Originally Published: Wednesday, 3 November 1999 Author: Gary Lawrence Murphy
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Elementary Linux: Penguins in the School

This article originated in osOpinion and is provided under the OpenContent License.

A recent email I received put the question most succinctly:

What do you think is the best plan/strategy to introduce Linux into an elementary school (Ontario) setting?

Well, like most tech questions, the correct answer is "It depends..."

In the absence of any other details on what is needed, let me ramble on about two possible scenarios: Linux as the school or school-board server, and Linux on the student/teacher desktop....

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This article originated in osOpinion and is provided under the OpenContent License.

A recent email I received put the question most succinctly:

What do you think is the best plan/strategy to introduce Linux into an elementary school (Ontario) setting?

Well, like most tech questions, the correct answer is "It depends..."

In the absence of any other details on what is needed, let me ramble on about two possible scenarios: Linux as the school or school-board server, and Linux on the student/teacher desktop.

The first variable to consider is whether you can sell them on applications or if your first inroad will be strictly infrastructure. Linux for educational applications is being done, but this is still relatively rare in North America; the use of Linux as a network infrastructure is being done all over the place.

I'll talk more about applications in a moment, but for infrastructure, there are many good case studies on extreme low-budget rural school boards who were able to build better networking systems than their well-funded urban counterparts (I am thinking of the Arkansas Pass school board who networked the entire school-board using Navy-donated 486 computers).

If we take my local elementary school as an example, we have a network of donated Power-PCs linked together by AppleTalk. This happened despite my advice, but at the time, I was the new face in the committees and it being a small town, no one was willing to take my word over that of their trusted advisors; as a result, they are now painted into a corner.

They would like to now install some newly donated Windows PCs to run adult education classes, but are told by the Board advisors that this is not possible. Enter Linux.

Linux can speak all of AppleTalk, TCP/IP and IPX at the same time, and it is often used in commercial shops to bridge all of these networks. While this may be useful knowledge if you have legacy applications that depend on these protocols, a heterogeneous network like this would not be my first choice for a school because of the added expense to maintain the different protocols.

To keep things simple, I recommended using Linux to bridge all of the machine using a standard protocol (TCP/IP) and then using the file system and network features of Linux to share their resources.

  1. Install Mac TCP/IP in all PowerPCs and make TCP the standard network protocol. This adds no extra expense per seat and only involves distributing and installing the module to all classrooms.

  2. Install a Linux file server using PC and Mac support so each of the user platforms can still share file space and application files. Some functions of Mac AppleTalk are lost (mostly from software licenses) but Linux will add per-file 3-tier security (e.g. student, class, faculty ownership and rw permissions)

  3. Use the Linux machine as the gateway/firewall using demand dialing (we are on 31.2k old-copper) and add a second phone line to do load-balancing (eqlplus) to boost the bandwidth to symmetric 62.4k on demand. For a rural school like ours, this is much cheaper than any other solutions, and can be scaled further if funding appears for the 3rd or 4th telephone line.
This basic setup is easy and cheap, and can be found in small to medium sized offices and schools all over the world. While there are still some eyebrows raised at any suggestion to use Linux on the desktop, the utility of Linux for network and edge servers is widely recognized.

The desktop applications side is a different story. The first obstacle you will encounter is a highly unreasonable fear, a fear upon which the other O/S market feeds: North Americans love brand names. They will stop at Macdonald's when there are other perfectly viable family-run shops across the street. They shop at Sears when the local furniture store carries the same stock for less, and they will buy Microsoft out of fear anything else will compromise their children's education.

The exact wording I have heard on 3 occasions is "The industry will want Microsoft name brands, and if we train students on non-Microsoft products, our children will not be able to find jobs."

Before I talk about the desktop apps, I want to examine that insane claim. First, the Gartner Group thinks Linux will be as big as Microsoft by 2003, which may be optimistic, but even so, if we are teaching high school students, those kids are walking out into a world where Microsoft is not the only game in town. Second, when we are talking about elementary schools, those kids may walk into a world where the dark ages of proprietary single-vendor-O/S software may be nothing but a distant memory, like PL/1 or the legendary Amiga 2000.

On the other hand, if the name of the game is to teach our children essential computing skills, we have a choice: $500+ per seat per application from corporate vendors like Microsoft (pundits say the new license structures will increase those fees 20-50% by 2002) or spend a $45 one-time expense out of petty cash and buy a boxed set of GNU/Linux CDs which can then be freely duplicated, redistributed and shared by all students and all schools; straight from a vendor like SuSE or TurboLinux, the typical Linux CD bundle already contains:

  1. Full office suite with DB, spreadsheet, presentation tool, word processor, which also lets them take the files home if they are rich enough to have MSOffice at home ($500/home) or they can simply download StarOffice from the school or burn their own CD for free, no strings attached.

  2. Dozens of programming languages including LOGO, C/C++ and popular Web languages like PHP and Perl for the older kids, advanced database applications (Postgres)

  3. CAD tools, vector graphics, image processing and editing (GIMP), Sound editors, 3D Rendering and animation, (BMRT/PovRay), video post-production (Blender) ... well you get the idea.

  4. Everything you would ever need to teach about the Internet including a Web server, IRC, email and newsgroups, the ability to run departmental newsgroups, course-specific newsgroups, faculty newsgroups and merge these with selected Internet newsgroups.

  5. Many many more, and the bonus ability to run some Windows apps.

(5) is especially crucial for the younger kids, and admittedly, it is not quite perfect, but now that Corel is on board with a commitment to fix WINE, this is a temporary problem, and simply running old Windows applications is a short-term view at best. The lack of Linux software for small children is partly due to the research/industrial niche Linux has had in the past, and partly the relative youth of the present Linux community: I'm the only one I know who has teen-age children. As more Linux boxes find their way into the homes where there are young children, we will see more and more children's software, and as the developers of educational titles realize there is a market for Linux editions in the school-boards, the titles will appear.

From the user's perspective, there is no great difference between KDE and Windows. All the concepts and interfaces are the same. The main learning curve arises because of the extra abilities of a truly multitasking network computing platform.

That last lesson is, IMHO, the big paradigm jump which will define computing for our children in a way today's Windows-fed adult cannot understand. I might be standing in the shopping mall, holding my best friend's palm-top, and I can drag a file from my own desktop and place it in my project-partner's classroom file area, send them a message to say what I've done, and check my voicemail at my home phone. I could do it just as well with a palm top I'd borrowed from the coffee shop owner: In the Unix world, you do not 'own' a computer, a computer is just a portal, a device you use to get at your information; your information is aetherial, an abstract 'place' that can be arbitrarily distributed anywhere and everywhere. This is the world our children are growing up into, and it is a far different world than today's "personal computer."

Back to reality...

"What about support?" Apart from the thousands of open source support providers such as my own consultancy, we now have global support vendors such as Bynari International (www.bynari.com), a world-wide federation of Linux and open source consultants. This alliance offers 7x24 telephone support in Europe, the US, Canada and parts of Asia; if you need a project manager on site for a few months, they can arrange it. By using the open source development model to share workload, they can also offer this support for a fraction the cost of the large corporate support houses.

Bynari is not alone in this approach, and there are many more traditional support companies as well. There will be many more.

The reason we have so much widespread support for open source software is because it is open. There are only maybe 12 engineers in the world that understand the core of NT, but thousands who understand the Linux kernel. With applications, if one vendor can't help you, any other vendor can pop open the hood and make the changes and/or corrections you need.

"What about cost of ownership?" Economically, buying open source software is the only intelligent choice. You would not buy a car if the hood was welded shut and only the factory could make changes or corrections. We would hang Chrysler VPs if they billed us for recalls, yet we gleefully accept both situations from proprietary software vendors. If my local service station doubles their price, I take my car down the street to another shop. If I want to go to Chrysler, I can, but if my Aunt Matilda is pretty good at cars, I can take it to her instead. I can even take my 454 Chevy block and put it into my old '63 VW without upsetting either vendor.

Single-sourcing is just bad risk management. There's no two ways about it. If FirstClass or Microsoft Exchange email fails, who can fix it? Who even knows how it really works? Certainly no one within 200 miles of my office. What if I want to integrate our school faxes and voicemail into FirstClass? Who could add that for me?

"But this O/S vendor donates to our schoolboard!" Oh, do they? Maybe it's a matter of horses and their teeth --- What exactly do they donate?

Let's get real: They donate a dependence on proprietary methods to ensure our children are locked in as their consumers. They do it not to teach your children, but to ensure their own revenue stream. They donate smoke and mirrors letting them give from one pocket with the restriction that expenditures will be handed back to go into their other pocket. It is really very clever.

Now consider the social implications: What message do you give your children when you raise them on Windows? You teach them that they should never question authority or monopoly, that "only experts can fix software" and that they should never, ever expect to get under the hood and fix things themselves without expensive training and proper certification.

You teach them that we condone and support corporate bullies, just so long as they sell us cheap goods and don't turn their predatory eyes on our livelihood. You teach them that anything is legal if you have enough money, and that muscle, subversion and collusion are the way we civilized people get things done.

You also teach them that computers are buggy, frustrating, crash frequently, and should only accessible to the very rich.

Using open source software, you teach co-operation and community, you teach them that everyone is a participant, you teach them that even that lowly 486 they got from Uncle Ted is a useful machine that can be recycled rather than used for landfill. You teach them that while computers are still buggy, a "bug" is an opportunity to learn and to make new friends, and you teach them that even one small voice can teach the world a new song.

Gary Lawrence Murphy lives in the wilds of Sauble Beach, Ontario, the pristine maple forests along the north east shores of Lake Huron, in a converted cabin home-office he shares with lovely May, young Nolan and Boy-Boy, the dog so big we had to name him twice. Gary is also president of an open source support and applications consulting company, a writer, speaker, musician, Lion and a novice brewmeister.

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