How do you provide 700 Open University students—some technology novices, some experienced geeks—with hands-on knowledge in building and installing a version of the Linux operating system? Faced with this challenge, Andrew Smith, lecturer and team member for the “Technologies in Practice” module at the Open University chose SUSE Studio for its ease of use. The choice was successful—as shown by students’ feedback and portfolios.
The Open University’s distance learning model presented two challenges to making the technology module a successful learning experience. First, the students were diverse, typically 25-to-45 year olds from all backgrounds. At one extreme were technology novices, deciding whether to pursue an IT career. At the other were people already in IT, seeking to enhance their skills and credentials.
This diversity posed a second challenge: finding the right software for teaching the class. Given the self-taught nature of the learning, the software had to be easy-to-use, but also useful for both beginning and advanced students. For the first few years, Andrew Smith, curriculum author and lecturer in the Faculty of Mathematics, Computing, and Technology at the Open University, used SLAX, a small, portable Linux distribution, for the practical activities. Then the newest SLAX version appeared with a non-standard approach for building a Linux image.
Given that the course needed to provide core knowledge that students could apply widely and build on, Andrew Smith needed to change the tool and Linux instructional materials—in time for the imminent start date of the course.
As luck would have it, Smith had fortuitously seen the solution. In January 2013, at a Government ICT event in a spare slot in his schedule, he had attended a demonstration of SUSE Studio™, a web-based tool for building, updating, configuring and managing application images for Linux. He was impressed with how it simplified deployment in physical, virtual, and cloud Linux environments. “I got more out of that session than anything else at the conference,” he says.
When he needed to alter the curriculum, SUSE Studio fit his needs perfectly. “SUSE Studio provides a natural trajectory for building and installing a customised Linux operating system,” according to Smith. “With SUSE Studio, you have a step-by-step process for building a Linux image that is logical, easy-to-follow and easy-to-use.”
The tool was also useful for all students. Smith comments, “SUSE Studio can engage everyone.” The software has basic features that simplify image building and deployment as well as advanced functions such as adding missing software or removing existing software from the OS base template; adding external software sources; or setting up a PostgreSQL or MySQL database server, including upload of an existing data set and creation of database users—to name a few.
Smith revamped the Linux curriculum to include SUSE Studio along with a common Linux distribution. Students accessed versions of Linux and SUSE Studio to install on their computers in a virtual or ISO format and used these to explore, hands-on, basic functions in SUSE Studio, where they were, why they were important, and, especially, how to use the command line.
The initial Linux sessions were a success. SUSE Studio proved to be easy-to-use. Student feedback was positive with no issues emerging.
Portfolio exercises also verified that SUSE Studio was a productive tool for learning about Linux and simplified deployment of a “bespoke” Linux distribution for all the students, whatever their technical skill level. Based on this success, Smith plans to extend the course to give students the opportunity to explore more SUSE Studio features, for example, for personalisation and servers.
The success of the module is important for students—professionally—as well. Smith has long partnered with the Linux Professional Institute (LPI) to dovetail his instruction (in a Linux course as well as “Technologies”) with the LPI’s training for its Linux certification. He’s also arranged for the LPI to give successful students a discount on its courses. As Smith says, “To go anywhere in the IT industry today, you need to have expertise in Microsoft—and in Linux.”
At a Glance
The Open University is the largest academic institution in the UK and a world leader in flexible distance learning.
- Easy-to-follow image-building process
- Simplified deployment of software images
- Easy-to-learn for students of all levels
The UK’s Open University offers a “Technologies in Practice” module to provide students with core computing knowledge and experience. The 30-week module gives students “a taste of technology” in three areas: Linux, networking computers, and robotics. Students access online self- paced materials to gain hands-on experience and participate in forums for discussion with tutors. At the end of the module students demonstrate their skills by producing a portfolio of their practical activities for assessment.