Linux is already well known as an excellent infrastructure platform. A fine example of a bridging technology, it is an effective fileserver for many environments, quite happily working with many common file sharing systems (Appletalk, Windows CIFS/SMB, NFS, and NetWare servers), as we noted in our previous editorial. Not only has Linux retained this flexibility, but unlike most modern systems used in schools, it has also remained quite lean. As a result, it works well on older hardware. This is an important point, as a common source of Linux servers for schools are computers which would otherwise be considered too obsolescent to run other operating systems.
Internet services are still one of Linux's strong points. Email accounts, news servers, Web servers, file servers, print services, firewalling, you name it -- all are standard parts of any good Linux distribution. The use of Linux in schools allows older equipment to be used for various purposes; the lack of per-seat licensing charges means that there are no financial impediments to setting up a rich set of intranet and Internet services, services which can be used by any other networked computers using any operating system. Indeed, as we mentioned in our previous editorial, setting up these systems would make for an excellent student learning experience, and would ultimately be very useful for student and staff organizations long afterwards.
Beyond using obsolete hardware to provide networking services, Linux provides a way for a school district to make good use of large numbers of non-current or obsolescent hardware: terminal services. Much work has been done in the last two years (and much longer beforehand) to develop Linux as a basis for terminal services. Two examples are the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP) and the K12LTSP project.
There are several compelling arguments for the use of Linux-based terminal services. For starters, terminals typically do not store their user preference information on the system, but rather on the server along with the users' files, so wherever the users sit, their preferences and data travel with them. Terminal-based systems reduce workstation downtime from mischief or misadventure, since system-level configuration changes to the individual terminals are only possible for the administrative user. The terminal-based Linux system is also very flexible, as newer machines can be made to run user applications locally initially; as the applications become more advanced or the machine ages, the terminal server itself can run the applications with the terminal workstation displaying the program's user interface. This ability, a long-standing advantage of the X Window display system under Unix, allows a school to gain many more years of useful, productive, and enjoyable service from hardware which would otherwise be retired. Finally, any upgrades to the server or network hardware benefit all users in a Linux terminal-based system, regardless of what hardware the terminals have. Additions of memory, disk space, or other shared resources are exactly that -- shared among all of the workstations. Upgrading all of the RAM or hardware in a typical workstation-based computer lab would be an expensive proposition. The same effect can be had for a fraction of the cost when the terminal server is upgraded with more RAM or more disk space.
Ultimately, terminal-based computing services under Linux allow schools to effectively provide for their present and future computing needs without massive financial outlays, while allowing them to take full advantage of the latest technologies.
|Likes to share (NT/NetWare/Appletalk):||A+|
|Can adapt to many tasks (multiple services):||A+|
|Plays nicely with others (Win32/NT/2K/XP, Mac OS):||A+|
|Uses resources wisely (terminal services):||A+|
This is one of the most important aspects of any computing system for educators, and, by no fortuitous coincidence, is also one of the areas of educational software development that has exploded in the last two years. We mentioned several examples of administrative software in our previous editorial; there are currently sixty-three software applications listed under the Administrative software category at the Seul/Edu Educational Application Index Web site, with more added regularly. The Web site also carries descriptions of each software package, as well as a long list of reviews of many of the packages. Many of the programs are Web-based, relying on a central database (usually MySQL or PostgreSQL), and thus easily accessible throughout the institution on all existing networked computers (regardless of operating system), obviating the incompatible file format problem. A short list of the represented software types includes programs for grading, proxying, course scheduling, alumni communication, sporting event management, and many others that I cannot do justice to in this space.
|Shows many talents (rich selection of applications):||A+|
|Makes the most of resources (uses existing GPLed services):||A+|
|Cooperates with others (Web-based applications accessible to all):||A+|
|Careful with data (info remains usable over time):||A+|
The long and short of it is this: Linux is ready for the desktop NOW.
The last two years have seen many exciting developments on the Linux desktop. Perhaps the most important from the user perspective is the appearance of application suites that are effective replacements for MS Office. The OpenOffice.org project recently celebrated their 1.0 release, and the KOffice project posted their 1.1.1 release. Each of these suites nicely provides the functionality one would expect from a productivity software suite worthy of the name: word processing, math, and presentations. OpenOffice.org can be highlighted for another reason: it runs on both the Windows and Linux platforms.
These two suites are not the only places to find Word-like and Excel-like (dare I say clone?) functionality. A plethora of well-made standalone packages exist as well to replace individual applications, such as AbiWord and Gnumeric, which, in my own experience, are effective replacements for MS Word and MS Excel. Like OpenOffice.org, AbiWord also works well under Windows.
Now that these programs are available and offer genuinely viable alternatives to the MS Office suite on both the Linux and Windows platforms, the reasons for not using free software are becoming fewer and fewer.
Convincing teachers and administrators to focus on teaching the rudiments of word processing and spreadsheet applications in general rather than a specific package of applications is worth doing in any case, and having access to essentially interchangeable applications makes the case far more compelling.
This is welcome news in the educational field; the increasing zeal with which some of the larger software companies are threatening audits on school districts has been giving many principals and administrators justified cause for concern. According to an April 2002 article in The Oregonian, the cost of an institute-wide site license to cover all Portland, Oregon Public School computers (regardless of operating systems, as it would also cover iMacs and PowerMacs) would be equivalent to ten fulltime teaching positions. These actions have left a sour taste in the mouths of many educators, particularly because the cost of the settlements can have a massive impact on the ability of school boards to provide appropriate learning experiences to their students.
One of the few remaining leverage points for large commercial software companies is the ability to "embrace and extend" existing proprietary file formats (as well as numerous standard formats) to exclude free software applications from being able to read or otherwise effectively manipulate the files created by these programs. This raises another concern for educators: the lack of backwards compatibility of the file formats that the newer versions of the software create by default essentially requires educational institutions to plan for a two-year software cycle, replacing perfectly functional software with the newest releases simply in order to maintain the status quo, for students at school to be able to read the files they might create at home on newer versions of the software. This ongoing expense is not inconsiderable, leading many educational institutions without global software policies or site licensing arrangements to be perhaps less than careful with software licensing issues. This, in a nutshell, is probably the biggest factor leading to the recent series of invasive software audits of educational sites.
|Shares fairly with others:||A+|
From the technical perspective, Linux is ready for the classroom NOW. The issue with effectively using any technology, based on Linux and Free Software or not, is the support needed to be able to use it properly.
In the past, Linux was often overlooked because of the perceived lack of support. Forward-thinking principals and administrators have frequently preferred turnkey solutions based exclusively on commercial software when it came to computer purchases for several reasons, one of which is that turnkey solutions are usually seen as a means to either get reliable support or not require it in the first place. With service contracts being beyond the means of many educational institutions, computer maintenance often falls to teachers, volunteers, or a generally overstretched technology department (if the school does in fact have one). Considering the scant time and financial resources available for this work, along with the imperative of returning machines to service, it should come as no surprise that many schools have unlicensed commercial software.
Another reason for the bias towards turnkey solutions is their visibility. It is very easy to point out to parents, dignitaries, and other officials concrete measures taken by a school to improve learning. Large computer purchases are a very visible means of doing that, often far more visible than sending personnel for specialized training (which in turn is frequently seen as risky because of the perceived risk of losing key people after their newly received training to better-paying jobs elsewhere).
At the same time, while the physical hardware may be impressive, the lack of appropriate (and legal) software as a means to meet curriculum and learning goals reduces the potential of these machines to essentially that of a pacifier or game console, far from a tool for reinforcing learning objectives. Irrespective of the operating system and software used, this is a universal impediment to the effective use of computers as a teaching tool.
Those advocating Linux in schools are faced with a self-defeating circumstance: In order to be taken seriously, a technology generally has to be well-supported commercially. For a technology to be commercially viable, there has to be a sufficient margin on sales and service to make commercial support viable in turn. As Linux is free, there is no motivation to sell it, and commercial support does not become a worthwhile endeavor. This is an over-simplification, to be sure (for example, The Linux Consultants Guide provides a list of current sources of commercial Linux support), but it is still difficult to disprove the perception that support for Linux does not yet exist in a widespread way.
Perhaps the crux of the matter is the fact that the Free Software economy, if I can use the term, is essentially a gift economy. It works because of the commitment that the adherents implicitly make to sharing and helping each other. To put it another way, it is Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons" in reverse. As the number of people contributing to the gift economy increases, the return on any contribution increases disproportionately.
Many schools already have substantial volunteer involvement. Parents and community-minded individuals are often involved at many levels, including helping with school trips, chaperoning, and mentoring. At the same time, most parents (and many others) pay school taxes. If we take it for granted that a given percentage of parents work in some sort of information technology role (either professionally or out of necessity), this group can be a good first point of contact when considering how Linux can be used in a school.
Chances are that if these people are already Linux-friendly, they'll know of a nearby Linux User Group (LUG). LUGs are perhaps the single best place to find advice and support locally. In many cases, some LUG members may take a very active interest in getting everything set up and working properly. As the network develops and changes and the students and staff become more adept at managing it, this knowledge is passed on to new students and staff members. In this way, the necessary experience and abilities are maintained at the school, even with turnover.
Outside of LUGs, an excellent resource is the Schoolforge coalition. An umbrella organization of some eighty different worldwide groups, Schoolforge provides the forum for these groups to plan, build, and introduce open resources into educational systems.
|Helps to build links with the community:||A+|
|Helps to build and share local knowledge:||A+|
|Brings people together:||A+|
|Helps schools become more independent:||A+|
(All trademarks are owned by their respective organizations. Thanks to Alex Ball, Doug Loss, R. Keith Smith, and Tim Riley for their kind reviews of this editorial.)