November 22, 2004

Linux helps kids, brings hope, in Hawaii

Author: Tina Gasperson

Whether Linux is suitable for the desktop yet is a point debated by analysts, journalists, hobbyists, and pundits worldwide. It's easy to find stories about enterprise adoption of Linux for servers, and corporate CIOs are ever so willing to extol the virtues of open source software -- as long as it is kept in the back. No one ever goes all the way and puts Linux on the secretaries' computers (OK, maybe it happened once). Perhaps the way to see Linux adopted globally in the enterprise is to start developing desktop users at a tender age. That's what Scott Belford and the other members of the Hawaii Open Source Education Foundation (HOSEF) are counting on.As Belford likes to say, HOSEF was founded "by a pile of discarded computers." He was working on an MBA at the University of Hawaii when he stumbled upon a bunch of old hardware on the trash heap. A closer look made Belford realize that these computers were just like the ones he used to run back in the early '90s, with Linux. Why couldn't those systems, perfectly usable when not running bloated proprietary operating systems with high RAM and disk space requirements, be reclaimed and put to use to help school kids and teachers do their work, cheaper and more efficiently?

He invested his own money in workshop space and equipment, and began collecting and testing old computers, and hosting workshops to teach the teachers how to use these "new" computers. Belford and his friends went around installing thin client networks at schools and non-profit organizations all around Hawaii. So far, Belford says they've installed over 200 computers with only $1,000 in donations.

"Linux is a tremendous solution for education because there are so many free programs," he says. The K-12 Linux Terminal Server Project distribution combines educational applications like Kgeo, Kpercentage, and others with standard productivity applications. The result is a compelling argument for Linux on the desktop, at least in schools. "Within 20 minutes you can install LTSP and have a complete desktop of educational applications, plus the infrastructure to plug that into a lab network and make it a server for less powerful computers," Belford says.

HOSEF is partnering with the Department of Education in Hawaii to create Linux classes in two tracks: one for teachers, so that they can learn basic administrative skills, and one for students, to foster computer literacy and to enhance the academic curriculum with Linux desktop applications. "We're working to get a grant from the Department that would help us to formally develop math and science curriculum. This would tie into my Master's thesis, and it would afford us some good metrics on whether the Linux applications can actually help increase students' test scores," Belford says.

That's the practical side of the project. What's not as measurable is the impact that having access to computer technology has had on kids -- like the ones at Ewa Beach Boys and Girls Club, where HOSEF is changing the status quo at this "weed and seed" neighborhood gathering place. Operation Weed and Seed is a government strategy aimed at preventing, controlling, and reducing violent crime, drug abuse, and gang activity in targeted high-crime neighborhoods. Weed and Seed sites range in size from several neighborhood blocks to 15 square miles.

"We've got kids here that have no role models," Belford says. "There's a horrible ice problem." Ice is a slang term for methamphetamine in a crystallized form that abusers smoke in a pipe. Belford walked into the club's computer lab early in 2004, quickly realized there were "next to no" computers, and jumped on the opportunity to transform the place from a Windows clubhouse to a Linux hangout.

The teen center was first. There were no computers in this section of the center, so Belford and friends brought in a donated server and 12 thin clients. Now he visits the center on Mondays to teach the kids how to build and repair computers. "The boys are pretty interested," Belford says. "But the girls really are the ones who take over the whole process of disassembling and reassembling the computers. Forget the stereotypes. They are dying to take the network card out of that motherboard and put it back in."

Downstairs in the pre-teen lab there were 12 Windows systems. Belford says half of them were inoperable, and a little investigation revealed that spyware and viruses were the culprits. So HOSEF began converting the computers to the Xandros Linux desktop. Xandros is based on the former Corel Linux desktop.

"One by one, I began converting them to Xandros," Belford says. "It is seamless. Kids come in having no idea what Linux is. They sit down and click on the icon for Internet, or word processing to do schoolwork, and suddenly the 'broken computers' are working." HOSEF also supplied staff members who previously didn't have computers with which to do their work with Linux computers. Belford admits he was experimenting on them. "If you don't tell somebody they can't do it, they don't know. One is running SUSE, one is Mandrake, and two are on Xandros. I haven't offered any training -- they each do their work with spreadsheets, word processing, and Internet."

One staff member, says Belford, by the second day had already transferred all her old Word files from a diskette to the hard drive and customized her desktop. "I failed to tell her that this was Linux and that it was hard," he says.

Being a part of the kids' lives has touched Belford's heart. "Yesterday I had an experience that really is all the pay I need for a year. They noticed the sunset, and I said, 'let's make a wish on it.' They said, 'how do you make a wish?' They'd never thought to be that optimistic. They had to ask me how to do it.

"Doing these classes has given me a chance to role model with children who before this technology entered their clubhouse didn't even know how to wish."

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