Low Cost Computers for Schools

I have previously written about the potential of Linux in education
Dell Pushing Linux? May25, 2007. Technology & Learning this month has a cover story about the growing role of Linux in schools. Some points of the article apply directly to technology efforts in South Dakota:

Techlearning: Linux Makes the Grade – November 15, 2007

Today,more than 100,000 Indiana school kids (in all, 300,000 high schoolers are slated to receive one) have their own $298 computer and monitor with numerous free software applications, and, in turn, schools across the state have secure, reliable, sophisticated server systems thanks to Linux-based open source technology. In other words, instead of using computers set to run either Microsoft or Apple operating systems, Indiana school children were given desktops running a Linux-based OS (in this case, distribution packages offered by Red Hat, Novell, and Ubuntu) and with preinstalled free open source software (commonly referred to as FOSS), much of it mimicking popular but expensive programming such as the comprehensive office suites offered by major companies. Did Indiana children mind? “Who cares?” one student quipped to Michael Huffman, special assistant for technology, as he surveyed the one-to-one program’s success across the state. “Is Linux the answer? Obviously we think so,” says Huffman, who estimates software costs total only $5 per machine annually. “It’s the only model we’ve come up with that is affordable, repeatable, and sustainable. If you look at a lot of other states that have had laptop initiatives, I think there is a real breakdown. And there are a lot of them that aren’t continuing. There are schools that have gone out and bought a lot of laptops, but there is no plan for four years down the road [emphasis mine]. That’s why we went with open source,” Huffman says. Indeed, Indiana and other large school systems like San Diego and Atlanta have joined the until-now quiet, albeit multibillion-dollar, revolution in computing.

The article describes how Linux has evolved from a closet machine to a desktop OS:

In the past, Linux was largely relegated to the back office as an operating system, out of sight of most teachers and students. But recent friendlier developments, including a graphical user interface, have made it increasingly viable for schools.

Now it’s come out of the closet as districts seek even more innovative ROI solutions.

According to a Compass Intelligence report, spending on IT personnel is anticipated to drop 5 percent a year, to $2.4 billion by 2010. And federal funding of the last protected block grant for technology, Enhancing Education Through Technology, has been steadily chipped away at since 2005.

Today, old computers that would have been tossed out are being “repurposed” and set up either as desktops with a Linux OS (which tends to boot up faster with mature hardware than rival Microsoft) or transformed into “thin clients” (meaning, they are run off software housed on a school system server).

Network servers are being “virtualized” with technology—rapidly being deployed in the education industry—that allows singleapplication servers to simultaneously run UNIX, Microsoft, and Apple.

Cheaper technology, coupled with FOSS adoption, has freed up money in many districts’ tech budgets, allowing them to reinvest in IT training or broader professional development, or to bring even more computers or Internet-connected devices into the classroom.

I personally bought a $350 laptop (with Vista Home Basic and 0.5 Gb memory–it was nearly impossible to use it was so slow!), wiped out the hard drive, and installed Ubuntu Linux. We now have a low cost machine with browser, word processor, spreadsheet, presentation (all saving in MS Office format), graphics, and music software. The cost would have been even lower if I hadn’t had to pay the “Microsoft tax” for the OEM Windows (Best Buy had the same laptop as a black Friday special for $229).

The interface and installation process have improved enormously in recent months. Has there been a learning curve for making it work? Certainly. But computer 2 was so much quicker to implement. I am now not “scared” to do more Linux machines as more hardware deals become available.

Are there features lost by moving to Linux? Certainly the tablet features of the Classroom Connections machines are more powerful. But at a cost factor of 2-5 Linux computers for every Windows tablet (or Macintosh), education cannot continue to ignore Linux for future implementations. It is incumbent on SD schools to start testing Linux machines with students to see firsthand the feasibility of using these tools in our schools.

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