March 27, 2001

Learning on the job with Open Source Education Foundation's Harry McGregor

Author: JT Smith

- By Julie Bresnick -

Open Source people -

As CEO and co-founder of the Open
Source
Education Foundation
, Harry McGregor is taking matters into his own
hands.

He dropped out of high school in 10th grade. It didn't matter that
the one he was attending was considered by many to be the best high school in
the Tucson, Ariz., area. The trouble was that every year he commented on the
crappy computers he was learning on, teachers told him resources were better
on the next level. They never were. So he left and enrolled in the local
Community College instead.

But satisfying his own needs for experience at Pima Community College didn't allay his
concern, because it wasn't only the courses that had bothered him, it was the
whole set up, the software and hardware students were using and the allocation of
resources that he felt were all wrong. He knew if he was so wanting
there were other students dissatisfied too.

His father, an amateur enthusiast, bought McGregor his first computer
when he was 3, so it was from a significant level of comfort that he
accelerated his interest at 12 or 13. By high school, he was
working with some of the district's network administrators, which afforded him a
good look at how resources were being applied.

It was there, while serving as a student network/computer lab aide,
that he finally met John Winger in person. They'd met years before because
Winger used to run the Pot-Bellied Stove, which had been the biggest BBS in the
greater Tucson area. And that's also how Winger knew to call McGregor when, a few
years later, Corbett Elementary school received a donation of 32 Pentium 90s,
which the district could neither afford to supply with software nor support.
Disappointment still fresh on his mind, McGregor was certainly interested
and invigorated enough by the experience to create OSEF, an organization
aimed at perpetuating the task of bringing affordable and quality computing to
K-12 education.

McGregor and a handful of fellow students and a few recruits from the
Tucson Free Unix Group spent about 2,000 hours building Corbett School's Linux
network and outfitting the lab with rows of desktops running Linux.

"Corbett was very amenable to [using Linux on the desktops]. We've
had, for about the past two years, kindergarteners running Linux on the desktop
on a daily basis. They just love it."

McGregor, now 19 and a full time student at Pima, talks to me
from OSEF's donated (by Innovative Formulations) office space just south of
downtown Tucson. Like the other
individuals
committed to building OSEF, McGregor is a volunteer.
Hoping to receive 501c3 tax exempt status soon and dreaming of a day when
the group's volunteers can afford to pay themselves for their time and effort, McGregor finds progress to be reward enough for now.

"At the end of this past summer we had completely rebuilt Corbett's
computer lab, for the third time, doing everything the way we wanted to, still
under budget constraints (but not nearly as limited as the previous builds.)
We redid the network cabling, reorganized it, rotated the lab to align it with a
tunnel under the building (for the cabling), and redid the IP addressing
scheme with 10.1.0.0 addresses, it was just an amazing and tremendously rewarding
sight to see the kids come in at the beginning of the school year and start
using the systems." He pauses to appreciate the memory, "essentially seeing the
payoff of the work we did all summer ... I like what I'm doing. I want to work with
schools, to try to help education as best as I can."

He's as decisive about the future of Open Source, too, as he is his
own.

"As much as I'd like to see Linux on the desktop I think that the
first battle we need to start working on in terms of education is the office
productivity package. And once they're used to StarOffice or OpenOffice,
Linux is a lot easier.

"I'd like to see a reduction in the cost of technology for schools.
They're putting millions of dollars into it and at least the perceived benefit
of it for educators is low. I've seen a lot of money put into software
licenses that just isn't necessary and a good example of that is not even the
operating system level. The local district here just licensed Microsoft Office
2000 premium edition. They would have saved a lot of money by going with
StarOffice, keeping NT 4, but going with StarOffice."

McGregor first learned of Linux through classmates in high school so,
he admits his computer education had some merit. He had been
working with Windows.

"I picked up a developers toolkit from Infomagic. I started
experimenting with it but then put it on the back burner. I was a beta tester for
Windows NT 4. After its production release I thought, 'this is alright but not what
I'm looking for,' so I started getting back into Linux. I dual booted
Windows NT 4/Linux (Slackware) and more and more spent my time in Linux and less
and less in NT. Finally I ran Windows NTE2FS on the NT partition. I rewrote the
file system into a Linux partition. Eventually it had been about six months
since I had booted into NT and I figured I could use that space again so I just
reclaimed it.

"Linux is easy to deal with, it's flexible, it does what I need it
to do when I need it to do something."

Networking is McGregor's latest love but hardware is also a computer
genre of which he never tires. In that vein, he and fellow OSEF members are
working to build the K12 Box, a compact workstation computer for student labs that
can "all use a single networked hard disk drive." After converting a
number of donated towers to desktop hard drives for fear of accelerated wear from
students kicking them, OSEF decided to take the conversion a step
further. Even a hard drive stored beneath a monitor on a student's desk is
inadequate because it raises the monitor up too high. The K12 box will sit on the
desk next to the monitor but will not be a burden to limited space because
its shell will include shelf space.

Though it is this kind of behind-the-scenes technology that he
enjoys the most, he finds many of his strengths lie on the liaison side of things.

"There are people that work well on the systems that are not really
people people, and there are those that are good with people, and you really
need to have both types of people working on the project. You need people who
can talk to teachers and parents and administrators. Myself, I've wound up
doing more of the people interfacing and networking and less of the Linux than I
would have liked. I find I have a way of talking with administrators and
getting them to like the ideas."

So good with other people, in fact, that his college has invited him
to teach. Next semester he will be offering fellow students, CIS
225: Linux Networking. From student to educator in one fell swoop. Must be his
Abe Lincoln-like beard.

About Harry McGregor

Born: Buffalo, N.Y.

First Computer: PI-99-4A from Texas Instruments. "I still have it. In
fact I have a number of them around my house. For the most part they can still
run useful stuff."

Hobbies: Computers, computers, computers. "The most enjoyable thing
to me is learning about computers. I guess it's the infinite possibilities for
learning, so many little areas to dive into."

Citizenship: Canadian/American.

Press: http://www.osef.org/articles_and_letters/azstar/whizkids.html.

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