The Case of SchoolNet Namibia/Operations/Activities/Software

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The SchoolNet Namibia laboratories initially ran on a “fat client” solution with a mix of Microsoft and Macintosh clients and usually a GNU/Linux server. Over time, preference for thin client solutions (enabled by the Linux Terminal Server Project - LTSP[1]) grew to reduce maintenance costs and introduce other efficiencies such as lower power consumption, less administrator time required, software updates were only required on the servers (not each client PC), etc..

SuSE 7.3+ with an early version of LTSP was used in the early years for this purpose. In 2003 OpenLab, a Slackware-based distribution designed for school computer laboratories, became the system of choice and was eventually installed on all of the SchoolNet laboratory servers[2].

There was a long-standing collaboration between SchoolNet and DireqLearn on development of OpenLab. Together they developed, integrated and piloted features for learners, teachers and school administrators.

OpenLab was quite significant in the world of free software in Education in parts of Africa. When it started, early this century, there were only a few education-oriented distributions around[3]. OpenLab already had an impressive list of features and was serving SchoolNet well (even in challenging conditions).

OpenLab was designed for young children and included features developed in collaboration with SchoolNet Namibia, or integrated on their suggestion. For example, in the thin client environment, teachers needed to be able to add and remove multiple users along with other administrative facilities.

OpenLab included educational and games packages from the Gnome and KDE projects, educational resources sourced from the internet (some discovered at conferences), and a voluminous collection of (both restricted and libre) educational resources such as the DireqLearn Educational Portal and the LearnThings educational content[4] (restricted), a collection of free eBooks by Project Gutenberg[5] (libre) and the text-only WikiLite (libre). The total collection unpacked to about 35GB on the server in end. None of the other distributions came close to that.

OpenLab was noted for its hardware detection. For example, it could detect and apply higher resolutions than would Ubuntu on the same monitors (1600×1200 vs 800×600 with Ubuntu 5.10). “It was also the first system to offer thin-client support with local-device and sound support working out of the box”[2].

Sadly, focused development of OpenLab was discontinued for a variety of reasons including:[2]:

  1. Although the user base of young children, educators and some NGOs was extensive on account of its deployment in Schools across Namibia, it did not attract or grow a developer community.
  2. Debian based distributions tend to be favoured by developers. OpenLab was based on Slackware.
  3. The original developers whose passion and enthusiasm inspired the development moved on to other jobs which did not support the project.
  4. The rise of Ubuntu attracted more attention and developers felt more secure putting their time and effort into a distribution that will clearly be supported in the foreseeable future.
  5. The funding available for OpenLab development declined. It had always relied on customisation projects and there was no comparison with the funding behind Ubuntu.
  6. The amount of content included was daunting and it was not all free/libre[6].

This period also coincided with the rise of Ubuntu and Edubuntu[7]. Ubuntu became the most popular desktop distribution[8] and on account of that success has accumulated a large pool of developers who continuously enhance and integrate packages on the platform. Edubuntu is distributed as an add-on which may be installed on an existing desktop PC or on an Ubuntu thin client server. It includes a growing number of educational applications.

In 2007, by popular request across SchoolNet Namibia, OpenLab was superseded by Edubuntu packaged with most of the above and/or equivalent resources and more.

  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 AJ Venter, and personal communication on 22/9/10.
  3. One of them was promoted in Namibia at Africa Source 2003: Skolelinux which is still faring quite well.
  4. See
  6. The commercial educational content is now optional and broken down into smaller chunks.
  7. and
  8. Based on the indicators at