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Creating FOSS Allies Through Volunteerism

Article Source Wazi
May 22, 2009, 1:18 pm

We know that free and open source software (FOSS) is bigger than the code. It’s a powerful movement, with the potential to change the world in profound ways. Cooperation. Collaboration. The best minds working toward the best solutions they can imagine and making those ideas available to all, regardless of cash flow — these ingredients make for quite a heady stew. For those of us already sold on the advantages of FOSS it can be hard to imagine why anyone would hesitate to jump in, but the reluctance to embrace open source can be summarized with just two words: human nature. There are a lot of people out there who simply have no idea. Who are even suspicious of all this free and open stuff. The words alone can impart to the uninitiated an uncomfortable feeling. They’ll be made to pay in some form or another — they just don’t know how, yet. We know that the price can only be measured in willingness to change. To some, that sounds pretty steep.

But for every person or institution out there too intimidated by change, too suspicious of anything that’s labeled “free”, too brainwashed by advertising, or just too busy to think about doing anything different — for each of those there’s another person who’s not only FOSS-fluent, but also enthusiastic, dedicated, and just a trifle selfless. What follows is a story about FOSS migration and volunteerism, which takes place in an environment of a complexity virtually unknown anywhere else. Home to brilliant minds and extraordinary levels of determination, guts and know-how, dedicated to all the highest aims of our free society; this institution is at the same time often mired in budgetary shortfall, bureaucratic delay and, perhaps most pervasive, crushing fatigue. We’re talking about a place where too few of us, once liberated, ever dare venture again — let alone actually enter and try to change anything. That’s right; we’re talking about the Public School System.

In the first of an occasional series of articles on open source community building and advocacy, we present a case study by Christian Einfeldt about how dedicated volunteers can create new open source allies one student and one school at a time. Read on to discover how all the tired cliches about schools mired in inefficiency can be proven wrong, and how seemingly hostile conditions (like underfunding) can in fact make the migration to open source easier.

Hands-On Advocacy: A Case Study in Migrating One School to Open Source

Working with schools can be difficult. Teachers are usually over-worked and under-paid. Principals have limited budgets and are similarly over-worked. Ironically, these factors are exactly why schools make great incubators for FOSS community outreach, because the FOSS community benefits much more from growth in this area than does Microsoft and its business partners. The cost structures carried by Microsoft and its business partners preclude them from targeting schools in ways that make sense for GNU-Linux supporters and their commercial partners.

This article looks at the experiences of a local Linux users group in migrating one public charter school in San Francisco to FOSS, and draws some broader conclusions from those experiences about how the FOSS community can benefit by focusing migration efforts on under-funded institutions like schools.

Desktop Computers as One of the Seats of Culture

The desktop matters. It’s the last link in the “last mile” to the Internet, and it’s the place where retail computer consumer expectations are formed and solidified. Simply put, the desktop is one of the seats of culture in much of the world. Merely by placing FOSS desktops in front of mass audiences, we, the FOSS community, can score big in demonstrating to voters and consumers the commercial logic and democratic imperative of sharing code.

Studies show that brand consciousness and brand loyalty are established at a young age. Kids will stick with brands as they grow up. If we can familiarize kids with GNU-Linux package managers, they will tend to return to those package managers for new software applications as they grow up, and the cycle of dependence on non-FOSS product distribution chains can be broken.

How We Set One School Free — Almost

As I was walking to my bus stop on the way to work one day, I noticed an A-frame billboard announcing a new public charter middle school in the neighborhood. At that time, the school was comprised of about 230 students in grades five through seven (ages 10 through 12). I called the number on the board and left a message offering to provide the school with a few free computers for a pilot project for the school.

The school’s principal soon called back and we scheduled an appointment to meet. I told her that I had been privately scavenging discarded desktop computers for some time, and I knew that I could acquire enough machines to meet her needs through the volunteer efforts of our local Linux user group, SF-LUG. I thought that she would likely start small to test a few machines before springing into something larger.

To my surprise, the principal said that she was interested in starting more than just one small pilot project, and that she was willing to spend some money to obtain such a lab if it wasn’t too expensive. She wondered what it would take to outfit a classroom with enough computers for one entire class. I told her that it would be possible to obtain inexpensive machines and network them together. I contacted a vendor who offered to build a LTSP for a mere $6,000 USD. Over the summer, the vendor and I built the Fedora LTSP lab in an afternoon, and over the next couple of weeks, I was able to place about 10 additional machines in various classrooms throughout the school.

I was pleased with the fairly rapid, positive attitude that the principal, teachers, and students showed toward the lab. There was almost no need for training of the teachers or the students. Both groups took to the new Fedora GNOME interface easily.

In fact, the principal made it clear that she did not want me to spend much time speaking with the teachers about the new technology. She liked the lab, but she was very clear that the emphasis of this school was to focus on providing these inner-city students with an excellent foundation in basic reading, writing, and arithmetic. The computers were nice, but they were seen as a supplement to the core mission of the school. The principal had founded the school just two years earlier with the goal of bringing under-performing kids up to grade-level performance. She also felt that the skills required to make meaningful use of the lab were beyond those of the fifth and sixth-graders, and so only the seventh graders were brought into the lab. The school has since expanded to include 8th graders and now has a population of about 330. The upper two grades use the GNU-Linux lab.

Basic Internet uses

The GNU-Linux machines at the school are used for basic tasks such as e-mailing, writing essays, watching educationally relevant Internet video, learning basic touch typing, and conducting Internet research. The Xubuntu lab features 30 LDAP clients, each with Pentium 4 chips running at about 2 Ghz with 512 MB of RAM. We chose the XFCE desktop to reduce lag time, as compared with the somewhat more bulky GNOME and KDE GUIs. We moved from an LTSP server to an LDAP server because the LTSP server was lagging, so we shifted some of the load-handling from the server to the clients. We also moved from Fedora to Ubuntu simply because we were more familiar with Ubuntu, although I’m sure Fedora would have been just  fine. In an interesting little wrinkle, the LDAP server was obtained via funding provided by Microsoft through California’s settlement of an anti-trust lawsuit against Microsoft!

As previously mentioned, we have also distributed about 10 similar stand-alone clients (P4, 512 MB RAM) to a few classrooms, where they are used occasionally for writing essays and basic Internet research and emailing.

I have approached the principal and several teachers on more than one occasion with an offer to demonstrate the educational applications that are readily available for use with GNU-Linux, but the staff has consistently taken the position that they are best able to fulfill the school’s mission of giving the students an excellent foundational education with books, pencils, and paper.

Just recently, during one such meeting with teachers, I was able to get one teacher interested in meeting over the summer to explore the possible integration of educational applications into his curriculum. Maybe. We’ll see. I am cautiously optimistic.

No Linux for the teachers

The principal felt (and still feels) that the mission-critical computer needs of the school, namely, the teachers’ needs, would be restricted only to Microsoft Windows machines, unless the teachers had Mac notebooks that they wanted to use and were able to administer themselves. The principal did not rule out the possibility that a teacher, of his or her own accord, might choose a GNU-Linux machine for their own personal needs, but she did not want to me to evangelize to the teachers.

Nor were the teachers interested in adopting GNU-Linux. With the exception of a few Mac users, the teachers all preferred Microsoft Windows machines, for all the usual reasons: they were familiar with Windows; some of their mission-critical applications were Windows-based; and they viewed Microsoft Windows as the standard, and wanted to use what everyone else was using.

And, equally important, these teachers spent long hours at the school every day, and they were too over-worked and tired to take on yet another task that would extend their 13-hour work days. This school has a formal, written agreement with each and every parent and child that the students will be in their seats working by 7:30 in the morning, and that they’ll stay at school until 4:50 each afternoon. Furthermore, the teachers were (and still are) expected to give out their cell phone numbers to each student, and students were expected to call the teacher with any questions, until as late as 8:00 p.m., seven days a week. The idea is that there should be no excuse for any student to come to school with incomplete homework, and the super-long teacher work days were intended to ensure that it was so. But, as a result, this meant that the teachers were not about to add yet another task to their already-long days.

Marketing, Marketing, Marketing

Never underestimate the power of marketing to shape expectations, particularly in North America and most of Europe. I am convinced that the principals and teachers like Microsoft and Apple products because marketing has persuaded them that “you get what you pay for” and that there is “no free lunch.”

Contrast that attitude with attitudes of end users in so-called “developing countries.” In developing regions of the world, which I have visited in the process of taping a documentary movie about how FOSS is changing global culture, people are more willing to give GNU-Linux a shot. The notion that software should be “free as in free speech” seems to resonate more with people in these countries.

But the appeal of digital freedom is generally weaker in North America and Europe, and that was certainly the case in this school. I was actually surprised at the tenacity of brand identification and product loyalty among the very liberal teachers of this school, many of whom were educated at some of the finest universities in the country. Yet these same teachers have a very pragmatic approach to computing, for the reasons previously given.

The principal is also a staunch advocate of education as a leveler of class and an equalizer of race, yet she’s an adamant Microsoft Windows fan. She made it clear that she likes Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Outlook, and she has said that she would never consider using a GNU-Linux computer for her own purposes.

She’s an enthusiastic supporter of GNU-Linux for the kids because it permits her to stretch budget dollars, and she likes the high quality, free technical support she gets from the local Linux user group. In addition, she feels that the computing skills that the kids get in using GNU-Linux will be transferable to the Mac or Microsoft Windows machines the kids will likely encounter in high school. However, the principal and the other teachers have some real reservations about the suitability of GNU-Linux to deliver the performance that they demand for their busy lives.

The teachers rely on just one or two Microsoft Windows-based applications they feel they need to meet their computing needs — both individually and in their work as teachers. But even after I spent time speaking with each of the teachers to determine their precise functional requirements for computers, none of them would consider switching, nor do they want to spend much time discussing why they are not open to switching. They have chosen their computing environment, and they are sticking with it. Plain and simple.

A stable equilibrium

A stable equilibrium has been reached in this, the end of the fifth full year of our LUG’s advocacy work at the school. The principal and the teachers are firmly committed to the Xubuntu lab and the GNU-Linux machines (of varying distros, but mostly Xubuntu) that reside in various classrooms. The teachers routinely and repeatedly express gratitude to the members of SF-LUG who visit the school to do one type or another of maintenance work there, and that gratitude is plainly heart-felt. Several of the teachers have told colleagues in other schools about the lab, and they believe it’s an asset to the school. In addition, elected officials have toured the school and visited the lab, and have received generally positive reviews.

And yet, all of the teachers continue to use only Microsoft Windows or Mac machines for their own purposes…

One Daring Pioneer

…except one. The seventh and eighth grade science teacher dual boots his notebook with Intrepid Ubuntu. The other partition runs a copy of Microsoft Windows XP that was given to him by Adobe two years ago when he attended a summer seminar sponsored by Adobe. Adobe paid him and another teacher $1,000 for one week’s attendance at a seminar, which amounted to a paid infomercial for Adobe products. In addition to the $1,000 payment for attending the seminar, each teacher received a decent notebook computer, and the school received free copies of Adobe video software, along with a check for $5,000 for the school to spend on any cameras or software that it wished to purchase for the purpose of doing media work in the school.

In early December of 2008, the science teacher’s Adobe-sponsored Microsoft Windows XP notebook was hit with a crippling virus, which bricked the machine. He said that he had previously taken the machine to friends of his who were skilled in administering XP machines, but they were unable to fix it. After concluding that the XP notebook was hosed, he asked us to help. Our SF-LUG members used a GNU-Linux live CD to pull his data off of the drive, and then installed Intrepid Ubuntu.

This teacher clearly understands the civil rights aspect of free software, and it’s apparent to him that there are inherent dangers in using software whose source code is locked up in a black box for only the vendor to see. He also sees the importance of having community access to source code, because he (and most of the other staff members) understand that our SF-LUG members have customized software in certain ways to make the lab run smoothly — although they don’t understand the nature of the changes, nor do they really care to learn the details.

And yet it is telling that it was only after consulting with XP-savvy friends and finding that his XP partition was hosed that he relented to have his data removed, his hard-drive wiped, and a clean (legal) copy of XP installed along with the Ubuntu Intrepid partition. Despite having used Xubuntu in the lab for two years, he was still hesitant to install GNU-Linux on a “mission-critical” machine until it was clear to him that viruses had irredeemably crippled XP.

Now this teacher uses the Ubuntu (GNOME) partition as his primary environment. Every day, this teacher stands in front of his class and delivers presentations from his Ubuntu partition. Each day, 120 seventh and eighth grade students are exposed to OpenOffice.org and Firefox during his class lectures. Every day, this teacher and his students become more familiar and comfortable with GNU-Linux. The same can be said for the roughly 120 students who come through the Xubuntu lab every week. That is progress.

Machines In Students’ Homes

From the beginning, it has been my personal goal to see that every student who wants a GNU-Linux machine will be able to have one in his or her home. That goal has proven to be difficult to achieve for several reasons, which I will briefly summarize here. First, there’s a good deal of administrative work that goes into determining which students merit a machine. Second, there’s another good bit of administrative work that goes into obtaining permission to enter the homes of students who receive machines, since the parents almost always need some assistance in connecting the GNU-Linux machines to the Internet. Third, the work in students’ homes is, in itself, time-intensive and a real challenge to carry off on a volunteer basis.

But the promise for further developments in this area is underway. We are creating a non-profit service to seek funding to carry out many of the time-consuming tasks at the school and in students’ homes — tasks that are very much beyond the scope of an all-volunteer effort.

Lessons learned

There are a few basic lessons to be learned from my involvement with helping one public charter middle school migrate to FOSS:

  1. Help yourself by helping the underdog. Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen advises that disruptive innovations such as GNU-Linux will take root among “over-shot” customers, meaning customers who are either unwilling or unable to pay for the goods and services offered by the market leader. In this particular case, the school would have purchased Microsoft products if they had the money, but their limited budget forced them to keep an open mind and adapt to the idea that FOSS was perfectly suitable for their needs. They didn’t turn up their noses at FOSS or say that it was not good enough for their kids. They prided themselves on being creative and inviting our Linux user group into the school to see what FOSS could do to help them deliver a high quality technology experience on a budget. Their creativity and gumption in this regard became a point of pride for them.
  2. Respect the power of marketing. Microsoft and Apple have plowed billions of dollars into creating and managing customer expectations. It will take years for you to mitigate that mindset, unless you happen to come across a staffer who “gets” how powerful FOSS can be. Don’t trash-talk the non-FOSS vendors. During my initial interview with the principal, she asked if I was a “Microsoft hater.” I truthfully said no, I have used Microsoft products for many years and I understand that Microsoft products are the correct choice for some people. I emphasized that I intended just to offer a different set of solutions that might work better for some users. I could tell that question was an acid test. If I had said that I hated Microsoft, the principal probably would have concluded the interview and shown me the door.
  3. Take it one step at a time. This is a corollary of the second item. Don’t think that you will change attitudes overnight. Due to the massive marketing prowess of Microsoft and Apple, consumer attitudes are firmly ingrained. Give yourself several years to make progress against those expectations by providing intensive, real-world experience with the power of FOSS.
  4. Be willing to accept a heterogeneous environment. This is also a corollary of the second item. I don’t work on Microsoft Windows or Apple machines, but I also don’t bad mouth them. Be prepared to smile and nod when someone praises non-FOSS technology. No one likes a grouch.
  5. Keep the principal happy. This item almost goes without saying. The principal is the captain of the ship. Make sure to engage with the principal on his or her terms. Consult with the principal as appropriate. Take the time to cultivate a relationship and make sure that you understand what makes that individual tick. He or she sets the culture and the terms for the entire school. Few teachers will cross the principal or risk alienating him or her.
  6. Gain allies among the teachers. Many principals will delegate significant responsibility to teachers, particularly as regards the conduct of their classes and the structure of their classrooms. Seek out one or two or three teachers who will go to bat for you in crucial meetings at which you are not present. Remember that in their eyes, you will always be an outsider, not someone who bears the strain of managing a classroom of wiggly students day in and day out. Acknowledge your status as an outsider, and show deference to their sacrifices.
  7. Get to know the community. Teachers and principals, for the most part, do their work out of love for young minds. Get to know them, and try to share their passions and pains to the extent that you, as an outsider, can.
  8. Learn the rules, and follow them assiduously. This is another item that almost goes without saying. Parents and teachers are fervently protective of students, and rightly so. Check in with the principal and teachers frequently. Take nothing for granted. Get permission for every single thing that you do, particularly if it involves speaking with a student.
  9. Let the code teach freedom, and don’t preach too often. Most people view computers as toasters, and many teachers are technophobes who expect computers to work perfectly every time. Don’t spend too much time extolling the (considerable) virtues of Richard Stallman’s Four Freedoms. Let the code demonstrate those freedoms. Stallman’s Four Freedoms are like red hot chili peppers — a little bit goes a long way.

Conclusion: Set One School Free

In the response to the current economic climate, President Barack Obama has issued a call for volunteerism. Now is a good time for “penguinistas” and “GNUsters” to heed that call and volunteer to be part of a team focused on moving just one institution such as a school to FOSS. It is often difficult work, but that difficulty can be an advantage for the FOSS community.

Malcolm Gladwell tells a story that is illustrative here. This story is about a girls’ basketball team that managed to win despite being comprised of short girls who were new to basketball and couldn’t shoot all that well — especially three-point shots.

But this girls’ team was a winner. Their success was due to simple hard work, not talent. Unlike almost all other teams, this team from Redwood City, California, played a full-court press all game long. Running a full-court press is mentally and physically exhausting for the girls and even for the coach, so most coaches just have their players concede the back court and wait for the offense to come dribbling over the mid-court line.

In fact, most teams that the Redwood City girls’ team opposed were not ready for a full-court press for the full game, not even otherwise really good teams. The opposing coaches and players were shocked and even offended that the Redwood City coach was introducing such keen competitiveness into children’s team sports. So the game-long full-court press was, according to Gladwell, both physically exhausting and “socially horrifying,” although completely within the written rules of the game. But hard work and the guts to do something different meant that the Redwood City girls team both had a winning season, and, more important, learned to re-frame the game so as to play to the strengths they had (determination and hard training) rather than their weaknesses (poor shooting ability).

The lesson that Gladwell draws from this story is that underdogs can win when they work hard and focus on their strengths. Microsoft is a wealthy corporation that sits smack in the middle of an extensive network of committed businesses whose earnings are dependent on the continuation of the Microsoft dominance. But Microsoft and its business partners lack a few things that the FOSS community has going for it: free code that is legal to share and a passion for freedom in cyberspace. Also, there is an inadequate margin for them in servicing schools, although the margin can be adequate for FOSS vendors who typically have smaller cost structures.

To conclude, I would like to encourage each reader to adopt one school or one non-profit, or some other kind of underdog, and commit to giving some amount of time or money to support a successful migration at that institution. It will be hard and inconvenient and maybe even “socially horrifying,” as it might call you to sacrifice time with a loved one or cause other hardships that will cause you and others to occasionally question the wisdom of your actions. But the future of digital freedom is worth it! If we keep that fire alive, we can restore balance, competition, and basic freedom to the consumer desktop market.

Christian Einfeldt
Christian Einfeldt is an attorney in civil practice in San Francisco who has been using GNU-Linux in his practice since 2001. He provides volunteer sys admin support with Free Open Source Software for schools in San Francisco, California. He is also producing a documentary called the "Digital Tipping Point" about how FOSS is reinventing culture, much like the printing press did in its day.

 

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