The best Linux distros for education make it simple and easy to use computer-based learning materials, in a way that's affordable and accessible.
Linux has a reputation of being a server operating system (OS) that’s mostly used by administrators and developers.
The truth however is that it’s a general purpose OS that can be used by anyone for any purpose. It gets this ability from the diverse open source community that produces software for all kinds of uses -- from tools that power high-availability servers to all kinds of software for everyday desktop computing.
A testament to the ingenuity and wide ranging interest of the open source community of developers is the huge portfolio of tools and utilities designed for educational purposes. In fact, some of the leading educational software in use in schools and universities around the world are open source.
In this guide, we’ll look at some of the specially tuned distros that collate and roll learning software to help create the perfect educational environment for your kids.
We’ve analyzed these Linux distros for education on various points, like their hardware requirements, resource usage, installation speed, documentation, and the variety of apps they come with. We also looked at whether they were suitable for individual or classroom use.
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The best Linux distros for education in 2022 in full
DebianEdu/Skolelinux started out as two separate projects but merged in 2003 and have been putting out regular releases since then. The Debian-based project has a vast community of users and developers spread all over the world.
The distro ships with hundreds of educational tools and utilities that can be used to impart all kinds and are categorized into groups such as astronomy, chemistry, development, geography, mathematics, and more.
Besides the educational tools, the distro also has the full gamut of desktop apps, which allows you to use the distro as your daily driver.
One of the highlights of the distro however is that it includes a pre-configured terminal server keeping in mind the requirements of a typical educational institution. The distro can easily be adapted for installation over an entire lab or an individual workstation. Thanks to its wide community of users, the distro also has ample documentation and guides to handhold first time users.
One of the newest distros in this guide, AcademiX is also based on top of Debian Linux. Unlike the other distros in this guide, AcademiX doesn’t ship with any educational apps, which might come as a surprise. AcademiX instead includes the custom EDU software manager, which as its name suggests is a package manager designed specifically for installing educational apps.
The AcademiX EDU software manager is based on the mintInstall package manager from the Linux Mint project. Unlike traditional package managers, EDU groups packages by ages and by subjects. It lists four age groups for learners along with about a dozen subjects ranging from astronomy, biology, geography, foreign languages, to electronics, programming, genetics, robotics, and many others.
Besides these you can also use EDU to tap into Debian’s extensive repositories and flesh out the distro for all kinds of desktop tasks.
UberMix is based on Ubuntu. The distro proudly claims that it is built by educators keeping the requirements of both students and teachers in mind. The distro is available as installable USB images and as virtual appliances that you can safely test without installation inside VirtualBox.
One of the goals of UberMix is to make it simple to install and administer the distro. To that end, the developers have swapped out Ubuntu’s installation with their own streamlined rapid installation mechanism that makes it fairly simple to roll out an UberMix machine.
The distro boots into a customized Gnome desktop and while its collection of apps doesn’t rival that of DebianEdu/Skolelinux, it does include several useful educational apps. Furthermore, in addition to educational apps, UberMix also ships with several IDEs to help you code in your favorite environment. True to its name, UberMix also includes all the usual desktop productivity apps to enable you to use the distro for regular desktop tasks as well.
Sugar is actually a learning environment built with Python that according to its developers is “based on the principles of cognitive and social constructivism.”
The developers of Sugar believe children are not office workers, which is why they need a special interface that encourages learning. This is why the Sugar interface is a departure from the traditional desktop metaphor and instead attempts to create a user interface that encourages learners to engage and learn by doing.
You wouldn’t find any of the usual learning apps in Sugar, but its activities will impart all kinds of skills for preschoolers such as reading, writing, counting, and more.
You can install Sugar on top of your existing Linux installation, or use it through specially created distros called Sugar on a Stick (SOAS) meant to be installed on USB disks. In addition to the official SOAS, the website also lists the Trisquel On A Sugar Toast (TOAST) distro, which has a lot more Activities and works better and on underpowered machines.
Kano OS is a tailor made distro that powers the Kano Computer Kit, which is built around the Raspberry Pi.
Just like Sugar, Kano OS has also tried to reimagine the desktop interface for learners. The distro by default boots into the Storyboard mode, though there’s a Classic mode as well, which brings up a more familiar interface.
The primary intent of the distro is to help students learn how to code. But while it does include various apps for this purpose, there are a handful of other general purpose learning apps as well.
Sadly the distro doesn’t run on the latest Raspberry Pi 4, and the developers seemed to have stopped working on the distro in favor of their new device built in collaboration with Microsoft. Still the project seems to be a good option if you want to learn to code with a Raspberry Pi 3.
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How to choose the best Linux distro for education for you?
There are plenty of aspects you’ll want to consider before choosing the best Linux distros for education.
First, you’ll want to check whether it’s aimed at individual users or educational institutions. Then, you want to assess the hardware requirements and how resource-intensive the distro is. If you have an older system, it’s best to install a lightweight distro.
Make sure to check whether the distro ships with educational apps or not, and how useful the apps are. You’ll also want to ensure there’s sufficient documentation available in case you need support.
The best Linux distros for education: How we test
To test the best Linux distros for education, we first looked at their hardware requirements, like installation space and architecture needs (32 or 64-bit). We evaluated how smoothly the distros were running on old and new hardware, how long they took to install, and the overall out-of-box experience.
We assessed whether the distros were better suited for individual use or institutional use. If it was the latter, then we checked for features like a pre-configured terminal server for installation over an entire lab. We looked at the variety of educational apps the distro shipped with and whether there were simple games.
We also looked at the documentation to check if it was regularly updated.