Linux in education: Open Source provides a better solution for schools
By JT Smith on May 17, 2002 (8:00:00 AM)
- by Matt Butcher - Linux has been making inroads into K-12 education for years, but Microsoft's move to require an audit of 300 school districts nationwide has brought Open Source into the educational limelight. As schools analyze alternatives to hefty licensing fees, LUGs and Linux-in-education organizations are pointing out that Open Source solutions are better suited to the educational environment, and are only a fraction of the cost.
"We're seeing the stand alone desktop PC as a colossal failure in schools." says Paul Nelson, Technology Director for the Riverdale School District in Portland, Oregon. "After several years of installing PCs in classrooms, it is evident that schools do not have the staffing to support them and keep them running. Often infected with viruses and subjected to student abuse, these systems can quickly turn into a useless but expensive pile of junk in the back of the classroom." A traditional desktop PC environment often costs more than $1,000 per system -- and that's a price that Nelson and others say is too high.
A better model for schools, says Nelson, is the thin client. With diskless workstations running K12LTSP, an educational variant on the Linux Terminal Server Project, workstations can be locked down, making them tamper-resistent and immune from computer virii and malicious code. Without the requirement of a high speed processor and a hard drive, K12LTSP systems run well even on older hardware, and systems obtained through computer recycling programs like STRUT prove to be ideal low-cost but functional clients. The average cost of new hardware required for a client workstation running K12LTSP, says Nelson, is $200 -- a fifth of the cost of the traditional setup.
Kirk Rheinlander, principle consultant for KPJ2 and a veteran in Linux integration in schools, noted other areas where Open Source software plays a significant role in educational institutions. "It is all well and good to provide stuff for classrooms, but managing the school is a big issue as well." He pointed out Schoolmation, Schooltool, and K12Admin -- all tools for school and student administration. In fact, the SEUL educational application index has over 400 applications listed, covering everything from library software to budget tools to schedule planners.
Both Nelson and Rheinlander noted that the foremost concerns that schools express when contemplating migration to Linux are installation and support. And both gentlemen point to Linux User Groups (LUGs) as the primary source of the tech skills that meet those needs. Members of the Portland LUG provide what Nelson calls "24x7 support, without a Visa card" via listserv. Members of the Northern Colorado LUG volunteered countless hours along with Rheinlander to install an Open Source solution into an area charter school. Even the entry of Red Hat into the arena is indicative of the "grass roots" nature of the movement. "It's interesting to note," says Nelson, "that Red Hat's involvement in K12 comes from the interest of their own employees wanting to give back to the community."
Another concern voiced by schools considering Linux is the user interface. Many situations demand a simplified user interface with only a few applications to choose from, keeping the students focused on the task at hand, and reducing the learning curve for teachers. There are efforts underway to produce a simplified desktop as part of the K12Linux project, and Nelson expressed his optimism over the improvements in Linux desktop environments as a whole.
Open Source software is providing the tools that schools need, made to fit. In an environment where general purpose operating systems are failing, Open Source methodologies makes it possible for existing and stable applications to be tailored to the needs of the educational community -- and that software won't require costly audits or even annual license fees.