May 12, 2009

GNU/Linux in Education

Education is a business, a big business. Public education has a near-monopoly on education in K-12, many million of students and million of teachers. There are millions of PCs and servers in education. Unlike the home, PCs in schools are not primarily used for entertainment. Unlike businesses, PCs in schools are not a centre of profit, they are an expense. This means schools obtain the least expensive PCs and keep them longer. How does GNU/Linux fit in this?

GNU/Linux is a great fit for education:

  • the licence for software is not a cost
  • GNU/Linux runs better on older equipment while that other OS is designed to push customers to always buy new equipment
  • old equipment works well as thin clients
  • GNU/Linux makes a great terminal server

This means GNU/Linux can supply educational institutions with what they need, great performance at the lowest cost per seat. LTSP is perfect for organizations which want to minimize cost of acquisition and operation.

So, what are most educational institutions running? That other OS... A problem is an opportunity. They run that other OS because

  • it comes on purchased/donated PCs
  • teachers and students are familiar with it
  • some equipment only works with that other OS

The solutions to this problem are obvious:

  • encourage schools to buy PCs with GNU/Linux
  • donate/refurbish  PCs with GNU/Linux
  • introduce GNU/Linux to schools, school divisions, teachers and students
  • advise what equipment works and what does not

Most of these are happening now. More retailers supply PCs with GNU/Linux but it is far too few. GNU/Linux works well on older equipment so we can encourage donors to wipe drives or install GNU/Linux. ComputersForSchools type of organization can use GNU/Linux instead of that other OS. We can demonstrate GNU/Linux in local schools and teachers' conferences. The netbook is the easiest type of PC to show of GNU/Linux, particularly in elementary schools where space is at a premium and students are small. Seeing older machines or cheap thin clients working well in an LTSP setup is all the convincing it takes to become acquainted with a new desktop environment.

There are many sites with information about compatibility of devices:

What it takes to move an educational organization is an evangelist on the inside or a consultant from outside. That is happening now, particularly in the smaller organizations that are too small for M$'s radar. Division-wide and nationally, M$ actively undercuts Free Software with inducements:

  • free training
  • advertising merits
  • free software
  • some equipment

M$ is quite willing to sell at cost or below to ensnare the next generation of customers. Even if equipment and software were donated, schools should not use non-free software because the costs of maintaining/upgrading/delousing it are huge on-going costs. With that other OS, the cost is just beginning at acquisition. With Free Software, the benefits roll in immediately. That is the ultimate selling point of GNU/Linux. It works better for schools who do not want to chuck working equipment every three years, the Wintel  treadmill. Schools need to consider the ethical question of dealing with a monopolist convicted of illegal trade practices or using software plagued by bugs and malware.

I recently had the enjoyment of converting a computer lab of ten year old PCs to GNU/Linux. I added a terminal server running Debian Lenny GNU/Linux. Performance before with XP: 

  • boot time - 3 minutes including login
  • frequent freezes

Performance with GNU/Linux:

  • boot time - 1 minute
  • login time - 5 seconds
  • Writer loads in 1.5 second
  •  few freezes or reboots needed

Feedback from teachers and students: "It's fast!"

No one complained that it was too hard to change.  Everyone is happy that they can get on with the business of education.

I do not recommend schools run on ten year old equipment except as an interim measure. Problems with hardware will be a constant nuisance. New thin clients, however cost as little as $50 and should last ten years taking up little space, and producing little noise or heat. The cost of acquisition of a system of thin clients is about half what thick clients with that other OS cost so schools can have twice as many seats or half the cost, whichever they choose. Freedom works in education. Education works better with Free Software.

I recommend Debian or Ubuntu GNU/Linux for schools but there are hundreds of good distributions from which to choose. 

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