Saturday, 17 October 2020

Old machines and education

 Way back in May, I wrote about how (a) old machines had vanished off of the second hand market, and (b) why taking an older, less suitable machine, and sticking linux on it was a bad idea.

Not that it won't revive the machine and make it useful, but that it comes with a support cost.

Basically, being a fully paid up geek, and someone who has played with multiple operating systems for years, I can cope with using just about anything. 

That's fine for me, but it's unrealistic to expect a teacher, with no experience of linux, to cope with student using open source products to do their work, or be able to fully support the student.

Basically it would be sink or swim.

To work, online learning needs a predictable environment that gives a degree of standardization. There's no reason why you couldn't standardize on linux, but you need to plan it properly. (Huayra linux from Argentina is an example of what can be achieved with an education focused distribution)

Windows and OS X both offer predictable environments and ones where one can assume the presence of certain browsers - edge and safari respectively and the presence of some standard applications. The joy of linux means you can't do that - while there are a lot of components in common, various distributions are different enough to complicate things, and as I showed some time back, if you are using an older revived machine, you may be using a less than mainstream distribution.

So my heart sank when I saw an article in the Register about taking an early 2007 vintage Macbook (one of the early intel based machines - the article doesn't make that entirely clear) and sticking Elementary OS on it.

Actually, I'm lying when I said my heart sank - I actually thought it would be a fun thing to do, well except that no one's selling polycarbonate Macs on ebay in Australia for fifty bucks - more like a $150, and that's too much for a fun project.

But reviving a machine is only the start of it - if you provide it to someone you need to provide some support, and if you have multiple linux's which do you support?

Consider the start menu. In Xubuntu it's at the top left. Gnome or KDE distributions usually have it at the bottom left, and OpenBox based distros like Bunsen Labs prefer you to right click on the desktop.

Nothing wrong with any of them, but a nightmare to support.

So while I'm all in favour of reviving old machines by running linux on them - basically there are social and environmental positives in doing so, I'm well aware of the support costs involved and why, to succeed, any project needs to have a carefully thought out end user support plan ...

Using an Android tablet for a serious purpose

Recently, I came across a New York Times article on how to get various older computers to be useful that, while it agreed that iPads could be useful, was quite dismissive of using android tablets for real work.

(I've lost the URL, otherwise I would link to the article)(see

As always the problem is what you define as real work. 

Way back in 2012 I spent around a $130 on a Shenzen special seven inch tablet packaged with a keyboard - and I used the device for around three years to take notes in meetings and so on - it was both incredibly useful, and terribly nonstandard, with a USB micro B connector for the keyboard and a separate 3mm jack for charging, but it worked, and I could get a day out of it.

I still have the device - the battery failed and was not replaceable - it really ought to go to the e-waste disposal people

but the damned thing was so useful I went out and replaced it with another cheap tablet - this time an Alcatel Pixi 7 I got from Telstra's disposal shop on eBay for round about eighty bucks to which I added a case with an inbuilt bluetooth keyboard:

Even though nowadays I use the refurbished  iPad Mini I bought a couple of years ago as a carry round device, the Alcatel was a good machine, and you could type reasonably well on it, and save your notes to Dropbox for further processing - as with the Shenzen special I tended to use Markdown to create semi structured text that you could feed through PanDoc to provide something a little more corporate when required, but Polaris Office  also worked well with the advantage of being able to sync to OneDrive or Google drive.

And there I left it, or rather I did until my recently acquired Huawei Mediapad.

Having retired, I no longer have to go to meetings, or at least, not very often, and an A4 pad is usually good enough for notes. Occasionally, I did some research or writing work in a public library, and when I did I used to first use the Alcatel, and latterly the iPad Mini when I didn't want to cart around a full size computer - a netbook or my MacBook would have done, but there's the question of battery life - a surprising number of public libraries provide desks, but nowhere to plug in your device.

Now you might recall that the MediaPad came bundled with Microsoft's Office tools for Android. I had no intention of using as a laptop substitute, but out of curiosity I invested the princely sum of eighteen bucks (including delivery) in a no name bluetooth keyboard

and it was surprisingly good. They keyboard was a little bouncy, but good enough to type quickly on and Microsoft's word tool for android was equally responsive, and allowed documents to be saved OneDrive using one's Office 365 credentials.

As an experience it was provocative - a tablet could be used for real work with a standard application. While I've no intention of using it as a poor man's surface the whole thing worked so well one could imagine doing so ...