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Geneva class-rooms switching to free software

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All primary and secondary public schools in the Swiss Canton of Geneva are switching to using Ubuntu GNU/Linux for the PCs used by teachers and students. The switch has been completed by all of the 170 primary public schools, and the migration of the canton's 20 secondary schools is planned for the next school year. Ubuntu GNU/Linux offers powerful services to the teachers, is easier to maintain, faster, safer and more stable than the decade-old proprietary operating system it is replacing, the canton's school IT department concludes, based on several four-year long pilots.

Making it easier to service the canton's schools' PC needs was one the main reasons for 'Service écoles-médias' (SEM), part of Geneva's IT department, to switch the schools to Ubuntu, as the proprietary system is no longer being maintained. Secondly, it is easier for PC users to switch to this system than to move to a recent version of the proprietary operating system, explains Cyril Roiron, who heads the Open Standards and Free Software project at the Geneva State Department for Education (Département de l'Instruction Publique, de la Culture et du Sport).

All of Geneva's primary schools, for school children aged 4 to 12, have one PC in a classroom that can be used by teachers and students to access the Internet, send emails, play educational games and run other educational applications. The provided configuration proposes 3 different sessions, based on the target group: one for the 'administrative' work of the teacher, and one for each of the two children's age groups.


Some secondary schools, for students aged 12 to 15, already have one or two PC labs and currently use a mix of PCs running Ubuntu and two different brands of proprietary operating systems. "Where possible, we'll be phasing out the proprietary systems. For now, one language teaching tool will only work on a proprietary operating system, so we will not be able to get rid of them all."

SEM is focussing entirely on the PCs that are used for teaching. It has been preparing the switch to GNU/Linux for years. During this time, it has created inventories of PC hardware and the various computer network facility capacities. It has searched for and tested alternatives for all the applications used. The department is making available a detailed manual. They also organise teacher trainings, host an online forum for teachers, and are available for teachers to drop by with questions on Wednesday afternoon.


As in many large ICT projects, Roiron says, switching the Geneva Canton's secondary schools to Ubuntu GNU/Linux experienced a few hiccups. A few teachers lost data during the switch because they did not follow the back-up instructions and copied 'shortcuts to data', instead of the data itself. Some teachers were very keen to use cloud services to manage files, and the Service écoles-médias team wrestled with a wide variety of printers and other PC peripherals. For some the drivers were not fully translated into French, and others limited the available options on printers. "We had many questions on the availability of fonts, and how to scan photos and illustrations."

Easier to use

Ubuntu is proving not just easier to maintain, the switch is also emphasising the use of PCs in primary schools, says Roiron. "We've showed them how easy it is to use Ubuntu, and how we can help in several ways, including on-site and remote."

Roiron contacted all schools to offer training and assistance. He visited all of primary schools, often by bike, and met with teachers to discuss their PC needs and taking away their fears and doubts.

Change management

Among the teachers themselves, the biggest resistance is to the change from a proprietary text editor to the LibreOffice text editor. This is highlighting a lot of interoperability issues with documents stored in a mix of proprietary electronic formats, Roiron says. "We recommend that teachers install LibreOffice at home, or if that is not an option, to create PDFs for those documents they need to print at school. But that move is not exactly popular, even though training and support is available."

"Teachers in the secondary schools are required to give an introduction into free software, says Roiron. "However, many teachers don't have the time to increase their knowledge. It would make sense if more teachers were aware of the freedoms that come with free and open source software."

Geneva's primary schools has 32,501 students in the 2012/2013 school year, and another 13,048 students in the compulsory stage of its secondary school cycle.


More information:

Announcement on the use of free software in primary schools (in French)
Initial deployment plan of the Geneva State Department for Education
Video tutorials (in French)