Linux in the Classroom
Linux is the Logical Choice for the Classroom
Mark Rais, senior editor and author of Linux for the Rest of Us 2nd Ed
this introductory article, I summarize the benefits of using
OpenSource software in an educational environment, where budgets are
often tight and staffing support is minimal. Using a Linux "thin-client" configuration, this article shows the
stark contrast between a Microsoft based lab and a Linux lab.
are roughly four billion people on the earth who are too poor to have
independent access to any form of computer technology. However, a
super majority of the world's economy is driven by information
technology and computer skills are a key ingredient to personal
a number of reasons including acquisition costs, many people do not
have access to use computers. We don't need to point to the
extremes to understand this. We haven't to go to the villages in Sierra Leone, the forests of Uganda, or a metropolis of Zambia. Athough I've tried to address technology in Africa as well.
We can see the technology divide even in our own cities.
the core of this great divide that often impacts our schools and
children is the cost basis of computer hardware and software. Fortunately, hardware costs today have
declined greatly. At last, it is the cost of software that
Put yourself in the shoes of a
person of authority ready to help your school create a simple
computer lab. You have no great ambitions, simply a desire to allow
your school kids to access computers. These are not easy shoes to wear, I know.
begin by asking for donations of used computers. There are a great
number of used computers that today simply end up being dumped in
trash cans. So it's viable to ask individuals
and companies to donate these old machines. Thanks to generous hearts, your organization receives some systems.
But even with the used computers being donated, with all shipping costs
included, assuming every system arrives without any breakage, you still
have plenty of work to do. Believe me, you can't just take a dozen used
computers and plug them in and find them useful.
"You can't just take a dozen used
computers and plug them in and find them useful."
you must first sort through the old equipment to find
common systems, setup the lab by reinstalling or
changing hardware, then watch the lab immediately degenerate
because students fiddle with files, settings, etc. Finally, you
start the significant cycle of maintenance and support of this simple
twelve computer lab. The total costs, assuming that you receive all
of the hardware donated, is in time and support.
receive a dozen systems as "donations." However, there is no
Microsoft authentication certificate pasted to the side (which every
major dealer knows is important). Instead a version of Microsoft
Windows and Microsoft Office is installed on the system with no
verification it was ever properly licensed. So, because it was a
nice donation you can simply ignore this issue because you had
nothing to do with it, right? Wrong!
government of Zambia, as one example, was given stern warning to
crack down on piracy by Microsoft. We're talking about the nation
of Zambia in Africa. One of the world's poor nations and Microsoft
is asking them to cough up money for software licenses.
is true that not just upon the basis of human law but also upon reason
that we DO INDEED HAVE TO PAY for licensing, even if it is simply to
upgrade the software to keep the lab useful in the future. Microsoft and other software vendors
have added security features to try to assist with this compliance.
"We do indeed have to pay for licensing, even if it is simply to
upgrade the software to keep the lab useful in the future."
take the total number of computers and multiply by the cost of each
piece of software you need installed such as Microsoft Windows (~$79
US), Microsoft Office Student edition (~$120 US), Adobe Photoshop
Light (~$49 US), and MacAfee antivirus and internet security software
(~$49 US). In the lowest possible scenario these will add up to
around $3,500 US.
just software prices alone, and does not include essential hardware
such as network cards, cables, and a classroom server.
forget that you also need money to connect to the Internet. How are
you going to ensure that when your students get on the systems they
will not go to dangerous sites, or pickup new Trojans before you've
done your latest update for viruses on all twelve machines? This
will require an additional cost for some form of firewall router.
Finally, it also takes much time and effort to maintain the twelve
important of all, if you ever want to increase the total number of
stations or build another lab, all of these costs are repeated for each new station.
today, there is another option. It is GNU/Linux and OpenSource. Using Linux is not a
new or uncommon principle. Major organizations including Google, Amazon.com, IBM and Walmart have benefitted significantly from Linux use.
receive a dozen used computers. Some are so old the hard disks fail
to boot, others include various atiquated versions of Windows and other software.
spend ~$600 US to buy a brand new computer from a local retailer. I must point out that today,
even in Zambia you can get a decent computer, such as an HP workstation, from a local vendor in Lusaka. That having been said, the system comes with plenty of RAM, a big fast hard disk, and
reasonable performance processor.
You place it at the front of the room and call
this new computer the Server.
Now it's time to address those crusty old donated systems. You take a screwdriver and open each of the twelve computers.
Within a few moments you find the hard disk and pull the wire connecting it. The hard disk has been disabled.
you install a new network card into each system and connect them to
the lab Server.
tired, so you take a break, drink something smooth and refreshing and move
on. It's been almost an hour.
temporarily attach a monitor, keyboard and mouse to the Server
and install a specialized version of Linux that includes the Linux
Terminal Server. I prefer the K12Terminal Server pack that uses
in this bundle is the OpenOffice software that includes a word
processor, a spreadsheet program, a presentation program, and all
fully compatible with Microsoft Office. You can find details regarding K12Terminal Server here.
this is only one of about forty different programs included. You
also get the Gimp program that let's students become artists. You
have Ximian Evolution email program that resembles Microsoft Outlook.
You also get a major dose of internet connectivity and security
software. All of this comes free and included on the same
about 40 minutes the installation is complete and you can begin to
connect and configure each of the silent, but highly useful terminals
(which use to be twelve junk computers).
that the Server connects easily to the DSL line. Second the Server
now connects to the lab network using another Ethernet card.
notice that the Server's firewall software settings are protecting
the entire lab. More importantly, as soon as a terminal is
configured (takes about five minutes if the hardware is in working
order), that system can now get on the Internet, and use programs on
all, no student can tamper with the settings, accidentally delete
vital files, or get Trojans and viruses that are very common with
all, no student can tamper with the settings, accidentally delete files, or get trojans and viruses."
lab is also uncommonly quiet. No hard disks making their whirring
noise. That saves you the time for routine maintenance on the disks,
on software, on upgrades. It also ensures that even though those
donated computers were utterly used and old, they can potentially
last for years.
upgrades to software are done one time on the Server. And all
software upgrades on the Server are FREE.
save incredible amounts of aggravation and time, plus money. When
it's time to add four new students, you connect and configure their
terminals and within minutes they have access.
incredibly low cost and easily maintained method makes even more
sense in large scale lab settings. For example labs in South Africa
greatly benefit from OpenSource where 80 schools received 32
computers each (see www.shuttleworthfoundation.org
website for details).
eighty schools with thirty two stations at a minimal estimated cost
of $150 per machine for software licensing and $50 for future
upgrades. That's potentially $384,000 for the initial setup if these schools
had instead chosen to use Microsoft products. The cost does not include the
additional possible $128,000 for future upgrades. This also does not take
into account that maintaining thirty two individual computers takes
far more time than maintaining only one Server.
OpenSource software in educational settings makes logical sense. You
save the precious money for more urgent school needs such as paying
teachers. You also save precious time and energy in technical
support. The best part. This process is highly scalable. That
means you can use the techniques to reach a country not just one
those who are still not convinced, I recommend that you at least
evaluate the OpenSource software that runs on Windows.
This is important since even those organizations that qualify for the Microsoft Donated Computer Operating System (DCOS) Program still need to pay for other software. The program only provides OS licenses for qualifying organizations and does not include any additional software. Note there is also usually a per license fee included with this option.
if you never plan to leave Windows, you can get CDs of the most
popular OpenSource programs from the OpenCD site, or you can look at
this list from OSSWIN project.
you're hesitant but curious to try Linux, then I strongly recommend
you purchase a set of Linux Knoppix Live-CDs. This allows you to run
Linux on any system without installing it or changing your current
OS. It simply boots from your CD-ROM drive and allows you to see for
your self the power of OpenSource.
hope is that every educational institution will find the cost savings
and reduced maintenance that accompanies Linux/OpenSource classrooms.
you're interested in real world examples, take a look at this Linux
case study or
this one, among the many
Mark Rais, author of Linux for the Rest of Us 2nd Ed, dedicates his time and
energy promoting OpenSource technology, especially among the
poor and where a technology divide exists.
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