July 19, 2006

Brandon Elementary transformed by K12LTSP

Author: Tina Gasperson

Two parent volunteers at an Atlanta district school have revolutionized technology use there by replacing Windows workstations with Linux on thin clients, using K12LTSP.

Daniel Howard and William Fragakis were spending too much time fixing "broken" computers at Brandon Elementary School. They were slow, frequently frozen, and "fraught with hardware, software, and malware issues. We would hear over and over again, 'our computer doesn't work anymore,'" Howard says, "and it takes hours to reinstall the operating system or figure out what driver got corrupted by what virus." Students weren't learning how to use the computers because frustrated teachers weren't including computer work in their lesson plans. "What we discovered is that teachers were really using [the computers] only for browsing and office applications." The school didn't have enough money to upgrade Windows 98 or aging hardware, and Howard and Fragakis were working many hours just to keep the school's technology afloat.

In May 2005, Brandon's PTA had some extra money in the budget and approached the two for suggestions about how best to improve the computer situation. "We said, putting brand new boxes in this network isn't going to fix anything," Howard says. "And it's not the best use of the money. Let us go off and look into this." They found K12LTSP, which seemed to be the answer to the school's problems. It transforms old hardware into thin clients that boot off the network without hard drives -- and there are no license fees. Howard and Fragakis called principals at other schools using K12LTSP, all of whom reported great success with the system. "They said, 'Well, it just works all the time.' The light started coming on that this was the right solution. It wasn't hard to convince the PTA and principals because they were looking for any answer."

Because K12LTSP is based on Fedora Linux, there were some questions about compatibility with educational software already in use by the faculty. "They weren't using a lot of CD-ROM applications, and one of the programs, Accelerated Reader, is Web-based delivery," Howard says. "The ones that were using standard apps were willing to switch to Web-based ones. We found a lot of Web versions." K12KTSP comes with basic software applications including OpenOffice.org, the GIMP, and Ximian Evolution. In one classroom, there was a special needs student using "$2,000 worth of legacy software, so we left a Windows PC in there," Howard says.

Every other PC in the school now runs K12LTSP, and Howard and Fragakis spent the first few months of 2006 adding additional terminals and hanging them on 35 servers. Area businesses donated most of the hardware, and the school purchased 60 thin clients with its budget surplus, bringing the total number of desktops to about 250. "A 350MHz Pentium II PC works just fine as a thin client, and businesses normally have to pay someone to have them hauled off," Howard wrote in a post to SchoolForge's mailing list.

"Bottom line is the school went from maybe one working PC per classroom to now five or six, with some classrooms having eight or nine. The teachers started integrating them into a lot of the curriculum. If you have only one or two it's more of a novelty. With five, now you can take one-third of the class and create a center of activity. That was the tipping point."

Howard has found an innovative way to manage space requirements for extra terminals donated in the form of laptops. He built a specialized rollable cart that allows students to simply pull up a chair and start using the computer. Teachers can reserve the cart for special class activities where each student needs a computer. "With 12 laptop stations adding to the existing five to nine thin clients in each classroom, we can provide a class with an instant 1:1 ratio," Howard writes on SchoolForge. "They stay on all the time, so transition from one group to another merely requires logging off one account and logging on to another. The laptops are all hardwired to a K12LTSP server on the cart with UPS battery backup, and there is a printer on the cart."

Having Linux on the desktop has been a shot in the arm for the school in many ways. Howard and Fragakis estimate that installing used hardware with a cost-free operating system saved Brandon Elementary 90% of what it would have cost to install Windows XP PCs, and that doesn't include savings on operational and support costs. But the biggest benefit can't be counted in dollars.

"It was really nice to have desktops that were simply up, and issues being resolved in moments." The two have received "stacks" of thank you notes from teachers and students for the luxury of having computers that "just work."

For Brandon, technology has moved into the commodity realm, as students get to use the computers to assist them in their learning, instead of just learning about computers. "Before, the emphasis had been putting the kids in front of the computers and saying, 'This is the mouse,'" says Fragakis, "but now the technology is transparent -- the computer is no longer a focal point, but merely a tool that goes along with the calculator and the textbook."

Palpable evidence of the power of open source is Brandon's improved test scores. The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that Brandon Elementary scored the highest in the district and third in the state of Georgia on standardized tests. "Scores were up across the board," Howard wrote at SchoolForge, "and math scores in particular were up sharply. All of the teachers have told us how much having all the Linux PCs have improved things."

The Atlanta School District is so impressed with the technology overhaul at Brandon that it is beginning a pilot program using K12LTSP on brand new thin clients in six area middle and elementary schools. Howard and Fragakis will not participate in the pilot, instead keeping their focus on Brandon's IT needs.

Both men agree that Brandon Elementary's tech transformation couldn't have taken place without open source. "It's the secret behind the future," Howard says. "There's a connection between education and open source. It's collaborative learning. The kids teach each other. A handful of the kids are the early adopter types -- they find stuff and show the other kids how to do it. That is reflective of the whole open source philosophy of people producing and sharing."

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