Let all pupils customise their browser NOW!

I have had quite enough of teaching ICT and using web2.0 tools in the classroom with pupils

Firefox on the move

Image: CC seokchanyun on flickr

using a locked down web browser, Internet Explorer 7 in my school. The software is locked and a clean image on every computer in the school. Therefore, if a pupil saves a bookmark on one machine it is not available on another. So, the answer is to use a browser that can remember who they are. Firefox with plugins springs to mind as the browser of choice. We use Firefox on staff laptops and some teacher machines on site. I use Firefox and Google Chrome on my home machine. It is worth noting here that Chrome is developing lots of plugins and catching up with Firefox in this regard but it also a lot faster and I will look at this as an option.

After asking this question on a blogpost about bectaX, a former student of mine (Fauz) replied suggesting portable apps on issued memory sticks. I’ve used these before and they are excellent because they enable you to take your computer with you on your memory stick. Cool. However, not cool enough really, but then Fauz sent me another message suggesting using the portable apps version of Firefox saved into the pupils home drive on the network. This seems like an excellent solution. It would not matter which computer the pupil logged into, they would be able to navigate to My Documents, find the Firefox Portable folder and launch their customised browser with their passwords and add-ons saved and installed to enable productive web work with multiple sign-ons. The excellent plugin called xmarks would mean whatever the pupil did on Firefox at home would sync with their version at school.

Single sign-on is a great idea but is a big system that needs lots of implementing. As far as I can work out, this idea would work now and be easy to implement for free.

Let me know if you think it wouldn’t work, or I’m missing something?

It will also be interesting to see if my school’s tech team object. Are you a techie – WDYT?

  • Craig A Rodway

    This isn’t ideal, from a technical point of view.

    Storing the Firefox executable and user profile on the server would significantly increase the amount of network traffic, potentially creating bottlenecks and unnecessary demands on the server(s) that store the files.

    Firefox constantly reads and writes to an internal database as your browse the web – caches, history, data for the address bar search, etc etc. If you’ve ever tried running Firefox from a USB flash drive with all these caches/history writing turned on, you’ll know what I mean. Now multiply this by however many students will be logged on to the network and browsing the web.

    I’m not saying it can’t be done; it’s just not the best way to do it.

    IE, AFAIK, writes to “Local Settings” somewhere on the local disk, and it probably does this for a reason. On our network, however, students’ Favourites in IE are saved and maintained throughout their logon sessions.

  • http://daibarnes.info daibarnes

    Thanks for this Craig. It’s good to know what disadvantages to this approach there may be.

    Regarding network traffic, is not yet the case that networks (in general if that is possible) now have the speeds (even at 10/100) to transfer that data without too much interference to quality of delivery? We are talking about very small packets of data aren’t we? Is it possible to limit the number of times they write to once per 10 minutes or to sync at session start and end?

    What about restricting add-ons or plugins, for example, a social bookmarking account and the xmarks plug-in? Even though this doesn’t afford customisation it would make the browser more suited to working on the web.

  • Craig A Rodway

    On a wired network, with a decent backbone of 1Gbps, and a few tweaks to the Firefox config, it will probably work OK. Network infrastructure and capabilities vary from school to school, so you’d only know for sure if it worked in your environment if you actually tested a whole room using it at once and seeing what effect it had.

    But don’t forget that this is just one application – there could be lots of other programs utilising the rest of the network (and server(s)) at the same time – they all have an impact. And this is not taking into consideration any wireless clients, operating at a lower speed over a shared medium.

    I think the Mozilla wiki has some entries on optimising this sort of thing and changing the location of where things are stored.

  • http://www.twitter.com/fauzg Fauz

    Thanks for a more critical view Craig – without a doubt you’ve raised very important points.

    Dai – while you may only be thinking of the cache – you still need to factor in the transfer of data for the full application to even run in the first instanace (all the installation files, plugin files and bookmarks).

    I’m a little sketchy on the details of your infrastructure, Dai, but as I understand it you have a locked-down machine with a writable user directory (presumably on the network). Is this correct?

    If so – could you roll-out firefox to each of the machines? You could store all user data in their respective network directories. This includes extensions and bookmarks (I think!).

    This eliminates the issue of having to load up the entire browser over the network – the browser runs local while the plug-ins and bookmarks are the only things that need to be called up remotely. (At least that’s the theory).

    As Craig mentioned before – it will require some tweaking of configs to get it running as you want it.