Ubuntu software for schools

[Image] Schoolchildren from schools in developed
and developing nations will benefit from
the SchoolTool student information system.
(Image: Henry Trotter, Wikimedia)

Janine Erasmus

The open-source SchoolTool project, conceived in Cape Town by the visionary South African Mark Shuttleworth in 2000, is now available in version 1.0 under the Ubuntu Linux distribution.

Ubuntu is developed and promoted by Shuttleworth’s software company Canonical Ltd, while SchoolTool now has its own dedicated US-based development team.

Shuttleworth has long been an advocate of greater access to open-source educational materials in schools, both in South Africa and abroad. In 2008 he was the mastermind behind the Cape Town Open Education Declaration, an initiative that aims to make free learning material more readily available online. To date the declaration has signatures from 1 832 individuals and 190 organisations from every continent.

The May 2009 announcement of the release of version 1.0 of the SchoolTool suite followed the successful testing of 1.0 beta in October 2008.

Relevant to any school

The web-based SchoolTool 1.0 is an administration application for primary and secondary schools. It incorporates a number of modules developed to ease the running of a school, while striving to attain a global standard. It is designed to be relevant to any school, whether in a developed or developing nation.

SchoolTool offers management tools including student demographics, report generation, course marks, attendance, and parent or other contact management. The difference between it and learning management systems such as Moodle is that SchoolTool is specifically designed to track student information such as grades and attendance, whereas others manage curricula and learning materials.

The built-in calendar server can maintain calendars and timetables for each student and teacher, as well as each class, team or other group within the school. In addition, it co-ordinates the reservation and use of shared resources such as meeting rooms and equipment.

Since the calendar is web-based anyone can use it, although individual records are private and group schedules are accessible only to the group.

Worldwide use

The SchoolTool project manager is former English teacher Tom Hoffman from Providence, Rhode Island. The worldwide adoption of SchoolTool, said Hoffman, must be driven locally as the development team does not have the resources to do so itself.

To make this possible Hoffman plans to enlist the resourcefulness and cooperation of the international open-source community to promote SchoolTool in their own regions.

Localisation is made easier with Canonical’s open-source project host Launchpad.net, which offers a translation service called Rosetta that allows any user to translate SchoolTool into their own spoken language. Translations from the community are encouraged. SchoolTool is already fully or partially available in a number of languages, with Afrikaans one of those in the pipeline.

One of the great advantages of SchoolTool is that it can be installed in varying scenarios. It is equally applicable to schools that have easy access to computers and communications technology, and to rural schools that don’t possess even a single computer.

According to the SchoolTool development team, the greater number of schools around the world fit the latter scenario. In these cases the server is hosted offsite. The school calendar and course information would be captured before the start of the school year, and much of the student-related record-keeping would be done on paper for later data capturing, preferably on a daily basis.

Customisable

SchoolTool is completely customisable for individual schools, states or provinces and can be used on any scale. Schools can use SchoolTool as their primary student information system or as a complement to other systems. An individual teacher can install the programme on their desktop or laptop computer and use it to manage their classes.

There are three major components to the suite – SchoolTool calendar and SchoolBell, diary and resource management tools; CanDo, a skills tracking programme for teachers; and the student information system.

SchoolTool is designed to be run as one server process for one school. However, more than one school can be managed on the same physical server simply by running more server processes.

Years in development

The SchoolTool project got off to a good start in 2000 when the Shuttleworth Foundation recruited a team of experts to develop the concept on the Java software platform.

Shuttleworth terminated it in 2002 because he didn’t think it was going in the right direction, but a year later SchoolTool was reborn in the Python programming language, using the open-source Zope application platform.

The following year, 2004, saw the establishment of Canonical and the launch of Ubuntu Linux as well as Edubuntu, a version of Ubuntu expressly designed for use in schools and classrooms. In 2005 the development team released version 1.0 of the calendar server SchoolBell, and version 0.11 of SchoolTool.

Since 2006 the team has been working on evolving SchoolTool from the primarily calendar-oriented application it started off as, to a more comprehensive student information tool.

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