January 9, 2002

Linux provides cheaper alternative for schools in India

Author: JT Smith

- By Frederick Noronha -

After struggling for years to get access to
non-pirated software to run their computer labs, schools in the western
India coastal state of Goa have hit a bonanza that seems too good to be true.

Red Hat India, part of a prominent global corporation dealing in Open Source and Free Software, has come up with an innovative plan, which was promptly seized by volunteers pushing for the speedy computerisation of
schools in Goa. Under this plan, schools will get access, not just to all the software
they need, but also to free training for teachers and volunteers.

What makes this project innovative and different is that it's based on GNU/Linux, an operating system.

"Free Software" means it is freely distributable and free of restrictions on
viewing, using, copying, modifying and re-distributing the original source code
or software based on it. This, in turn, makes the software moderately or
affordably priced, even in countries like India, and legally able to be copied.

In a few weeks time, volunteers will get training in a project that could
sustainably meet schools' software needs.

Young Linux enthusiasts and volunteers -- including some engineering college
students -- will be trained in installing the software. Later, Red Hat and
its training partners will train teachers in using this decade-old
operating system which is now making a dent across the globe.

Red Hat Indian training manager Shankar Iyer said that
his firm would provide Linux as a standard operating system or schools
in Goa. "In this process, Red Hat and an NGO (Goa Computers in Schools
Project) have come together for a social cause," said Iyer.

The Goa Computers in Schools Project is a coalition of educators,
concerned citizens and expat Goans who feel the need to speed up the pace
of computer education in this small state. The project was launched in the
mid-'90s, and has been both inspiring and helping schools to get
computer infrastructure faster. It has also raised funds among expat
communities toward this goal.

The Goa Computers in Schools Project will work to
implement the project in Goa, while Red Hat India will provide training to
teachers and volunteers at its own cost.

Red Hat's approach is to "catch them young." and agrees that introducing
students to free computer operating systems like its own at the school
level itself could help build an edge over proprietary software like
Microsoft Windows, which currently dominates the desktop segment worldwide.

Currently, a project of this type is unique for India, where schools have
been struggling with unaffordable software prices. "Red Hat is willing to
extend it across the country (without any financial implications for the
schools)," said Iyer.

"The concept of Open Source and its advantages of having the source code in
hand, will be of great advantage for children," Iyer added. "Schools and parents will not
be burdened with high investments, on regular intervals. School also need
not keep spending on upgrading its machines on a regular basis."

Daryl Martyris, a U.S.-based expat management consultant with
PriceWaterHouseCoopers and key Goa Computers in Schools Project campaigner, said: "We have been trying very hard over the last two years to persuade Microsoft to
donate OS software and MS Office or sell it at concessional rates."

But this didn't work. "Since the (used U.S.) computers we ship are
'wiped' of their OS by the donors for liability reasons, and do not want to
encourage piracy of MS products, we have started to ship Linux OS
installation kits with the computers," said Martyris.

So the Red Hat India offer to provide free training came as a bonanza.
"Training for our volunteers and support to the schools is very tempting,
since it complements our efforts in this direction," said Martyris.

Red Hat India officials said they have drawn up a complete
schedule to train the volunteers, starting this month. The cost of
the training would be estimated to about Rs 150,000, according to Red Hat
India's Iyer.

But this figure hides another reality -- non-pirated proprietary software
needed to run on just the 360 computers that are being shipped into Goa
would cost millions (in Indian currency).

"This is a very good initiative," commented Gurunandan Bhat, until
recently head of Goa University's computer science department. "The spread
of (useful Open Source technologies like) Linux depends on how quickly we
take it across to schools."

But Bhat cautioned that the effort's project would hinge on building up a
"stable group of volunteers" and this is where groups like Goa Computers in Schools
Project could play an important role.

Red Hat India suggested that if this project took off in Goa, it could
be replicated in other places across India, considered by some overservers as a
software-superpower in the making. Ironically, India often can't afford the
price of legal proprietary software for its schools.

But implementing this project is not going to be easy. Larger, more
ambitious, attempts have faced glitches.

For instance, in 1998, the Mexican government embarked on an ambitious
attempt to equip its vast and under-funded school system with computers
running GNU/Linux. It expected to save up to $124
million in software licenses, and part of this could go to buy computer
hardware for some 126,000 public schools.

Mexico's RedEscolar project inspired Brazil and Argentina, but "fewer than
20" out of 4,500 schools could run GNU/Linux machines, primarily due to a
lack of support, both technical and political, according to reports.

Besides a chronic scarcity of personnel familiar with GNU/Linux, a lack of
compatible hardware also caused roadblocks in plans.

Goa-based Goa Computers in Schools
Project representative Anit Saxena admitted that the job ahead poses
some daunting tasks, but said efforts are starting to make it work. "Getting
things done in Goa can take time," he said.

One other problem that the proponents of Free Software would face is the
Goa Board syllabus, which currently requires that particular Microsoft
products have to be taught to students.

But efforts are on to make the syllabus brand neutral, so that concepts
can be taught to students, instead of focusing on familiarity with
particular software products. Linux proponents point out that all tasks
needed to be grasped by computer users and software programmers can be
easily done using free and open software tools, too.

GNU/Linux software has won praise from techies across the globe. It is
particularly apt for running server computers. Of late, major Linux
packages have become more user friendly, even for
desktop-computer users.

But compatibility with some printers, scanners, fax machines and sound cards
has been an issue with some distributions of Linux. Critics say installation is somewhat
more difficult than a Windows OS, though experts say once everything
everything is running, day-to-day use of Linux and Open Source applications
is not much different from using Windows.

In some schools in Goa -- like the elite Sharada Mandir outside Panaji --
piracy-free Linux software has already been installed in the school lab. "We
are keen to employ Linux solutions, too," said Ashwin D. Naik, a UK-educated
engineer and management expert whose family-run trust operates the Adarsh
Vidyalaya School in the south Goa town of Margao.

Meanwhile, the Goa Computers in Schools Project has announced that a duty
waiver for the import of once-used computers has come through. Some 360
computers are expected to be shipped in, to reach schools across the state.

Frederick Noronha is a freelance journalist from Goa, India. His Web sites include
www.bytesforall.org, www.goacom.com/wallpapers/, www.geocities.com/Athens/Forum/1503 and www.goacom.com/news/.

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