Stretching the Education Dollar With Linux

As the cost of equipping classrooms with everything from chalk to chairs continues to escalate, many school districts are turning to open source solutions as a viable alternative to expensive software for in-class computers. School IT managers are discovering not only that Linux-based distributions a great way to save money, but also that allowing users access to the software’s underlying source code may introduce students to technical aptitude they didn’t know they had.

Many proprietary software and hardware vendors offer educational institutions “discounts” on products or services, but for many schools, open source software remains a better option for several reasons.

“FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) is a better solution for education because it provides tomorrow’s technology at today’s budget,” Justin Riddiough told LinuxInsider. Riddiough is the leader and facilitator of theSchoolForge project, an organization aimed at bringing open source solutions into the classroom.

“Take a look at how many schools are starting to adopt Linux around the planet, and consider that each of these implementations will enable other things to happen — such as markets for support services, or the development of new tools which are contributed back to the pool of resources, or a student discovering a technical aptitude and going on to find ways that she could contribute to FOSS,” he added.

Distros Not Created Equal

While there are several different distributions of Linux specifically aimed at educators and students, they are not all created equal. Most, however, bear striking similarities — both in the basic code and in the assortment of software offerings bundled into the distribution.

Some of the most empowering aspects of free and open source software are its versatility and the seemingly endless ways in which individual software programs can be shuffled and packaged according to a developer’s vision and a user’s needs, Riddiough says.

When selecting what type of Linux distribution to use in a school setting, Riddiough suggests that IT managers should first look at what set of issues the school wants to solve and then try various distributions to find the best fit. “Some distributions are better suited for behind-the-scenes operations such as e-mail, student databases, library management and running an intranet, while others may be more appropriate as [student] workstations,” he points out.

Plenty of Choices

Let’s take a look at some of the most popular Linux distributions targeting the education market and see what they do (and don’t do) best:

K12LTSP is based on Red Hat Fedora Linux and is most often used to recommission old PCs that have been gathering dust in a back room next to the old mimeograph machines. This distribution can run on old, antiquated computers using the add-on package Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP), which converts them into thin clients, or computers whose heavy lifting is done on a central server elsewhere in the building.

K12LTSP has “a world class desktop environment that can provide incredible technology at a tenth of the cost [of other solutions] because it uses your existing hardware,” says Steve Hargadon, who runs the open source lab at theNational Educational Computing Conference andblogs on educational technology. However, K12LTSP isn’t without its drawbacks, he told LinuxInsider. “Since it depends on anetwork, it’s not good for anything that’s processor-intensive or relies on a lot of bandwidth — like video, for example. But for basic productivity, it’s wonderful.”

Skolelinux is a Norwegian Debian-based distribution that has gained a lot of traction because it installs easily from a single CD and requires minimal technical aptitude to maintain. Skolelinux comes with over 70 applications specifically tailored for classroom use, as well as the popular Firefox browser and the OpenOffice suite of word processing and spreadsheet applications. Although Skolelinux is a well-rounded and useful distribution, it’s usefulness in the United States is limited by a substantial lack of support in English.

Debian Jr. is a Custom Debian Distribution that is designed for “children from one to 99,” according to the product Web site. Developers of this distribution aimed to create an operating system that would work “out of the box” without requiring special modifications, alterations or a degree in computer programming to get it up and running. The project, initiated in 2000, is still in occasional use running student workstations but lacks clear documentation to make it a truly viable option for many school settings.

Edubuntu may be the Big Kahuna of Linux distributions targeting the education niche. Like its parent, Ubuntu, it has a large following because of its predictable release cycle (every six months) and long support cycle (18 months). Its huge user base translates to enormous community technical support, making Edubuntu an ideal choice for less-experienced Linux users. Readily available tech support may come in handy, since one of the most common complaints about Edubuntu is that installation tends to be tricky, particularly when configuring network access.

The OpenSuse Educator add-on CD (EDU-CD) is the Swiss army knife of Linux-based operating systems for schools. Not so much a standalone distribution as it is a layer of applications to be slathered on Novell’s basic OpenSuse operating system, Educator aims to address the needs of school staff and administration. While it includes student and course management information tools, as well as library automation programs, it doesn’t offer much in the way of classroom applicability and is therefore not the first choice for many schools and educational settings.

Choice Is Good

Though each flavor of Linux has its own pros and cons, open source education software expert Meredith Henson says variety is actually a good thing that can work to a user’s advantage. Henson is the eCDF ePortfolio Project Manager at Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand, and has been involved in the FOSS community since 2003 when she began working on the New Zealand Open Source Virtual Learning Environment I and II Projects.

“While I believe all software solutions should be considered on its merits, advantages and disadvantages, I also think that typically FOSS tools for education excel over other solutions, because they are more in tune with the needs of the teachers, students and organizations,” Henson told LinuxInsider. “The key to this is that the collaborative community environment of FOSS projects fosters innovation in education tools.”

The fact that open source solutions offer a wider range of choices and options than their proprietary counterparts make them truly useful alternatives to closed solutions, Henson says, especially for administrative tasks. “[W]ith open source solutions, organizations can freely customize the software to their specific requirements. This is particularly important when organizations wish to integrate with their existing software — such as student and employee management systems. Developing such APIs is often extremely costly and time-consuming to facilitate with proprietary software vendors.”

Open Source Gains Ground

With such a variety of Linux distributions available for users of every skill level, Linux-based operating systems and open source software solutions are rapidly gaining ground in the educational arena. The increased acceptance is due in part to a shift in the needs of both staff and students, says Henson. “I think primarily education providers are aware that learners usually have a choice of education suppliers, and are subsequently focusing more on meeting the needs of their learners.

“With increasingly technically savvy student bases, there is a demand for flexible and innovative learning solutions, and FOSS meets these needs,” Henson adds. “I also believe that the education sector is shifting from a competitive model to a more of a collaborative model, and FOSS communities provide a supportive environment for this interaction.”

SchoolForge’s Justin Riddiough agrees. “FOSS is finding greater acceptance in education for many reasons, the primary being the intersection of dwindling budgets and the need to provide the best software and educational resources available,” he maintains.

“With the release of Windows Vista, many educational institutions have started to [or will] evaluate an upgrade path,” he continues. “This process, coupled with budgets, will see many educational institutions starting to take a serious look at alternatives — and many will probably find distributions of Linux that exceed most of their expectations.”

It Takes Time

Based on his experience at educational technology shows, the National Educational Computing Conference’s Hargadon sees strong evidence that open source is gaining a foothold in the education community. “You don’t have to wear a tie-dyed t-shirt and be a hippie to appreciate the value of open source,” he remarks.

“Ultimately, open source will win, because it provides a more compelling model for how we share information — and it will have a huge impact on education,” he predicts.

“But,” he acknowledges, “you can’t change people overnight.”

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