January 2, 2006

UK school learns a Linux lesson

Author: Tina Gasperson

Like many schools, Parkhill Junior School in Essex, UK, was short on space and short on money, but long on the need to keep up with the ever-expanding role of technology in the classroom. Alison Seagrave, the computer curriculum development manager at Parkhill, found a way to provide her students with more computers, Internet access, and a good selection of software, all for under £1,000, using Linux.

Seagrave was faced with the task of teaching students computer skills using aging workstations that were running Windows 98, an operating system that is no longer supported by Microsoft. She needed to provide Internet access to Parkhill's 450 pupils, ranging in age from 7 to 11 years old, but couldn't afford to purchase new operating systems, licenses, or hardware.

Seagrave found a solution after talking to Paul Jenkins of SimpleICT, a company that produces, among other things, a suite of educational software that runs on Linux. "I found out I could have a separate suite for research that wasn't going to infringe on my Microsoft network," Seagrave says. "We had a spare classroom that we could afford to put in better shape, and I knew I could get ahold of recycled computers" as part of a local UK government program that provides no-cost or low-cost hardware to schools.

Seagrave paid about £600 to have tables and wiring put in, got seven recycled computers, and forked over about £299 for the software, including SimpleICT's custom Linux based on Puppy, a CD-based distribution that boots into RAM. SimpleICT's version is tweaked to run on old hardware, and allows an administrator to easily filter Internet access. "The kids come down, pop onto these machines, surf around, and find information," she says. Students write papers or copy and paste data from the Web into AbiWord, save the file as a Word document on a diskette, and take it back to the Windows network for further editing or printing.

Seagrave's young students have had no problem adapting to Linux. She trained a small group of student mentors who are now responsible for assisting other pupils who come to the research room to take advantage of Internet access, word processing, and educational software. The mentors describe their experiences in a presentation at the Parkhill Web site.

"It's been really interesting and we've had a huge amount of fun," Seagrave says. "We're so programmed to the Windows way of working. But I think its important they realize we do have options. And they are very keen to experiment and make comparisons."

Seagrave says she would love to expand Linux's reach at Parkhill, but because of budget and space restrictions, "this is as far as I'm going to take it. If I get another empty class, I would jump to do it again."


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