Public Schools, Open Source Software and Linux

Last school year, I worked as a technology coordinator for a rural high school in Illinois. In an attempt to save the school some money, I introduced, GIMP, Firefox, and Thunderbird. Linux was also installed on a few desktop PCs and a couple of servers. Ubuntu was the Linux distribution selected. OpenSUSE, Debian, Fedora, and Slackware were also given trials on the servers. The open source software and operating systems were met with some acceptance, some resistance, and some skepticism.

What I walked into…

My contract kept me limited to seven-hour workdays (8:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. with an unpaid 30-minute lunch) for 215 workdays. I was the sole IT person administering of over 100 PCs, six Apple computers, two servers (increased to five), printers, scanners, network switches, the network, software, hardware, websites, student information system, and computerized assessment testing. I never lacked for being busy.

The contract details were never really conducive to adequately performing the job duties. I was told the district would eventually unite the technology coordinator positions at both the grade school and the high school under one position. I tried to hit the ground running, because I wanted the increase in pay that the combination of technology coordinator positions would one day bring. Upon beginning the job, I started fixing and replacing neglected equipment.

The 10/100 network was mostly 10-based. Several runs of CAT-5 cables were only using four wires. New clips were placed on the ends of these cables to use all eight wires. The backbone of the network was 100-based, but 24-port D-Link switches were maxed out in most locations within the building. There were bottlenecks that dropped everything to a crawl. There were switches with problematic ports. There were hubs used in some places. There was even a run of coaxial cable to unite ends of the building. Some parts of the building would lose connectivity frequently and randomly.

I addressed these issues by replacing the 10/1000 switches with fiber-ready 10/100/1000 managed Linksys switches. I used 48-port, 24-port, and even a few 12-port switches. I ran almost a mile of plenum -rated CAT-5e and CAT-6 cable through the building’s walls and ceilings, replacing the network backbone and the cables running into two-thirds of the building’s rooms. The switches were configured with aggregated links to provide load balancing and redundancy for the network’s backbone. Gigabit connectivity linked the entire building. All of this was accomplished within three weeks prior to the start of the school year.

During this time 30 Systemax PCs (Pentium 4, Windows XP Professional, 80 GB hard drives, CD-RW and DVD combo drives, and gigabit NICs) replaced 30 PC (Windows 98SE, Pentium 3, 20 GB hard drives, and CD-ROM drives). The Systemax PCs were setup, configured, loaded with software within a week.

All the PCs (mostly Windows XP Professional and a couple dozen Windows 2000) in the building were upgraded to the current patch levels. Antivirus signatures were updated as well. Everything was ready to start the school year.

By the end of the year, I was overhauling the website to HTML and CSS standards with Bluefish, creating images with GIMP, and converting documents to PDF with

Opening things up…

I felt it was time to install some open source solutions on the computers prior to the school year beginning. I setup a network share on the file server and dropped, GIMP, Firefox, and Thunderbird in the share. Installing software across the new network was a pleasure. I had almost all of the computers readied with, GIMP, and Firefox in no time. Thunderbird was only installed on select administrative computers.

The plan was to use on every computer, but decreasing the number of licenses for Microsoft Office to only the computers used in computer and clerical classes. The textbooks were locked into teaching Microsoft Office and only Microsoft Office.

Also the plan was to make, Firefox, GIMP, and Thunderbird available on loanable CD to students to install on their home computers. Being that the high school was a rural school and many students lived near or below the poverty level and/or living in the country accessed the Internet via dialup, a CD with open source software made sense.

Unfortunately it did not make sense to the computer teacher, as was not Microsoft Office. The textbooks taught Microsoft Office, not The general feeling was that, since it was free, must also be inferior. I never saw the teacher even try I saw quite a few students use and some even installed it at home.

Firefox, on the other hand, became a browser that the computer teacher and many teachers and students (especially the students) were comfortable using. But even that required educating a several of the teachers to the benefits of using Firefox over Internet Explorer.

Ubuntu Linux rescued a few PCs from going to the recyclers or dumpsters. The art room had old failing IMacs (the rainbow colored ones), these were supplemented by a couple PCs running Ubuntu Linux and loaded up with art-related software, such as GIMP, Inkscape, Bluefish, Scribus, and Blender. The art teacher was okay with it. The geek in him found it interesting, but what he really wanted in the future were some new(er) PCs running Windows and loaded with Adobe Creative Suite. Having a background in graphic design/ad design/publication layout, I thought his point valid. Open source software, while gaining ground, is not ready to compete in the art world. Granted there are artists able to do stunning things with open source software. Where it lacks is often in a well-designed UI and even stability (Scribus, for example). Open source will get there eventually.

The industrial arts and CAD teacher became interested in Ubuntu Linux and the QCAD application. He planned on learning QCAD to see how it matched up with AutoCAD. QCAD would be a free tool for the students to augment their CAD knowledge. Most of the CAD students could never afford AutoCAD for their home PCs.

Linux on the added servers (old classroom PCs) was never an issue. Many people did not even know it was there — taking over or doing “failover” for some Active Directory services, providing a web server testing base, providing an intranet web server, providing an additional database, and a testing CMS solution.

I even setup my workstation to dual boot Windows 2000 and Ubuntu Linux. I ran Ubuntu exclusively for the last five months of the school year. Never missing a beat. I used, Firefox, Opera, GIMP and Bluefish daily.

With Linux, I rescued a failed RAID-5 file/application server that had Windows Server 2000 become corrupted. I think all servers should separate the OS and data on their own arrays. It would save so many headaches in the long run.

The superintendent and the principal seemed open to open source software from the angle that it saved the school some money, although neither tried it and neither backed a push to move the school toward open source solutions.

My observations and assessments

Open source software does work in education and it does work in administration/office environments. But there is a high degree of coaching that is needed to make it work. Namely, an administration that recognizes the value and quality of open source software to the students’ education.

There still are non-technical teachers in the ranks that do not explore software options. These tend to be the older, more entrenched teachers. There is little pressure on teachers to adapt to change. This is a shortcoming in education.

Some of the blame also has to go to the open source community for not undertaking an “open source” marketing campaign of the likes that closed source software companies buy to push their wares. Open source the marketing of open source software and nothing will stop the adoption of open source software and operating systems. The open source community does get things, but marketing is not one of its strengths. Heck, we are geeks. Not slick, flashy, geeky hucksters. I know you are all thinking, “except for me of course.”

It is up to us to “get out the facts” and take open source usage to the next level. But the “facts” need to be facts and not fanboy ramblings or “chub fests.” The facts have to be honest assessments. Otherwise it sinks to the level of FUD that the closed source software companies are good at spewing.

So what about this school year…

My contract was not renewed. In the end, it came down to funding. I did not have a teaching certificate. Therefore the money for my wages was paid from the district’s funds. Where as, if a teacher also performed the duties of technology coordinator, then half the funding for his/her wages come from the federal government.

The superintendent also became a little leery that I was the only one who knew how to administer Linux. I guess closed source operating systems are dumbed down to a non-technical level that placates the non-technical school administrators. Fear of the unknown. It is time open source opens its knowledge base and allays fear with honest marketing.

In the end, perhaps I also failed at educating the educators, even as I learned a lot about networks, systems, and software. Sometimes geeks do not make for the best ambassadors. Something to work on for the next job… whenever I finally am offered one.



  1. Richard,

    Interesting and very readable. In a word– superb. You have captured the obstacles that open source faces in the workplace everyday. I wish I had a job to offer you because you sound like someone with whom I would like to work. Best of luck to you and warmest regards.

  2. Sorry to hear about your uphill battles. However, there are a number of outstanding efforts going on, that you need to point these ‘educators’ at 😉 (I’m a Canadian high school teacher who has used linux exclusively for years, and indeed can feel your pain. I found most administrators to be computer illiterate, etc. and completely unable to distance themselves from M$ brainwashing. However, you can find other successes in education that you can point competent, open minded, genuine educators at in a number of places. Here are some examples:

  3. A well written article, it opened my eyes to trials faced with opening up software on the educational level. I’m glad you took a stance and tried to get schools onto free software. Sorry to hear they weren’t too accepting.

  4. It’s too bad they lost you – you worked hard for them. You’re right about some of the older teachers not wanting to learn about technology, although I know plenty of fifty somethings who’ve gone back to get their PhDs in instructional technology. Most teachers who aren’t burned out keep up with the basics.

    As I’m sure you can see from your own work load, it’s easy to burn out in the public school system. I’m speaking from experience, since I taught high school Spanish for 17 years!

    I’m not a computer geek, just an avid user, so I didn’t read all the technological details of your article, but I fully grasped how much effort you put into the job.

  5. As a public educator, I was interested in your article. Thankfully, as someone who is only semi-technical, it was easy to follow and read. Unfortunately, our district has put a freeze on downloading any software from the internet and are quite resistant to anything new. I do plan on going home and looking into the programs you mention, particularly OpenOffice. Thank you!

  6. I have to add that my family has been educators for generations, so I hope no one is seeing this article as teacher bashing. It is not. My father, my paternal grandparents, two of my uncles, five of my aunts, and one of my siblings are teachers. In addition, one of my siblings is completing his education to become a teacher. And I wish I was a teacher. It’s in the familial blood.

  7. it’s a pitty, your contract was not renewed. But this article is definetely very interesting. I like the way you described what’s possible with open source and you even addes some criticism which makes all more balanced. I saw a link to your post aftre logging in to wordpress.

  8. We teachers are such hypocrites. We are told to instill life-long learning, a love of learning, independence and resourcefulness in our students, but introduce one new software package and it all becomes too hard.
    I see it everyday. The same teachers who expect students to learn a multitude of things and enjoy doing it will baulk at a new email program. Sheesh.

  9. It is okay with me if you want to place a translation of my article at All I ask is a simple link to my blog to direct readers to my articles if they wish to read additional ones.

    Thank you for the interest in the article.


  10. Thank you very much for writing your article. It serves a whole lot more than just a simple chronicling of your experiences and your observations regarding the adoption of open source technologies in public institutions, workplaces and homes.

    Coming from a developing country, I think I can safely say that the realities you described also reflect in most other countries and in the same institutions. Although sad, I can see the benefit of initiating the “emancipation” of the next crop of school board superintendents and principals from the shackles of proprietary technology. They need to become geeks, up to a certain extent – no need for ubergeek levels, just enough to make them appreciate the harmony one can make out of mixing open source and proprietary technologies, all for optimizing the efficiency and usage of hardware and software equipment.

  11. How I so wish you were at my school! I don’t have half of the technical expertise that you have but I wish I did. I can’t believe how much you were able to do in that year. They were so fortunate to have you and so short-sighted to let you go. I have overhauled some old PII’s with Ubuntu for some classrooms to surf and word process. It took a small act of God to run an open source CMS for the school website. They had a fit when they found out that I was running it on a Debian based server. But what is running has been very successful. I do though totally feel your pain when it comes to the overall willingness to try open source options of any kind. Bravo to you for making a dent in a system that is so resistence to change. Best of luck.

  12. Great work… so glad people are getting the open source word out to the masses… even if they don’t always respond…

    to any others out there trying to convert your office/co-workers, stealth is good! get the solution running and dependable before you divulge the details… i always say, “It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.”

  13. I am reminded of my own experience running a computer lab for a couple of years at a public primary school in a solidly Microsoft district. I also did not have a teaching certificate, and I was replaced by someone who did. My attempts to talk about open source may have contributed to my dismissal, although it would not be possible to prove anything. . . .

  14. I wanted to install Ubuntu on older computers in one of the local schools, but the administration did not want to go this direction. Apparently they’d rather be without computers at all.

    1. I always found it odd that the students had no problem with using another operating system or any open source software. Some teachers were pleased to learn of and use the open source software that met their needs. Some teachers had trepidations. I think the reasons for the trepidations were they could not use a textbook to teach it and therefore had to actually learn how to use the software to teach it. The administration was open to it. Sometimes you need to demo the software or operating system first. You have to act as a salesperson in order to make the sale. But then again, some people are not open to enlightenment…

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