Canadian school district serves up lessons on the power of Linux

Windows may boast the lion’s share of the desktop education market, but the economic and technical benefits of open source software has seen many schools and education institutions implement various flavors of Linux across their desktops and server back-ends.
In a two-part series, Computerworld investigates the role of Linux and open source software in education institutions in Australia and North America.

In this, Part 1, Computerworld spoke with the technology coordinator and network support technician from two large school districts in Canada and the US for whom Linux and other open source software is the plat du jour on the education menu.

British Columbia’s School District #73 opts for Debian Linux

Kamloops Thompson School District #73 is comprised of 55 elementary and secondary schools in British Columbia, Canada. The district opted for a majority of open source software as it is easier to maintain and in their experience offers better access to support.

Approximately 30-60 diskless Linux workstations are used in the computer labs and libraries of every school in the district, in addition to 2-5 Windows workstations in special needs rooms. The largest Linux implementation is running close to 200 diskless clients in a single school.

The district’s elementary schools were the first to receive modified LTSP computers which initially ran on Red Hat. In mid 2006 it moved over to Debian because it is significantly easier to keep up-to-date.

The district completely rebuilt its server model for the high schools, starting at Barriere Secondary School where students, teachers and office admin staff switched to diskless Linux desktops.

“It was successful and the rest of the schools started lining up to get the new Linux system. Now the elementary schools are moving to Linux as well. The image is based on Debian because the deb packaging system makes it very easy to upgrade the software,” said Dean Montgomery, network support technician and programmer for District #73.

“Diskless only requires updating the server and the entire school gets the update. I can also cluster the servers and issue the update. In 15 minutes I can update OpenOffice on thousands of diskless workstations. This beats ghosting Windows hard drives,” he said.

Montgomery said the district uses considerably more open source than proprietary software.

“We get better support with open source software: online wikis, forums, mailing lists etc are much faster and better to get support than phoning up Microsoft and listening to someone read off answers from flash cards.”

The elementary and secondary schools in District #73 utilize a range of software tailored to the kids’ ages and learning levels.

Montgomery said the youngest students particularly enjoy Tux Paint, Web apps tailored for younger kids, Gcompris and the Supertux game. Intermediate level students favor Web apps, OpenOffice, Tuxmath, Supertux, Pingus, Tux Racer, and playing with the look and feel of their desktop environment – KDE.

The secondary students also enjoy tweaking KDE, as well as using OpenOffice, drafting, art, multimedia and Web applications.
While Montgomery believes the kids will get their work done on Linux desktops just as they would on any other computer, he disagrees with observations that older children prefer Windows as they tend to be more familiar with it.

“Once the students see how much they can customize and tweak KDE desktop and play with Beryl 3D desktop, they like Linux more than Windows. When it comes down to it, Windows is a window manager with WordPad, Web browser and Email – Linux has all of that and more,” he said.

“We give everyone FreeNX access to their Linux desktop from home so they can get all the same programs without having to install Linux at home.”

The elementary schools in District #73 have been running Linux longer than the high schools, and Montgomery says the younger kids are looking forward to continuing using OpenOffice and the same applications as they move into high school.

Montgomery believes a crucial aspect of migrating to Linux or open sourced-based software is training. Technicians need to know how to use and support Linux, and must work with management to identify and resolve what programs will and will not run on Linux. Secretaries and librarians, who generally use computers the most in a school environment, also need additional training in order to fulfill their day-to-day tasks.

“[But] students, they learn faster than all of the above. If you don’t know how to do something in Linux – just ask the students,” he advised.

Brecksville-Broadview Heights City School District opts for Eee PCs

John Schinker is the technology coordinator for the Brecksville-Broadview Heights City School District in Ohio, which is comprised of six schools serving some 4,800 students from kindergarten to grade 12.

Schinker oversees all aspects of technology for the district, including hardware, software, instructional applications and networking operations.

Schinker purchased eight Linux-based Eee PCs for the district: one for the technical staff, one for himself, and one for each school, with instructions to pass them around among students and staff to determine how they can fit into the district’s educational environment.

“For us, the price was the major selling factor. If we had gone with Windows, it would have increased the cost by about US$150 and the hardware would be underpowered. Even running XP SP2, we would need more RAM in them. Linux was really the way to go to keep the cost manageable,” Schinker said.

So what do the kids think of Linux compared to Windows?

“So far, it hasn’t been an issue. Other than the Eee PCs and most of our servers, we’re Windows only. But the Eee PC is so intuitive, it hasn’t been a problem. Our experience with the Eee PC has prompted us to look at using something like Linpus on our older desktop hardware too,” he said.

Schinker said one positive outcome from Linux is that it forces the district to limit the scope of the Eee PCs.

“By not running Windows, we can put some limits on the expectations of the little laptops. They’re not going to run Accelerated Reader, or Successmaker or Adobe CS. We can focus the expectations on the things that it does well rather than trying to make all of these other applications work, and that is really nice from a tech perspective.”
What the Linux Eee PC will do for the district is allow kids to access the Web, write essays and stories, collect and graph data, and prepare and deliver presentations.

“My own kids, ages 6 and 8, really like Tux Paint. They say it’s as good as or better than the commercial Kid Pix program.”

But Schinker doesn’t think it matters what OS kids use, as long as it is tailored to their educational needs.

“Certainly the user interface on the Eee PC is intuitive…but there are plenty of Windows front-ends that will do the same thing and are just as easy to use.

“I think the older kids will have concerns that aren’t focused on the OS per se; they’ll be more easily frustrated by the screen resolution and keyboard size than the younger kids, but I don’t think the OS is a concern for them,” he said.

With the education sector typically under funded, the low entry cost to open source has its appeal, Schinker said.

“On the server side, almost everything we use is open source. We run Linux servers with Apache, MySQL, PHP, WordPress, Moodle, Samba, Xmail, Dovecot, SquirrelMail, etc. In almost every case, we’ve been able to implement better technology for less money because of the availability of open source and open standards technologies.”

But the cost savings aren’t always worth the migration efforts.

On the desktop the district tends to use more proprietary software, such as MS Office which costs around US$60 per copy. While OpenOffice would be more economical, Schinker said it is not worth the compatibility issues a migration would result in.

“I do think we focus too much in education on the tools. There’s the argument that we should be using what the ‘real world’ uses to better prepare our students. I argue that we need to focus on teaching concepts rather than specific software applications. Those skills can then be applied to whatever software package they end up using,” he said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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