June 5, 2007

Kamloops school district gets an education in free software

Author: Bruce Byfield

The Kamloops/Thompson School District in British Columbia, Canada, is a free software success story. Gregg Ferrie, manager of information technology for the district, believes its infrastructure may be "the largest Linux on-the-desktop implementation in Western Canada" in public education. According to Ferrie, hardly a week goes by without another of British Columbia's more than 60 school districts consulting Kamloops. Currently, five other districts are considering or planning to implement the Kamloops district's custom-built thin client solution, and the department of education at the University of British Columbia is also investigating the possibility.

Kamloops' success did not come overnight. It represents a culmination of almost a decade of effort that includes resistance from both instructors and unionized technical staff. Ferrie's account of how he and his small team of system analysts managed to introduce free software to the district provides a case study of the challenges that others might face in making similar efforts.

Administration and elementary school conversion

The Kamloops district's transition to free software began in the late 1990s. As problems with the district's Windows-Novell system mounted, Ferrie began to look for alternatives to improve the centralized administration of the system. At the time, Ferrie had some experience with Xenix, and says that, "I loved the Unix command line. It wasn't pretty, but it was powerful." His investigation of GNU/Linux convinced him that it was "a little immature," but adequate for basic computing. With the help of a local service provider, and John Cuzzola, a systems analyst he soon hired, in the 2000-01 school year, he migrated the administration system.

Because the change occurred behind the scenes, Ferrie says, "It was an absolute non-issue, because no one knew anything about it." Besides, at the time, computers were considered enrichment rather than part of the core curriculum. "If a Web site went down," Ferrie says, "nobody cared, because it wasn't really a big issue."

Around the same time that this transition was completed, Ferrie's team began tackling the problem of providing services to all the elementary schools in the district. The elementaries suffered from a "huge variance of technology" ranging from no computers at all through to networked labs, and even those that were well equipped were suffering from frequent equipment failures. Ferrie remembers that if a teacher "brought in a whole class of 30 kids, if they had 26 computers they would be doing well. That meant that teachers had to double up kids or make other arrangements for some kids, which is always problematic."

Over the summer of 2001, Cuzzola worked on modifying the Linux Terminal Server Project to develop a thin client system for the district's elementary schools. The original plan was to run a pilot for a year at a couple of schools, but the solution was so successful that by October of the next school year, teachers at other elementary schools were coming to inspect it. By the end of the school year, the system was installed in 20 other schools. By the end of the next year, all the district's elementary schools had it.

"The software was a bit of a stumbling block, because it wasn't terribly mature in some areas," Ferrie says, "but it was reliable." This reliability "was better than what [some schools] had, which was nothing." But even for those schools that already had an IT infrastructure, a system that teachers could count on was more important than the imperfections of the software.

Resistance from teachers

Buoyed by these early successes, Ferrie and his analysts decided to migrate the secondary schools over to free software in 2002-03. Here, however, trouble quickly arose because, unlike in the elementary schools, in the secondary schools, the analysts were changing a well-established order.

The secondary schools used computers as part of their core curriculum, and some of the teaching staff saw the change as the IT department interfering in educational matters that its members didn't understand. Moreover, although secondary schools in British Columbia are supposed to teach skills rather than specific software, in practice, many teachers had developed courses that specified particular pieces of software. "You get a teacher who's been around 20-30 years, and they're not that keen on developing their course again," Ferrie says in wry hindsight. Also, many schools had already paid for textbooks that referred to specific proprietary software.

However, resistance among educators crumbled with the emergence of an advocate of the new system. In 2005, Dean Coder, a principal from the Prince George district with whom Ferrie had corresponded, transferred to the Kamloops district because he wanted to become involved in its transition to free software. Assigned to Barriere secondary school, Coder decided to convert all 110 computers at the school over to the thin client system. Systems analyst Dean Montgomery began work on a second-generation system, using state-of-the-art equipment.

By this point, applications such as OpenOffice.org and Scribus had evolved to the point that teachers were "awestruck" by the new pilot system. However, what really convinced teachers that the change was worthwhile, Ferrie says, was Coder's advocacy. "He put his own reputation on the line and said to the staff, 'I'm going to be there for you.'" A young principal at the district's largest school soon requested the new system, and several others quickly followed. Now, Ferrie says, "we're struggling to implement it at the rest of our secondaries." In the end, an advocate who was both an educator and an administrator, he maintains, made all the difference in getting the system accepted.

IT staff issues

Another serious problem in the Kamloops district was resistance from the technical support staff. Ferrie is reluctant to talk about this resistance, not wanting to reopen conflicts that have since been resolved. Still, he admits that at the time, "We had a lot of difficulty moving our Novell-trained technicians forward. For a start, they were skeptical that an open source project could do the job -- and that was understandable, since they hadn't been exposed to it. As well, they had a huge skill set that they had developed for years and years that suddenly became irrelevant, and they had to retrain. And there was a lot of anxiety about that."

One or two employees considered quitting. At times, resistance became so pronounced that some of the staff seemed to be passively resisting the changes, muttering in the background and dragging their feet when asked to cooperate. There were even union grievances filed about unnecessary system changes and the need for retraining.

"From a management perspective, it was debilitating and counterproductive," Ferrie recalls. However, looking back, he places the blame for the staff issues squarely on himself and the other administrators.

"We didn't do a very good job of promoting the system," he says. "We kind of just expected that [the staff] would see the wisdom of it without understanding it very well. We were dealing with people, not machines, and one lesson I learned is that people are still the biggest component, and you've got to engage them. In all fairness, we were asking them to do a lot."

As Ferrie and other administrators realized the problems their overenthusiasm had created, they began to work with the IT staff rather than seeking confrontation. And, slowly, the staff came around. The district paid $25,000 Canadian to bring in a trainer for two weeks, and paid for staff members to take the Linux Professional Institute Level 2 tests. "It gives them somewhere to hang their hat," Ferrie says, explaining why the district paid for staff certification. "It's something you can take to the bank" and use in other jobs. For a year and a half, staff also had half a day off every week for personal study to hone their skills.

With this level of support, resentment of the changes slowly diminished. In the end, no one quit. Now, the battles of the past safely behind, Ferrie has nothing but praise for his staff for working through the conflict and learning new skills."Even the technicians who struggled a little bit initially are very good," Ferrie says. "They're phenomenal now. Once we really got through all the angst and the problems and sat down and did some serious planning for them, everything started to go great."

Finding solutions

The second-generation system cost the Kamloops district about $47,000 to implement, as well as the cost of training and the release time for personal study and taking exams. However, Ferrie has no doubt of the savings overall. License costs are disappearing as the district phases out its Novell NetWare licenses, and the district no longer needs to purchase productivity software. Ferrie also figures that the increased reliability represents a substantial savings, although he admits that it is hard to quantify.

However, perhaps the greatest benefit of switching to free software is that the reliability of the new system frees up technical staff to do more than routine support. Where the district once paid 10 technicians to keep the district's computers running, many of those can now be freed for other duties. Since implementing the second-generation system at Barriere Secondary, the district has been able to create a new help desk position to work directly with teachers so that they can make better use of applications. Recently, too, the district has improved the new position of technology coordinator to offer teachers hardware support.

"We could never do any of that before," Ferrie says. "We're making much better use of the few resources we have." That, as much as anything, seems to make the effort of the last decade worthwhile for Ferrie and his team.

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com, and IT Manager's Journal.

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