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 OpenOffice.org, 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 OpenOffice.org.
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 OpenOffice.org, 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 OpenOffice.org, GIMP, and Firefox in no time. Thunderbird was only installed on select administrative computers.
The plan was to use OpenOffice.org 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 OpenOffice.org, 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 OpenOffice.org was not Microsoft Office. The textbooks taught Microsoft Office, not OpenOffice.org. The general feeling was that OpenOffice.org, since it was free, must also be inferior. I never saw the teacher even try OpenOffice.org. I saw quite a few students use OpenOffice.org 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 OpenOffice.org, 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.