May 17, 2002

Linux in education: Open Source provides a better solution for schools

Author: JT Smith

- by Matt Butcher -
Linux has been making inroads into K-12 education for years, but Microsoft's
move to

require an audit of 300 school districts nationwide

has brought Open Source into the educational limelight. As schools analyze
alternatives to hefty
licensing fees, LUGs and Linux-in-education organizations are pointing out that
Open Source solutions are better suited to the educational environment, and
are only a fraction of the cost.

"We're seeing the stand alone desktop PC as a colossal failure in
schools." says Paul Nelson, Technology Director for the Riverdale School
District
in Portland, Oregon. "After several years of installing PCs in classrooms, it
is evident that
schools do not have the staffing to support them and keep them running.
Often infected with viruses and subjected to student abuse, these
systems can quickly turn into a useless but expensive pile of junk in
the back of the classroom." A traditional desktop PC environment often costs more than $1,000 per system -- and that's a price that Nelson and others say is
too high.

A better model for schools, says Nelson, is the thin client. With diskless
workstations running K12LTSP, an
educational variant on the Linux
Terminal Server Project
, workstations can be locked down, making them
tamper-resistent and immune from computer virii and malicious code. Without the
requirement of a high speed processor and a hard drive, K12LTSP systems run well

even on older hardware, and systems obtained through computer recycling
programs like STRUT prove to be ideal
low-cost but functional clients. The average cost of new hardware required for a

client workstation running K12LTSP, says Nelson, is $200 -- a fifth of the cost
of the traditional setup.

Kirk Rheinlander, principle consultant for KPJ2 and a veteran
in Linux integration in schools, noted other areas where Open Source
software plays a significant role in educational institutions.
"It is all well and good to provide
stuff for classrooms, but managing the school is a big issue as well." He
pointed out Schoolmation, Schooltool,
and K12Admin -- all tools for school
and student administration. In fact, the
SEUL educational application index
has over 400
applications listed, covering everything from library software to budget tools
to schedule planners.

Both Nelson and Rheinlander noted that the foremost concerns that schools
express when
contemplating migration to Linux are installation and support. And both
gentlemen
point to
Linux User Groups (LUGs) as the primary source of the tech skills that meet
those needs. Members of the
Portland LUG provide what Nelson calls "24x7 support, without a Visa card" via
listserv. Members
of the Northern Colorado LUG volunteered countless hours along with Rheinlander
to
install an Open Source solution into an area charter school. Even the
entry of Red Hat into the arena is
indicative of the "grass roots" nature of the movement. "It's
interesting to note," says Nelson, "that Red Hat's involvement in K12 comes from

the interest of their own employees wanting to give back to the community."

Another concern voiced by schools considering Linux is the user interface. Many
situations demand a simplified user interface with only a few applications to
choose from, keeping the students focused on the task at hand, and reducing the
learning curve for teachers. There are efforts underway to produce a simplified
desktop as part of the K12Linux project, and Nelson expressed his optimism over
the improvements in Linux desktop environments as a whole.

Open Source software is providing the tools that schools need, made to fit. In
an
environment where general purpose operating systems are failing, Open Source
methodologies makes it possible for existing and stable applications to be
tailored to the needs of the educational community -- and that software won't
require costly audits or even annual license fees.

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