Article Summary #6: Houston – Linux Makes the Grade

Houston, M.  (2007).  Linux makes the grade.  Technology & Learning 28(4), 8 pp.

When most people consider why a school or school district might consider implementing a Linux-based technology solution, they think of financial issues.  If you ask the people responsible for these decisions, however, they list a number of other equally significant issues such as reliability, simplicity, flexibility, and security.  Houston describes the experiences some schools have had in implementing Linux-based technology solutions.

Summary

In 2001 the Indiana Department of Education implemented a one-to-one initiative with the goal of having one computer for every student in the Indiana state school system.  They found that despite significant investment in technology, students still spent less than one hour per week using computers.  In making the switch to a Linux-based technology solution, the state saved over $100 million annually on licensing fees.  This money was reinvested in hardware and support throughout the state.  Not only did the state get a significant increase in the number of computers available to students, they also got a more “secure, reliable, and sophisticated” system (p. 1).  Michael Huffman, special assistant for technology in the Indiana State Education Department, said that a Linux-based system is “the only model we’ve come up with that is affordable, repeatable, and sustainable” (p. 1).

A number of developments in the Linux community have made it friendlier to non-expert users.  Linux has graphical user interfaces available that require little understanding of the operating system itself.  These interfaces can be configured to mimic Windows or Mac systems, or they can be customized in ways that go beyond the latest offerings of these proprietary systems.  Linux is known for running free software, but not everyone knows that well-established companies like Red Hat and SUSE offer fee-based support programs for Linux systems.

In 2004 the Saugus Union School District in California implemented a Linux-based system throughout their district.  It was the desire for a flexible system, not financial considerations, that motivated the change.  Jim Klein, head of technology in the district, has this advice for people considering a move to Linux:

Pick up your Windows machine (or Mac, if you are so inclined) that is on your desk and move it across the room.  Make sure that you do not put a chair in front of it, and that you get up and leave your desk to use it. (p. 5)

The Saugus School District ended up with a system of computers that was faster than before, and even the oldest computers in the system were more reliable than most computers had previously been.  The IT staff has spent more time directly supporting teachers, staff, and students and less time focusing on hardware and software issues since the transition went into effect.  They are able to implement new software solutions more quickly, and they are more confident in the security of their system.  “We were able to smile when the latest security vulnerability surfaced, knowing that it wouldn’t affect our systems” (p. 5).

One particular question arises repeatedly in discussions about building an entire school’s technology solution around open source software.  “Are these computers, which don’t easily run the Microsoft OS or applications built to run on Microsoft, actually preparing our students for the workplace in their future” (p. 3)?  David Trask of Vassalboro Community School in Maine uses our understanding of driver education to address this question:

Our kids learn how to use a computer…no matter what the OS or application.  I use the analogy of driver’s ed quite often.  It goes like this:  When you took driver’s ed, did you learn how to drive a Ford?  How about a Chevy?  A Toyota?  Most people can’t remember… why?  Because ya’ learned how to drive a car… regardless of make, model, or size.  Why should computers be any different?  (p. 6)

Evaluation and Educational Relevance

Any entrenched system is difficult to change, and the current technology solution of any school or school district is certainly an entrenched system.  Large systems only change when something makes the change worthwhile, such as a serious problem with the existing system, or a significant benefit of a new solution.  In many cases, including those described in this article, switching from a proprietary technology solution to a Linux or OS solution addresses both of these issues.

One principle in particular can guide us through many of these decisions.  Technology should serve educational goals, and educational goals should not be adjusted to match existing technology.  Effective technology solutions center around a long-term vision, on the order of five to ten years.  With this perspective in mind, Linux and OS solutions make sense for many institutions.  In fact, it can be seen as irresponsible to tie a school to proprietary systems when more reliable and effective open solutions exist.  It is important to document successful and unsuccessful transitions to help technology departments make sound decisions, convince others that their solutions are professional and visionary, and to share expertise across a wide community.

Followup

Two items mentioned in the article are worth investigating further:

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3 Responses to “Article Summary #6: Houston – Linux Makes the Grade”

  1. Skip Says:

    I love the driver’s ed analogy.

    Houston is a huge district (4th or 5th largest in the nation, I believe) but even so $100 million is a staggering figure for licensing an operating system and productivity software. As they found in Riverdale SD in Oregon, putting the money that can be saved on proprietary systems into support specialists for Linux (and using far less expensive hardware) makes more sense and is more sustainable over time. (One of the most interesting features of Linux in my opinion is the fact that it runs well on machines with limited RAM and slower processors.)

    Good stuff.

  2. japhyr Says:

    Hi Skip,

    To clarify, Melissa Houston is the author of the article. The $100 million was the cost of licensing software in the entire Indiana state school system.

    Given how difficult it can be to help people understand how viable OS solutions are, documenting successful transitions is quite important. Are you aware of any disastrous attempts to switch a school or district over to Linux?

    Eric

  3. Skip Says:

    *feeling rather foolish*

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