Zen Gift of Education
Many distributions have special releases around Christmas and New Year. I was planning to look at some of these this month like last year's Ubuntu Christmas Edition. But instead I found a release that's useful enough to maintain all year around. ZenEdu is a Live distribution that packs a whole bunch of educational tools on top of the Slackware-based light-weight and zippy Zenwalk Linux.
As per Zenwalk's Wiki, ZenEdu was initiated by a user on the distro's French forum last year in December. That time the distro contained mostly French-only educational programs. This year, several members of the Zenwalk Linux community decided to release an international edition of ZenEdu. The distro is a goldmine of open source educational software and also packs a detailed user manual, which shows the developers' serious approach to do things properly.
The educational apps included in the distro cover a broad range of subjects. The ZenEdu ISO is about 700 MB and includes apps that'll help users with subjects like Astronomy, Mathematics, and Chemistry. Since learning is the core idea behind the distro, it goes beyond traditional curriculum subjects and also packs tools that'll teach students the basics of programming and music. Some of the tools I particularly like are Stellarium - the popular 3D planetarium, Stardict - a multi-language dictionary, ghemical - a comprehensive computational chemistry package, Little Wizard that introduces the basics of programming to young students, and Maxima, for the manipulation of symbolic and numerical expressions, including differentiation, integration, ordinary differential equations, systems of linear equations, etc. If you want to learn music, train your ears with Solfege, and use TuxGuitar to edit and play guitar tablatures.
What sets ZenEdu apart from other educational distros is that it bundles other productivity tools as well. This includes general-purpose applications like the IceWeasel web browser, IceDove email client, Pidgin for instant messaging, Kompozer for authoring web pages, and OpenOffice.org for word processing. Furthermore, the distro packs several other apps, which according to the developers, were chosen based on their usefulness to students while keeping in mind the things that might interest them. This includes a simple program to manage personal tasks and todo lists, a drawing program, a comic book viewer, a video editor, and a program to create a wide array of 3D content. However, there are dozens of free software educational tools that aren't included in this CD due to size considerations. But that's no problem. Since ZenEdu is based on Zenwalk, it too can be expanded with drag-and-drop modules. To create a new customize ZenEdu Live CD, browse and download the modules of educational apps you want and use the remastering application, isomaster to add them to your customized ZenEdu Live CD!
The highlight of this distro though is the iTALC tool for teachers. iTALC, which stands for Intelligent Teaching And Learning with Computers, is a powerful cross-platform didactical tool that lets teachers view and control other computers in their network. Using iTALC teachers can see what's going on in computer labs and take snapshots, remote-control computers to support and help students, run a demo on all students' computers in real-time, send text-messages to students, cycle power and rebooting computers remotely, etc. ZenEdu has a special 'teacher' account pre-configured to run iTALC. Once logged in from that user, you can start iTALC and navigate through its interface, first adding student computers, and then controlling or monitoring them. ZenEdu's wiki page advices that if you'll be using the program regularly, you should save the 'teacher' account's iTALC directory (/home/teacher/.italc/) inside zenlive/rootcopy of the Live CD via isomaster. This will load the iTALC configuration the next time you boot the remastered Live CD. If you'll be using iTALC regularly you'd be well off installing ZenEdu on to your hard disk. Unfortunately, ZenEdu isn't installable. It's only a Live CD, and at best can be installed onto a USB Flash stick for portability.
Most of the specialized distros I've played with, tend to be too specialized. They do what they are supposed to, but nothing more. ZenEdu is different in that, in a single CD, the developers have managed to squeeze a good number of educational apps as well as everyday tools. I hope members of the Zenwalk community, actively develop and maintain ZenEdu.
Some more articles by Mayank Sharma: