Originally Published: Tuesday, 18 May 1999 Author: Michael J. Wise
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Linux in a School Setting

This article discusses the feasibilities, the possibilities, and some ideas for introducing Linux to educators and students alike. This article discusses Linux in primary/secondary institutions....


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This article discusses the feasibilities, the possibilities, and some ideas for introducing Linux to educators and students alike. This article discusses Linux in primary/secondary institutions.

Why Linux?

Perhaps I should first propose why Linux is needed in an educational institution. At the present, almost every high school across the U.S.A. (and in many other places I'm sure) uses Microsoft's operating system line, including Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Windows 98, and Windows NT as the principal operating systems. Apple once dominated the school market, but as the years pass by, Apple's grip on the educational establishment has been eroding. You may occasionally find a Netware or even a UNIX installation at a high school, but those are the exception.

The problem with this situation is, simply, that Microsoft's solutions don't work very well. Here are some specific areas where Microsoft solutions fall especially short:

Reliability and Speed

Countless hours are lost through the unreliability of Microsoft's products. The situation which many schools are in, where the newest equipment may be several generations behind the latest and greatest, exacerbates the problem. For example, a real school, which shall remain nameless, Pentium 60's with 20MB of RAM are used for the introductory typing and internet classes. Believe it or not, this is inadequate for Windows 95. The typing program is sluggish at best and the internet browsing experience is downright painful. It takes so long to get anything on the Internet accomplished (the school does have a T-1) the wait isn't worth it. The constant crashes of the browsers (both Netscape and Microsoft are at fault here) don't help at all.

Cost

Most school districts already have a tight budget. The added cost of legally licensed Microsoft software only bogs down any attempts to upgrade aging computers. However, I talk of a cost even higher than the monetary one. Once a school district signs a pricey contract with Microsoft, even a higher cost is leveraged, and that's the cost of freedom. Schools are locked in with Microsoft for better or for worse and, at a whim, Microsoft can ruin a school budget for a year by introducing a round of "upgrades."

While this section does not automatically crown Linux the champion of schools, it at least casts doubt on the wisdom of exclusively using Microsoft products.

Is Linux Ready?

This is an even larger question than "Why Linux?" Is Linux even ready for the classroom. Let me answer that question in different areas.

For the Server

I give a resounding YES for this question. Thanks largely to the efforts of the Samba team, Linux has been replacing NT as the server of choice in many areas. Linux can often be dropped right in beside or even replace an NT server and nobody will ever know the difference, except that the Linux server often moves faster than an NT one on the same hardware.

For The Teachers

To this question, I say a tentative yes. Most teachers only need little more than a word processor, a web browser, and perhaps a grading book program (a spreadsheet works here.) There are numerous word processors, both free and commercial becoming available for Linux. Most of them resemble that more popular word processing environment from Redmond. I encourage you to look at projects like KOffice for a promising word processing program. Netscape 4.5 is available for Linux, and since it almost exactly resembles its Windows counterpart, there should be no trouble for Windows users to adjust. Spreadsheets exist as well, like the GNOME program Gnumeric. Regarding the interface, it is possible to make X look so similar to Windows, no regular user would be able to tell the difference.

That being said, some teaching applications are not available for Linux. Notably, a good CD-based encyclopedia and presentation software have not yet become widely available. While a minority of teachers uses this kind of software, this presents a barrier to the acceptance of Linux by the teachers.

For the Students (Or, For The Computer Labs)

Unfortunately, the answer is no here, and for a rather simple reason. The fact is that no educational software company (namely of typing and business software) has made any efforts to port their educational software to Linux. Without any cooperation from these companies and with no promise for the future, Linux is at a standstill here for the time being. Until we see more cooperation from educational software makers, Linux can not and will not make any inroads here.

How do I Help?

Get involved! Volunteer at your local schools for menial tech jobs. Do anything to get known by the school. Then propose your idea to the technology coordinator. You may get turned down immediately, but, more and more, people are willing to listen about Linux. DO NOT suggest that you change all the computers at once. DO suggest implementing a testbed server. And, DO advocate Linux, but DON'T bash Windows. Many schools have ties running deep to Microsoft; advocate Linux while not bashing Microsoft.

Conclusions

At this point in time, April 1999, Linux is not yet ready to take on all of the Microsoft-based systems in a secondary school. However, Linux has made enough significant advances to often replace Windows NT and Netware servers. Linux may even have come far enough for some of the more technically-apt teachers and faculty to use. The future for Linux is exciting, though, and I envision Linux as a widespread replacement for Windows in the schools for the future.





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