A computer science facility that had been running without a hitch for years is shut down as a Microsoft system is set up across the board. Was it a knock against open source, or just classroom politics?
A Toronto high school teacher who had been running a Linux lab for five years was forced to close it down last week by the school’s administration following the implementation of a Microsoft-based, school board-wide computing initiative.
Ed Montgomery, a computer science teacher at Monarch Park Collegiate, said in an e-mail to ITBusiness.ca that he was given a note in May, telling him that the Linux lab would be dismantled and replaced with a Microsoft-based Classroom Migration Technology Initiative (CTMI) lab.
On June 21, according to Montgomery, Terry Wister, the head of school wide services for Monarch Park, removed all of the Linux computers from the lab room under the direction of the school’s principal, Rob MacKinnon, while Montgomery was out at lunch. When Montgomery came back from lunch, he said all of the machines in the lab were running Windows. Montgomery had received a note from Terry Wister a month earlier.
“I strongly disagree with that decision,” said Montgomery in a telephone interview with ITBusiness.ca Thursday. “It worked extremely well without any difficulties. It’s necessary for students these days to learn about Linux. It’s harmful to their present and future educational opportunities and employment opportunities.”
Montgomery used the lab to teach his computer science and computer engineering classes as well as business and ESL classes. The lab computers ran a combination of Red Hat 7 and Mandrake 10.0.
A Microsoft spokesperson said the school board should comment on its decision to change the lab and that the decision had nothing to do with Microsoft.
Four years ago, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), which was created in 1998 with the amalgamation of seven individual boards of education, began the CTMI project to integrate all of the disparate systems across the Board’s over 550 elementary and secondary schools. To date, the Board has completed 438 schools, including Monarch Park CI, with another 133 to go.
Montgomery, along with MacKinnon, met with the Board last September to begin the process of rolling out the CTMI lab at Monarch Park. At that time, MacKinnon supported the lab staying open despite other schools being told that the CTMI lab would not support Linux systems, according to Montgomery. MacKinnon could not be reached for comment at press time.
Montgomery sent a letter to The Canadian Association for Open Source (CLUE) last week asking for help. Russell McOrmond, an Internet consultant who is also a policy coordinator at CLUE, received the letter.
“It turned out to be the personal opinion of the principal,” said McOrmond, who posted an e-mail interview he did with Montgomery on his blog.
Since his lab was dismantled, Montgomery has set up his own blog to discuss the issue further.
McOrmond late last week wrote a letter to the Ontario Minister of Education, superintendents at Ottawa Carleton and Toronto District School Boards and MacKinnon. So far, he’s received a reply from Laura McAlister, superintendent, Ottawa Carleton District School Board (OCDSB). In her letter, obtained by ITBusiness.ca, she stated that the Board does not have an “exclusivity clause” with any software manufacturer and it supports Mac and Windows OS environments. McAlister went on to write that the OCDSB has Linux installed in a few of its schools and there is “considerable interest” in expanding the use of open-source application in its schools.
A Ministry spokesperson said it is up to the Board to make decisions and that it wasn’t familiar with this particular case.
Jill Worthy, superintendent for Ward 15, Toronto-Danforth, said the decision to close the lab was not a board decision.
“The principal, in consultation with the department, made the decision to close the lab,” she said. “It’s a school decision based on the resources available.”
Worthy said the decision was based on the fact that the lab was underused, with only six students each semester taking the course. The Ministry of Education expects the board to have a certain number of students — around 20 to 30 — to take each course that a school offers.
“If that number goes below a certain number, we can’t run the course or we can’t build a case to sustain it,” she said.
But Montgomery said there are a number of other classes that are smaller than his and, as such, class size shouldn’t be an issue.
“Class sizes are always in flux,” Montgomery wrote. “Any numbers given are a snapshot at a particular point in time.”
Worthy, however, said that the Linux lab was more Montgomery’s project than what the students wanted.
“The evidence in terms of the number of students wanting to take courses with him through the lab doesn’t substantiate that,” she said.
In terms of Board policy, Worthy said there’s nothing that states there can’t be a Linux lab or an alternate lab running in Toronto schools. In fact, Montgomery said MacKinnon told him that there are other Linux labs in Toronto schools but he added he doesn’t know where they are or how long they’ve been running.
Class size and policy aside, Worthy said the Board doesn’t have the adequate number of staff to support multiple operating systems.
“We have extremely limited resources on our help desk as it is and for them to be trained and maintain multiple platforms would be very challenging,” she said.
But Montgomery, who supported the Linux lab himself, said the only time his class used the network was for browsing the Web and there wasn’t a problem with accessing the servers.
For now Montgomery said he hasn’t been given any further information from the school’s administration about what will happen in the fall.
“It’s up in the air.”