made the possible to pay for transportation. Gatherings showed us that we could get rid of a lot of misunderstandings that happens when we communicate by email and IRC. In the spring 2002 the translation project started with 3 Norwegian City Councils. We had also delivered the project report to the ministry May the 1th. And at the autumn 2002 we got signals that the Ministry of Education would continue the part of the Skolelinux project. In November the Germans joined the team, and in Desember 2002 we got in contact with Erlen Reitan, owner of ?InOut, a company that sells reused computers.

It was of great importance to make Skolelinux easy to install, and easy to acquire. The marked situation since 1998 has been that the schools with school agreement has to by Microsoft licences also for machines with Linux, Apple or other competing PC-systems installed. The Norwegian Directorate for Education and Training also had an agreement to give away Windows 2000 Professional on all reused computer that had a Win 9X licence. In 2001 most of the firms that sold new hardware did not show any interests for Linux on the desktop. So the most viable option to make Skolelinux a choice on the pupils desktop was to make and sell packages with 30-60-100 reused clients with PXE-boot and the necessary server(s) and network switches.

Gaining marked share

After our initially talk with ?InOut we made this solutions available and sold on the marked. If a school bought a package with 30 clients or more, they also got a teachers who used a day to teach the teachers how to use the KDE dekstop, and some of the most known programs. In 2004 ?InOut sold 100 packages with Skolelinux. The sale dropped a bit early in 2005 because of the old desktop with the Woody version of Skolelinux. When stable enough Sarge version of Skolelinux came along the spring 2005, the sail really went up, and ?InOut sold even a bit more solutions in 2005. We also started a company for maintenance and upkeep of Skolelinux installations the winter 2005/2006. This also helped the schools so that they could have professionally support if something with the maintenance went wrong, or the schools wanted a service level agreement. The effort done by ?InOut selling reused PCs as thin clients or diskless workstations (half thick clients) should not be underestimated. It has been the combined work with promoting Skolelinux for the project, and the sales of solutions that have given more than 200 schools that uses the system in Norway.

The Community is growing

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NUUG was helping out with arranging the Debconf 3 conferenca at the University of Oslo. It were over 120 participants. An if you add with the Skolelinux developers it was even 30 more people that was joining this work. At debconf 3 we demonstrated the improved Debian installer made by the Skolelinux developers. One a live presentation Skolelinux was installed and the X and windows-manager went up automatically. That inspired central Debian developers to engage in the improvement of Skolelinux from a usability standpoint. We also negotiated an agreement to be a official partner of Debian after that with the Foundation SLX Debian Labs (SLX = Skolelinux).

Skolelinux from 1 to 2

June the 8th 2004 we made a release event for Skolelinux 1.0. We had postponed the release for 9 months to get our third attempt to get the user admin tool in place.

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Since the start in the summer of 2001 there has been contributions from over 300 volunteers.