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Open Source at the Front of the Class

By Jack M. Germain
Feb 2, 2015 5:00 AM PT

Open source is sitting at the head of the class in a growing number of schools with all levels of education. Its no-cost starting point and use-it-your-way flexibility gives open source technology an advantage over proprietary solutions with its no-license and no-fee lesson plan.

Open Source at the Front of the Class

Don't think so? LinuxInsider spoke with several technology administrators around the country who gave their open source experiences a solid A+.

Penn Manor School District in Pennsylvania gives each student a laptop powered with Linux and configured with root access. The experiment provides a soup-to-nuts education where students handle the laptops from box to classroom.

The school system created a student-run computer help desk, which enabled the students to work together to unbox, label and inventory the laptops.

Oakland Unified School District in California is another of many schools making a big move into instructional technology using open source. In that school district open source is widespread. The students participate in the active programmers community and get to see much of the process first hand.

"There is a big push in the district to get students technologically literate. Open source software is ideal for meeting our goal of differentiating instruction for each student," Tierre Messa, dean at Oakland Unified School District and a technology teacher, told LinuxInsider.

An Easy Sell

For many education outlets looking to bring a fresh approach to technology, open source is an easy selling point. In fact, for many open source adopters at schools, open source technology sells itself.

Todd Ross Nienkerk, managing partner of Four Kitchens Web Design, uses open source software almost exclusively in designing systems for education users. He sees an increasing adoption of open source technologies in that market.

"We usually do not have to sell people on using open source. By the time they contact us, they already decided on using open source," Nienkerk told LinuxInsider.

His company addresses the use of open source in three key areas: multi-media publishing, non-profit and education. The company works with education reform groups in elementary and high school education. It also consults on web technology issues at major universities.

"Such places are very committed to open source," he said.

High Stakes Experiment

As Charles Reisinger, technology director of Penn Manor School District sees it, open source rejuvenated the district's ability to give staff and students a cost-effective, educationally sound technology foundation. Reisinger oversees the district's nearly 5,000 technology hardware units and much of the instructional technology.

The IT staff does much of the district's technology development in-house. The core of that development is built around open source. The tools include Koha, Moodle, Linux, WordPress, Ubuntu, OwnCloud, SIPfoundry and VirtualBox. The district houses 5,300 students from grades K-12 in 10 buildings.

The district's IT department operates on a shoestring budget, so it must be agile and fiscally responsible with how it manages its technology, according to Reisinger.

That pushed school officials 15 years ago to begin experimenting with open source. Over the intervening years, the school district kept adding more open source.

"The hits just kept coming. Open source usage grew on the back-end with things like grading programs and library management systems," said Reisinger.

Successful Results

Those formative years spent integrating open source became the impetus about four years ago for bringing open source technology directly into the classrooms for students. Reisinger wanted to know if it were possible to make the Linux OS work on the front end as the desktop for students.

At that time the school district faced mounting budget limitations and an aging fleet of Macbooks that needed to be upgraded. School officials took a chance in the elementary levels with laptops running Ubuntu with the Xfce desktop environment.

"It worked very well with our students. We looked at the data and found that most of our instructional time was being spent in the web browser and word processing. So we just had to create a really good experience on the web and with the day-to-day office tools," Reisinger remarked.

That laid the foundation for school officials to know that they really could make Linux work on the desktop for their students. An initial foray of 600 computers grew to 1,000.

Learning Linux

The process required training for both staff and students. But Reisinger does not think it was any different than the learning curve in moving from an old to a new computer.

Teachers just recently moved from an old to a new Mac computer. For some, that was a challenge even though it was on the same operating system. It is different, he noted.

"Anything new in front of people presents a learning curve. That is true whether they are using a different version of the Mac OS or a change in Microsoft Windows," Reisinger explained.

For students the migration path was much less jarring. All of our Linux installs were on the students' side. Migrating the teachers' computers to Linux will happen later.

Reisinger and his staff customized the Xfce desktop to resemble what students would know from a Mac and a Windows interface. The kids just needed to be pointed in the direction and took it from there, he said.

Coding By Design

One of the great strengths of the open source philosophy is that it can be applied to meet individual school needs. That is what teachers at Oakland Unified School District do.

Each school in this district has an instructional technology teacher leader. The district conducts monthly training for these leaders to train teachers in their buildings about open source technology and other technology issues.

"A lot of the open source software allows teachers to differentiate to specific students' needs. Teachers can tailor the instruction for students who are struggling as well as students who need a greater challenge," said the district's dean and technology teacher, Messa.

She teaches a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) class in coding at one of the district's high schools. She uses the Scratch web site for in-class instruction.

Scratching the OSS Surface

Scratch is an instructional program that helps students learn to think creatively, reason systematically and work collaboratively. This program gives students hands-on experience in using open source software.

Her students take to open source software quite well, according to Messa. When she uses Scratch, one of the benefits is learning the programming language. Another benefit is the open exchange with other programmers.

The students engage in conversations and code exchanges with other programmers in the open source community. Students receive critiques and can offer their own critiques on the coding done by others in the community.

"The students are able to learn in a broader community than they would experience just within the classroom," said Messa.

Open Climate

As schools in her area continue to adopt open source software, Messa sees little competition from commercial products to supplant the use of open source software. As a teacher, open source presents little or no approval process to bring into the classroom. It is free.

"Right now the climate is that we want students to have as much access to all kinds of technology as possible to be 21st Century learners. To do that they have to have access to different types of software. I do not see the districts as putting limitations on our use of technologies. It is actually the opposite," said Messa.

School districts are encouraging teachers to try new things. It does not all have to be licensed to the district. The schools want teachers to be integrating technology into everything they do in the classroom, she said.

Root Learning

Schools typically lock down computer hardware to prevent students from installing or using unauthorized programs. That is not the case with the Penn Manor students.

Penn Manor school officials adopted a view on computing technology that gives their students root access to their computers. The policy is written from the perspective of trust and is very clear.

The students can not do anything illegal with the computers. Obviously, they also can not do anything that violates the 'be nice' code. Students must honor the district's code of ethics, according to technology director Reisinger.

Root access is just local to the computers that students use. Students have no access into the teachers' production or staff network.

"I am aware of zero discipline issues related to the fact that students had local root access. It has been a huge nothing for us in terms of discipline," he said.

Factoring Costs

Open source software is free. The hardware it runs on is not, however. The Penn Manor School District had a long-term plan to fund its open source experiment.

The school district qualified for a statewide grant called Classrooms for the Future that provided a half million dollars grant money for purchasing computers for students in the high school in 2007. The school board worked with the administration to put money aside for the day when those laptops would have to be replaced, Reisinger explained.

"Open source was key to this long-range plan. We had that pool of money. By going open source it allowed us to wisely use that equipment money resource. We bypassed all of the licensing costs for proprietary software. We have a truly free and open source play here," he said.

That was a savings of about US$360,000 right from the start. School officials used that savings to invest in more computers and staff training. That is how open source helped them keep the costs down.

Meeting Needs

Open source has filled a gap for universities as IT strategies changed over the last decade. That shift involves web sites no longer being an IT issue. Major universities now have a completely separate Web department or web division of their IT departments, according to Four Kitchens' Nienkerk.

With this type of division from IT, the result has been a much more flexible approach to using open source. The people in these work situations are no longer tied to the concept of having an all-in-one solution out of the box, he said.

"Much like in big business, these universities need a customized solution to meet their needs. The people building the solution are the ones maintaining it. The reduced cost of using open source goes hand in hand with the flexibility. The starting cost for open source is zero," said Nienkerk.

Final Factors

"Open source allows schools to better prioritize their costs. Schools like the flexibility of not being tied into a particular provider. Absolutely that is a benefit.

"Education reform organizations tend to be about collaboration and forward-thinking. That is where open source excels. The philosophy of open source itself is in reform," concluded Nienkerk.


Jack M. Germain has been writing about computer technology since the early days of the Apple II and the PC. He still has his original IBM PC-Jr and a few other legacy DOS and Windows boxes. He left shareware programs behind for the open source world of the Linux desktop. He runs several versions of Windows and Linux OSes and often cannot decide whether to grab his tablet, netbook or Android smartphone instead of using his desktop or laptop gear. You can connect with him on Google+.


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