December 20, 2001

Open Source schools projects work together to provide alternative to Microsoft offer

Author: JT Smith

- By Grant Gross -

Several Open Source-in-education projects are joining forces and countering Microsoft's offer of $1 billion worth of software, hardware and training to 12,500 U.S. schools as part of its antitrust settlement.

A couple of weeks before its official launch, the Schoolforge coalition (no relation to NewsForge or already has commitments from more than 15 projects and companies interested in Open Source for schools. The group is creating a "foundry" where users can find the tools and information about using Open Source software and curriculum in schools. The goal is to reduce redundancy between projects and let more people know what Open Source options schools have, says Doug Loss, data network coordinator at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania and leader of the Simple End User Linux/edu project.

Loss says the coalition's call to action came largely from Red Hat's offer of Free Software to any school, a counter-offer to the Microsoft billion-dollar proposal. Red Hat is among the supporters of Schoolforge.

"The only way we can compete with Microsoft's offer (if the donation ever actually materializes) is by publicity, advocacy, and local effort by interested and committed members of the Free/Open Source software community," Loss says. "One of our ideas is to put together material for LUGs to use in approaching and supporting their local educational establishments. That is still in the formative stages, as we're concentrating now on getting the coalition itself up and running."

New software, too

At the same time that Schoolforge officially launches in January, one of its members plans to release a new version of its easy-to-install Linux terminal server package, which lets schools or other organizations run dozens of outdated computers or cheap diskless workstations all powered by a single Linux server. This month, the K-12 Linux Terminal Server Project, which released its 1.0 version in July, also has posted a Quick Tour of a Linux Classroom page to its site, and with K12Linux, is launching, which will focus on K-12 distributions and how to install and support them.

Paul Nelson, a leader of K12LTSP, says the new release of the simple-install Linux terminal server will feature a desktop installation of Red Hat Linux 7.2 -- KDE 2.2.2 is also included -- instead of 7.1 with Ximian updates in the 1.0 version. "7.2 does such a nice job with Nautilus and the Gnome desktop, we left the desktop pretty stock," Nelson says.

A range of office software, including OpenOffice and the Ximian Evolution email package is included, for both the new version of K12LTSP and a stand-alone K12Linux version that can run on a local computer instead of a thin client.

The new version is updated to LTSP 3.0, which "does a great job of auto-detecting and configuring network cards and video cards," adds Eric Harrison, LAN/WAN manager for the Multnomah County Education Service District near Portland, Ore. Also included is DHCP 3.0, which lets those installing K12LTSP dynamically boot both BOOTP- and PXE-based clients with the default configuration.

Red Hat and K12LTSP are also working on making the project compatible with the Red Hat Network so that schools have "a very easy way for new Linux users to stay current with updates," says Nelson, technology coordinator at the Riverdale School District in Portland, Ore.

Microsoft's offer not so free

Nelson reports that four to five schools a month are signing up to experiment with Linux during the project's Linux clinics. Nelson's among the Open Source advocates who suggest Linux is a good fit for schools because of the potential cost-savings, and he predicts more schools will come around even though some will accept Microsoft's software give-away, if it happens.

"I'm sure that many schools will jump at the chance to get free software from Microsoft," he says. "Do they realize that it's not really free though? In five years, they'll get a bill from Bill ... If MS thinks that they can outperform Open Source software in schools by
giving away their products, they've misunderstood the movement and they will lose the battle. It's the freedom of Open Source software and the superior support of the Open Source community that MS has to catch up with. The Open Source development model produces better software. Schools will figure that out in due time."

Schoolforge happened when a bunch of people advocating Open Source in schools began talking about the Microsoft settlement on the OpenSourceNow list hosted by Red Hat, Nelson says.

From the "about Schoolforge" document, which is still being worked on: "[The foundry's tools will be] all free for the asking (or download), and, in the future, international
in content and character, Schoolforge is not a place or an organization, but a
cause, and a collection of people and projects dedicated to it: bringing quality,
affordable and dependable software and teaching materials to the people who need
them around the world. As such, it is not a 'service' so much as it is a community
focal point, which, as much as anything else, represents an opportunity to get
involved in one of its aspects."

Organizations making up Schoolforge so far include:

A.L.I.C.E. AI FoundationBlueEDUDebian JrFree Computing Curriculum ProjectThe International Technology ProjectK12OS, including K12Linux and
K12LTSPlibresoftware-educ.orgLinux for KidsMimerDeskThe Open Book ProjectOpenlearningcommunity.orgOpen Soiurce Education FoundationOpen Source SchoolsRed HatSchoolMationSEUL/eduShadow netWorkspace


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