Open Source for Open Courses

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Open Source for Open Courses

Postby fede » Fri Aug 27, 2010 2:26 am

Hello. I am one of many instructors working on a project that aims at creating Community College level digital courses that will require at most $30 in required material, including textbooks and all (there are other similar projects - mine is aimed at Washington State, and is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, but the material will be made available to the world). The course will be released under a Creative Commons BY license. Personally, I am in charge of an "Introduction to Statistics" course. The timeline is for the course to be tested in January-March, and released in the wild by June 2011.

What does this have to do with Linux? Well, on one side, I am doing this working exclusively with Linux tools - and I doubt I could do all I am doing in any other environment! But that's not why I am writing this. The project aims at making the courses available worldwide, and the organizers have made quite some noise about this global perspective.

Now, I have been mulling that there is something that could be done to make this less unrealistic, but that the organizers haven't even thought about. The issue I have been thinking about is "how would a would-be user be able to modify and adapt this course, if they wanted or had to?". You see, a statistics course has some math expressions (not as much as other courses, but still...) as well as graphics and such, so the presentation format has to be something like PDF, which, of course, cannot be realistically edited heavily, even with expensive software (I am considering XHTML/MathML too, but to hand edit this stuff is quite a pain as well). So, I would want to produce both the "pretty" output file, and the source file (the math is being written in Lyx and in Texmacs - I still have to make up my mind...). Similarly, graphic support is coming out of things like ipe, kmplot, and so on. Again, source files would be necessary for adaptation. And did I mention that, on inspection, Gnumeric beats all the competition (including OpenOffice and you-know-who) when it comes to statistical tools ready to use? I could go on, but I suppose I am preaching to the choir anyway...

So, while most (though not all) of the tools are available for Windows as well, and, in any case, can be downloaded for free by anyone, I have been thinking that it would make sense to package the whole thing in a live CD, with a streamlined Linux distribution, allowing anyone to jump right in, without having to do more than boot their computer from a CD (and plug in a USB stick to save their work). I guess I could prepare such a CD myself, but, to be honest, I am afraid I don't have the time to do it on my own. I would have to polish my (non existent) skills on creating a live CD, not to mention the need to decide where to start from (Ubuntu? DSL? Puppy? and on, and on...), as well as pick and choose what software to include, besides the specific tools I will be using. Again, I am not saying it's so hard I would have no hope, but it's not something I would be able to do as a weekend hobby, and time is short.

I wonder if anybody would be interested in giving a hand. It's nothing about the math - that's my job - it's only about the creation of a very dedicated, targeted distribution...

In case you are, give me a holler...
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Postby johnhudson » Fri Aug 27, 2010 7:17 am

I have used LyX for maths course assignments for ten years now and it is capable of pretty well everything you might ever need in the presentation field. Also the Maths help has been extensively re-written in the past few years and covers pretty well every little tweak a mathematician might need. It is also now completely based on Qt and will therefore run with any operating system. The only downside is that spreadsheets can only be imported as CSV and cannot be linked; so you have to re-import the data if you change the spreadsheet.

However, though you could offer Uwe Stohr's Windows installer to students, for Linux it is much more sensible for them to download it from their distro's repository. So, perhaps a list of Linux distros that carry LyX would be helpful.

I agree with you about Gnumeric.
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Postby heiowge » Fri Aug 27, 2010 8:32 am

I think it's brilliant that Bill Gates is funding a Linux project! :lol:
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Postby johnhudson » Fri Aug 27, 2010 6:04 pm

A couple of other thoughts. If students have to produce graphs rather than tables, then all you need to do is point LyX at the chart which Gnumeric creates and an updated chart will automatically be loaded whenever the student changes it. gives you advice on creating your own distribution based on the Opensuse Build Service.
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Postby guy » Fri Aug 27, 2010 8:38 pm

Have you investigated Edubuntu?

Might be a source of ideas, if not a base distro.
"We don't need no frikkin' aliens, we c'n do this ourselves!" — anon.
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