And now, I pour a little out for my homies

I wanted to document my school’s technology situation, and how I have chosen to tackle the gargantuan task of teaching computer skills to 300 kids with 5 computers. Rather than doing this in an email, which is a waste of bandwidth and would fill the inboxes of those who don’t care/don’t understand, I have decided to do it as a blog post.

I came to Nkoranman Senior High School in late July of 2008 on site visit as a then-Peace Corps Trainee. I was presented a pile of computer equipment and told “this is what we have.” I had a pile of approximately 15 computers, split between Dell Optiplex GXpro 200s and Compaq Deskpro 5400s. In addition, I also had 3 computers that had been tasked for use in the administrative offices, mostly for word processing.

HARDWARE

My first task was to figure out what worked. I removed the parts from pretty much all the machines, set up a couple of testing stations, and proceeded to identify the working hardware. Out of the 15 machines, 6 of them worked — 5 Dells and an AST Advantage. I also had a tidy pile of spare parts — hard drives, video cards, network cards, memory, CD-ROM drives, and a couple of spare power supplies. I took these, set them aside, made a list of parts I needed to make the 5 Dell machines usable, and stripped down the rest. I did save one of the Compaq machines, as well as some of its parts, for use in teaching hardware. As for the AST machine, I decided to save it for a later project in which I try turning it into a router using the LEAF Project‘s software.

My next task was to get the machines I did have to an operational state. They turned on, they would start to boot, but they didn’t do anything. After a trip to Kumasi to pick up more hard drives, and a few donated floppy diskettes (remember those?), I was able to put together some computers that were ready for software.

At this point, my 5 machines had roughly the following hardware specs:
– Pentium Pro with MMX 200MHz
– 32-64 MB of EDO DRAM, depending on the machine
– 3-10GB Hard disk space, again depending on the machine
– Onboard USB 1.1 (except for one machine)
– Onboard 10/100 network interface cards
– 16X CD-ROM Drive
– 1.44MB 3.5″ Floppy Drive

The far end of trailing-edge hardware. The rare memory and lack of it made doing anything fancy out of the question; these machines were not going to run Windows XP. At the same time, I was reluctant to try anything like Windows 98, due to the fact that it’s no longer supported. It looked like Linux was about my only option.

SOFTWARE

At first, I was limited to what I brought with me: Ubuntu and Xubuntu. Both of these ended in resounding failure, due to the ridiculous amount of resources required by Xorg and Gnome. Luckily, about the time I cleaned up the remnants of Xubuntu, I had internet access at site. I thus began to download and test the following distributions:
Damn Small Linux
Puppy Linux
cAos
TinyMe
Debian Etch (netinstall)

In the end, Debian won out. The rest were either too rigid or difficult for me to work with, and Debian allowed me to install only what I needed to teach. Due to the homogenous nature of my hardware, I also had the added benefit of being able to create one “build” of Debian, which I could then copy to all of my machines almost verbatim.

The next task was figuring out what software I needed within Debian. I needed something that wouldn’t be too intimidating for a first-time computer user, but would still run smoothly on the hardware I had. I also needed a few basic apps for teaching keyboard skills and mouse usage, and a way to make everything accessible graphically. The whole setup had to be secure and contained, so that I could control the computing experience without the kids changing the wallpaper or screwing with settings as they became more familiar with the setup. Finally, I needed to make the user interface look aesthetically similar to Windows so that my students wouldn’t be incredibly confused the first time they used a Windows box.

In the end, I opted to use a combination of Xorg, IceWM, and iDesk to give me a Windows-like feel that I could keep somewhat locked-down. I also installed XDM to present a graphical logon, and customized it a bit to make it look less like XDM. The only two applications I have installed at present are TuxTyping 2 and TuxPaint. I figure that if I have nothing else installed, it’s nothing else that can turn back and shoot me in the face.

INSTALLATION

I finished tweaking the settings, gave it revision number 0.1, and moved on to the arduous process of getting the software from 1 computer to 5. Rather than configure each box by hand, and because my hardware is pretty much all the same, I opted to use disk imaging for my lab. I used the System Rescue CD 0.2.19 live CD and my trusty USB pen drive to create the image, then deployed it to my 4 other classroom machines in the same way. Once the imaging was complete, I’d reboot, change the hostname (I’m using lab01 through lab05) and reconfigure X to use the proper resolutions for that monitor.

There were a few snags in this plan. First off, I had to rob memory out of all of the machines in order to provide the machine I was imaging at the time with the 128MB required to boot the live CD. Second, not all of the machines had CD-ROM drives that were CD-RW friendly (one of the more useful tools I brought to Ghana), so I had to install a drive that was in order to boot the live CD. Finally, I have one machine that doesn’t have USB, which resulted in me using two CD-ROM drives and two CD-RWs to install the image. All things considered, the process was cumbersome, but I’d expect any first-run system to be so.

TRIAL BY FIRE

The only true way to test software is to give it to users. In an educational setting, that means sitting a kid down in front of the machine and letting them bang on it. It has been nothing short of a resounding success — the kids love to use TuxPaint, and they scramble for the opportunity to play TuxTyping games. The first night I had the lab open, I came home feeling like a king. These kids finally have the chance to learn practical computer skills, and I managed to do it without any horrible crash-and-burn failures.

THOUGHTS AND NEXT STEPS

I’ve been using this build for about three weeks now, and it’s been surprisingly issue-free. I do have some cosmetic gripes, of course — I want to find a display manager that’s more user-friendly than XDM, I need to find a way to lock the icon position on the desktop, and so on. I also would like to optimize memory usage, both by compiling a custom kernel and removing unnecessary services from boot. Finally, I’d like to set up another small linux system just for re-imaging the machines, so that I don’t have to go through the cumbersome process of frankensteining together hardware every time I deploy a software update.

I also still have the administration machines to worry about. Right now, they work, so I’m trying not to change them until I have a reason to. At some point, however, I’ll probably end up deploying some sort of system for storing documents in a central location, as well as some sort of student information system — whether that ends up being a glorified spreadsheet or something more meaty is yet to be seen.

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Grant

I'm just this guy, you know?

2 thoughts on “And now, I pour a little out for my homies”

  1. Hey Grant, nice job! The first computer I purchased was a pentium 200 MMX, so your post brings back the memories (I was using my mom’s 286 before that). Anyway, are you going to have a budget to buy some newer-ish lab machines one of these days?

  2. Good going. It all sounds very interesting. As an African I’d love to be in those kids shoes and picking up on the stuff you’re teaching them.

    I can assure you that, for them, these are lifetime experiences they are going through right now.

    Kudos also for realising that no matter what people think about Microsoft, these kids knowledge will be best applied if they are not lost when they first see Windows.

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