Could DeKalb Save Millions by Using Open Source Software?

How One Teacher Built a Computer Lab for Free
A regular blog participant sent this 6-minute video. It’s a story about a teacher, Robert Litt in Oakland, California, who taught in a poor school with no computers and no money. Listen and get excited by the possibilities as he explains how he set up a whole computer lab for free! He uses OPEN SOURCE – which is the term for free online software. WordPress (which is what we use for this free blog) is based on this, too.  This sixth grade teacher acquires used computers and installs a free Open Source operating system called Linux instead of Windows.  He also mentions Ubuntu, which is another FREE (Open Source) operating system. A teacher in the comments of the original post also suggested Edubuntu; it is specifically designed for Educational establishments.

Litt also uses  free Open Source software called Open Office – it’s essentially the same as Microsoft Word, Excel and Powerpoint.

Compatible with other major office suites, Apache OpenOffice is free to download, use, and distribute. Download it now — for FREE! — and get:

  • Writer [comparable to Microsoft Word] a word processor you can use for anything from writing a quick letter to producing an entire book.
  • Calc [comparable to Microsoft Excel] a powerful spreadsheet with all the tools you need to calculate, analyse, and present your data in numerical reports or sizzling graphics.
  • Impress [comparable to Microsoft Powerpoint] the fastest, most powerful way to create effective multimedia presentations.
  • Draw lets you produce everything from simple diagrams to dynamic 3D illustrations.
  • Base [comparable to Microsoft Access] lets you manipulate databases seamlessly. Create and modify tables, forms, queries, and reports, all from within Apache OpenOffice.
  • Math lets you create mathematical equations with a graphic user interface or by directly typing your formulas into the equation editor.

With a fully open development process, Apache OpenOffice has nothing to hide – the product stands or falls on its quality, reliability and reputation — and it is easy to use:

  • the software looks and feels familiar and is instantly usable by anyone who has used a competitive product
  • it’s easy to change to Apache OpenOffice – the software reads all major competitors’ files
  • further, it’s possible to run Open Office on Windows and concurrently with the Microsoft Office suite until everyone is completely comfortable working solely in Open Office
  • few language barriers – if it’s not yet available in your language, the chances are it will be soon
  • Apache OpenOffice is supported by a global community of friendly volunteers, only too happy to provide assistance to newcomers and advanced users alike

Apache OpenOffice is free software:

  • you may download Apache OpenOffice completely free of any license fees
  • install it on as many PCs as you like [it is also available for Macs]
  • use it for any purpose – private, educational, government and public administration, commercial …
  • pass on copies free of charge to family, friends, students, employees, etc.

Apache OpenOffice is standards compliant

  • certified by OSI as open-standard compliant
  • the first software package in the world to use OASIS OpenDocument Format (ISO 26300) as its native file format.

Comcast rolled out its Internet Essentials program nationwide in 2011, offering low-income families in its service territory $10/month Internet connections and access to $150 computers.

Any family with at least one child who qualifies for Free-or-Reduced-Price Meals at public schools can subscribe to a low-speed (1.5Mbps) Comcast Internet connection for $9.95 a month. Comcast guarantees that it won’t raise the price and offers the plan without equipment rental or activation fees. NOTE: Subscribers cannot have “an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment,” and they can’t have had Comcast Internet in the last 90 days.

Comcast has agreed to sign up families to the program for at least three years, and it also promises to provide free Internet and computer training to those who need it.

Read the rest of the article here. OpenOffice is the perfect software — FREE and up-to-date — to use with this offer.

Expanding the conversation, there are many of us who agree with GNU.org in that schools should not teach dependence, so free software is the only kind they should ever teach.  Certainly the cost of expensive licensing fees could be put to better use elsewhere.  As Robert Litt noted in his 6-minute YouTube video:

  • “In my model, the lead person takes the lead through a change in consciousness, awareness, and belief, not an acquisition of expertise.”
  • “Obsolescence is only a lack of imagination.” [Alameda County (CA) Computer Recyclers]
  • “Discarded computers are our most wasted educational resource.”

Side Note: Have you ever checked out our links on the side panel of the blog? We offer several online opportunities for learning and lesson plans for FREE. A few of our favorites include:

iCivics: In 2009, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor founded iCivics to reverse Americans’ declining civic knowledge and participation. Securing our democracy, she realized, requires teaching the next generation to understand and respect our system of governance. Today iCivics comprises a national leadership team of state supreme court justices, secretaries of state, and educational leaders and a network of committed volunteers. Carol Hunstein, Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court is the Georgia rep to the board.

BrainPop: BrainPOP creates animated, curricular content that engages students, supports educators, and bolsters achievement. Our award-winning online educational resources include BrainPOP Jr. (K-3), BrainPOP, BrainPOP Español, and, for English language learners, BrainPOP ESL. BrainPOP is also home to GameUp, a new, free educational games portal for the classroom.

ck-12: Free educational resources. Standards-aligned and customizable lesson plans for teachers and/or direct instruction for students encompassing all subjects.

Colorin Colorado: A bilingual site for families and educators of English language learners.

Khan Academy: With over 3,300 videos on everything from arithmetic to physics, finance, and history and hundreds of skills to practice, Khan Academy is on a mission to help you learn what you want, when you want, at your own pace.

Stellarium: Stellarium is a free open source planetarium for your computer. It shows a realistic sky in 3D, just like what you see with the naked eye, binoculars or a telescope. It is being used in planetarium projectors. Just set your coordinates and go.

Add your own favorite free online learning resources in the comments!

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About dekalbschoolwatch

Hosting a dialogue among parents, educators and community members focused on improving our schools and providing a quality, equitable education for each of our nearly 100,000 students. ~ "ipsa scientia potestas est" ~ "Knowledge itself is power"
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66 Responses to Could DeKalb Save Millions by Using Open Source Software?

  1. Give the woman a chance says:

    Open Office is AWESOME and has everything a student would need.

  2. I’ve been wondering–and this blog makes me think about it: What if students each set up their own blog for say, creative writing and wrote blog posts that their teachers subscribe to? Teachers could read students work as it would be automatically sent to them via email when posted – just like our subscribers. What a fun way to encourage creative writing and to give teachers an easy way to give timely, critical feedback!

  3. Jim McMahan says:

    This is what Jim Kinney does for his profession.
    I’d like to hear his opinion and ideas for DCSD.

  4. momfromhe11 says:

    I have used blogging in my graduate studies (completely online), and both my college students use it in their classes (as an adjunct to class discussions). I see it as a great way of using communication strategies the kids are familiar with AND giving the teachers more flexibility in teaching and assigning work.

    Additionally, it would give students a rare experience in using correct grammar, punctuation and spelling on a computer!

  5. educator90 says:

    This will never fly in DeKalb under the current administration and board. Money couldn’t be funneled to family and friends and it’s possible that more jobs would be lost.

    I personally love the idea, and it’s great to dream. However, I don’t see it flying anytime soon. I can hear the “what will our kids do if they don’t know how to use Microsoft products” from parents already.

  6. You are probably correct about parent complaints. However, those parents are uninformed. OpenOffice looks like and works like Microsoft Office. Those of us who work on this blog who have moved to OpenOffice are extremely satisfied.

    If you can use Microsoft Office, you can easily use OpenOffice and vice versa. This could absolutely fly in DCSS if the Board refuses to pay the outrageous licensing fees for Windows and Microsoft Office — and directs IT to move to OpenOffice.

  7. justwatch says:

    My teenagers use open source and we send documents back and forth all the time. I can’t really tell a difference. I have used one of their computers on occasion and from an operating perspective you can’t really tell a difference. In fact, each time they introduce a new version of Word, I absolutely hate it, so I just think change is hard for us old folks, but not for the younger ones.

  8. I think we have mentioned this before on DSW, but just in case:
    Comcast rolled out its Internet Essentials program nationwide in 2011, offering low-income families in its service territory $10/month Internet connections and access to $150 computers.

    Any family with at least one child who qualifies for Free-or-Reduced-Price Meals at public schools can subscribe to a low-speed (1.5Mbps) Comcast Internet connection for $9.95 a month. Comcast guarantees that it won’t raise the price and offers the plan without equipment rental or activation fees. NOTE: Subscribers cannot have “an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment,” and they can’t have had Comcast Internet in the last 90 days.

    Comcast has agreed to sign up families to the program for at least three years, and it also promises to provide free Internet and computer training to those who need it.

    Read the rest of the article here. OpenOffice is the perfect software — FREE and up-to-date — to use with this offer.

  9. DinoMom says:

    Not only have I used OpenOffice for years, my company which has 3500+ employees uses it too. OpenOffice reads and writes the Microsoft Office formats so it’s not a problem when someone sends you a MS Office document. Using OpenOffice has saved a ton of money for my company – no reason why it can’t do the same for DCSS.

  10. educator90 says:

    I am in total agreement that there is nothing wrong with OpenOffice, and I believe it’s a great idea. It’s just not likely to happen in DCSS. Should it happen? Yes, but not very likely. They’d rather spend your money and keep friends and family employed.

  11. In addition, as we’ve suggested before – Payroll can be very easily outsourced to a service like PayChex or ADP. They do a wonderful job, are always up to date on tax laws and handle employee deductions for any and all reasons. No need to staff up HR – or pay pensions for payroll.

  12. Dedicated Educator says:

    We have Linux computers in my school on DeKalb and Open Office is completely compatible with microsoft programs. The problem is that there are only a handful (maybe 2 or so) people in the county who know how to fix them when there is a problem. In the past we have had problems with the state crashing when a lot of users were on at the same time. This happened mostly when we had a Linux lab, which we no longer have. I currently have 3 in my classroom that work well. Students can get on the Internet, etc. They can’t print though because no one seems to know how to hook them up to the network printer. There was a gentleman in the county a few years ago who knew how to maintain the Linux computers, but it is my understanding that he left the county.

  13. another comment says:

    My maid lives in Smyrna she needs to finish school, to she can be considered for the extended stay visas. I told her about the Comcast deal, since both her younger sister and younger brothers are US citizens, and are on Free lunch. The problem is all of Smyrna and some areas of town only have Charter and not Comcast. Charter acted like I was crazy when I called to ask them if they would match the deal that Comcast has for low income Students. They told me no way.

  14. The Deal says:

    Sorry, this is too logical for DCSD.

  15. That’s too bad. But, there is no incentive to “match” because there is no competition between cable providers.

  16. bettyandveronica1 says:

    We love the Khan Academy. I get my child online when there is a math question and she just loves to watch those videos. Don’t know what it is, they just make it so the kids listen and it makes sense. Plus, they can watch it over and over if they just didn’t get it in class. Has many subjects, not just math. What a fabulous organization.

  17. RealWorldEducation says:

    It’s not the quality of the software, it’s access and numbers. Comcast has a good deal, but what good is net access if you have no computer to log on with? Also, If common core tests, county benchmarks and other tests are all moving to computers, will we have enough to make it feasible?Could a math type let me know the result of this math problem…if you have 1000 students and one computer lab that holds 30 computers, how long will it take for all students to take one test which runs for one hour, assuming that a)all computers are running at the time of the test and b) there are no other technical hiccups? My calculation says 33 hours. For one test. Now multiply that by 4-6, the number of RTT/CC tests reccomended/planned, add a few benchmarks…oh wait, weren’t we supposed to use the labs for projects or papers occasionally? Not to mention lost instructional time…

  18. DeKalb Inside Out says:

    Open Source is all well and good and a viable option for the home as well as the office. That being said, if it’s such a good idea why doesn’t anybody on this blog move their home systems to linux and start using Open Office? That would be a comparable savings in operating system and software.

    Your answers to that question is why DCSD (as well as most companies) don’t make the move to Linux.

  19. Terry says:

    OK… first I have to ask if any of you know how many computers are currently sitting in the schoolhouses in DCSS? How many laptops are currently sitting in the schoolhouses? (hint: a LOT more than you think!) There is already the beginning of a “changeup” to the next generation of hardware even though DCSS will still lag behind the “technology curve”. WHO services all of this? When you think about changing the entire “flavor” of what is there now and what you are proposing to use…. where is that money coming from? What about the contracts already in place? YES!!! I agree with you, that there are cheaper ways to buy and use technology in the schools, but we MUST look at the practicality of what you want.
    I have already heard rumors about BYOT (bring your own technology) that would be allowed to function in the buildings so that student and teacher may work on projects together in a more 21st century setting, but that is all, just rumors. In a perfect world, students would bring their own technology and work on math, science, reading, history… in class and it would be right were they left off when they accessed it at home…
    Who will update outdated software/hardware? You know as well as I do that hardware is constantly changing and software is almost fluid! DCSS just dumped 40 of it’s CTSS people. The remaining techs are stretched as far as they can go. Do you really think anyone in the Brantly (I know.. it’s Bryant.. but….) center will go out to a school and dirty themselves to help troubleshoot?
    So think about it. Break contracts. UPGRADE building technology (how many schools are completely wireless?) Sign new contracts with hardware companies. Sign new contracts with software companies. Train the technicians. Train the helpdesk. Educate teachers. Educate students. All the while someone is taking care of the everyday issues (printer won’t print, phone won’t work, computer not plugged in, monitor dead, flash drive won’t work). Suppose you can accomplish this… with the technology currently in the buildings it is nearly impossible to get 30 wireless laptops in one classroom to connect to the internet because the wireless access technology in place can’t handle it.
    Again, I say…. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE… go into your child’s school and look at the technology that is there. What is being used? What remains sitting around? How old is that technology? Volunteer to set up a laptop cart for one of the classrooms (IT IS NOT HARD!!!). Just do that and you will see the frustration the teachers must deal with! Learn to use one of the smart boards. They ARE fun and the younger kids LOVE them!
    Should DCSS dump all of their current technology and wire the building so students can bring their own equipment in? Who will safeguard it?
    I’m certainly NOT trying to shoot anything down. Just think… please.

  20. Hamilton says:

    Moving to open source is a cost cutter, but as others have hinted in their posts, you need a VERY agile and talented IT staff that can handle the on-the-fly solutions to problems that come up with using open source. Does DCSS IT have what it takes to pull off a massive change to its software? Others of you know better than I. Are there any IT changes that have been made at the schoolhouse level in the DCSS conversion charter schools? The charter council action teams may have some latitude to implement open source products. Just thinking out loud…

  21. Comcast offers computers for $150 to people who qualify. We have not read all of the requirements, but it might be interesting if Comcast required re-qualifing every year and — most important — as part of the re-qualifying, the children of families who qualify to participate must stay in school and be on-track for graduation.

  22. Dekalbite2 says:

    DCSS has long put their money into IT staff and the physical network but not into physical hardware – so there is a such a lack of access for students as to make technology all but worthless for many if not most of the classrooms. DeKalb has a multimillion dollar network tended to by a multimillion dollar a year staff while there is a dearth of working hardware and software to connect to the network.

    DeKalb MIS has never invested in ensuring their IT staff has the expertise to run the software. They push the software out over the network, and if the icon is on the desktop and opens they consider it installed. Only when a teacher complains it doesn’t work do they address the problem. How frustrating is it when you take your students to a computer lab for a lesson or use the ActivBoard and the software doesn’t work? Now you’ve wasted an hour of instructional time. And when this happens over and over since software updates are pushed out constantly, teachers just give up. That’s because the installers and CTSSs don’t know the software and are not expected to know the software. If they don’t know it, they can’t test it in advance. It’s analogous to a business installing their inventory software and never testing it for bugs – just waiting until their locations and customers complain. Then they push it out again and wait to see if anyone complains and continue to push it out because they figure at some unspecified time down the road it will work. Could any business operate this way?

    IMHO – Mr. Brantley brings a much needed fresh look to DCSS. Taxpayers have easily spent over $100,000,000 for technology hardware, software and support personnel in the last five years. How much has that benefited students? A shift in mindset is overdue for this department, and Mr. Brantley is from a school system that had abundant working technology. Hopefully, the changes described on this blog are part of Mr. Brantley’s and Dr. Atkinson’s plan to get a Return for our Investment from these colossal technology expenditures. Many of the changes Mr. Brantley has instituted are ones that school systems with successful MIS groups have been using for years.

  23. justwatch says:

    Please read today’s paper, the print version not the online one.. Ty has an excellent article on the Dekalb/Heery lawsuit and criminal trial. I can’t find it online and it may never be placed there. We are in for 19 million already, and another 19 million if we win. Marshall Orson raises the question about what if we lose!

  24. Thanks, justwatch! We understand that Ty Tagami’s article is a “MUST read”! So, I am heading out to pick up a Sunday AJC now. I dropped my 30+ year subscription to the AJC when they repeatedly and steadfastly refused to investigate the corruption in DCSS. I figured my time could be better spent on this blog, rather than reading the AJC. But, Ty Tagami may be a game-changer! If the AJC will turn Ty loose on DCSS and the corruption intrinsic to DCSS, I would consider subscribing again. It’s incredibly inconvenient to have to go out to pick up the AJC instead of retrieving it from my driveway.

  25. techmom says:

    In 2009, my son’s elementary school won the national Intel Science School of Distinction award. Along with a $12,000 cash prize, Toshiba donated a dozen laptops and various other vendors kicked in close to $200,000 worth of software for the school. None of it could be implemented in-house because it wasn’t obtained directly by DCSD. The laptops couldn’t connect to the internet because they weren’t authorized purchases, and thus not able to connect to the county’s network. The Principal and teachers were disappointed that this no-cost, state of the art technology couldn’t be utilized, block by the bureaucracy at the time. As a parent, my frustrations were glossed over by anyone I tried to contact at the county level. Nobody knew about the award or even what I was taking about.

  26. DeKalb inside: Actually, many of us have made the move. And one of my largest (international) corporate clients has made the move as well. Google is working on a much, much faster internet service with unbelievable amounts of storage. We are entering another giant jump forward in technology. We will either be on board or miss the boat completely. It’s really that serious, IMHO.

  27. Kim says:

    I have been a wild-eyed, long-haired hippie type proponent of open source licensing and technologies since 1995 and have maintained my tech career as a result via self-study. I ditched M$ products a decade ago in my house and refuse to pay for any personal productivity software because there are viable alternatives. Because it is my trade, I manage my own support. It will be a few years more before average end users can manage their own open source technology. So while it is right to point out _license_ costs savings, it is not right to say it would be an _overall_ savings for DeKalb Schools.

    The license costs of many vendor supported software products includes some costs of support. On top of that there are support agreements that individuals, organizations, and our dear school system buy. The cost of support does not go away with open source solutions. In fact, it is fairly well accepted in corporate America that if you choose open source solutions you are buying into greater responsibility and costs of internal support staff as the vendor support agreements out there for open source are limited/immature still.

    So while I’ll be the first on DSW to pump open source licensed software for educational use (and I think I was in 2009!), I do not think it would be justified on a total cost savings basis. The real cost savings is in up-front licensing costs – the total cost may or may not be less. Ultimately, the most important question is would it empower our teachers and students with an equal or higher value of technology in practice … hmmm, thinking we need to fix the organization before we fix the technology – just my opinion.

    That said, for technology instruction (career tech), there is no question our schools should be 100% focused on open source solutions. My multi-million dollar team at AT&T has built and is supporting a strategic platform for the company built on 100% open source (Apache GPL) products that any student or teacher could download and master with diligence at $0 license cost. The move to “the cloud” is in large part fueled by open source technology leaders like SpringSource, Canonical, RackSpace, OpenStack, Basho, RedHat and many, many others.

    These technology companies are out-innovating many proprietary licensed products because of the power of the crowd. When hundreds or thousands of developers world wide are inspecting your source code and offering improvements and “free” testing, it is hard for a company like Microsoft to keep up even with their piles of cash.

    Just as an FYI, OpenOffice was purchased by Sun/Oracle a while ago. So, while it remains open source, it is not an Apache product nor ever was. The Apache Foundation is the source of the undisputed champion web server (Apache http project) and dozens of other cutting edge software and network element technologies.

    After the purchase by Sun/Oracle, the open source community “branched” the OpenOffice codebase into LibreOffice out of distrust of the future of OpenOffice in the hands of Oracle Corp. I have used both for years and can testify to their quality. I can also tell you that conversions to/from MSOffice’s latest versions is always a cat and mouse game and does not always work – I lost 90 minutes of work saving out LibreOffice Impress slides into MSPowerPoint .pptx files today, in fact. Wah!

    I preach open source software to our students as a way of removing all barriers to knowledge acquisition. They can get their hands on the same technology as the $150k / yr engineers on my team with a simple web download and get busy. Literally, open source licensing is destroying the barriers to entry in technical know-how but we still have a dirth of people in USA willing to take advantage of this great opportunity.

    At Career Day last November, I showed our students a picture of an office party with my team full of festive decorations and food. I asked them what they might guess we were celebrating – I got everything from Halloween/Dia de Los Muertos to Thanksgiving. I told them that we were celebrating Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, which marks the triumph of good over evil. I ask them if they knew why we celebrated Diwali and not Thanksgiving … simple: that is who our engineers and technology experts are. The overwhelming number of our team members are from Asia and are Hindu.

    These men and women have advanced technical degrees from very prestigious universities and they maintain their currency via relentless, life-long, self-guided study thanks to open source technologies.

    Time to go to apache.org and study hard my hearties!

  28. Kim says:

    @DSW: You are right – companies are accelerating their move to open source and “cloud” technologies. I also believe it is an irreversible trend in computing/IT. I simply think the move for DCSD has to trail the private sector until more mature support organizations are around to buy support contracts for the system and the schools. I don’t think we have the stomach for what the in-house expertise will cost us. We are and will be more in the future competing with those same companies for open source tech experts = expensive.

  29. Kim says:

    In a fun turn-about, my senior technical architect came into work this week all excited about an open source, high performance streaming video product he stumbled upon … turns out my students had turned me onto it over a year ago 🙂 … open source is turning the tech world and innovation process upside down and we should keep it as a long-term goal for education operations. When all these young people are early-career, I’m thinking the cost of support will be low enough!

  30. Wow Kim! Fascinating input! Thanks for enlightening us all!!

  31. Dekalbite2 says:

    @ Kim
    ” In fact, it is fairly well accepted in corporate America that if you choose open source solutions you are buying into greater responsibility and costs of internal support staff as the vendor support agreements out there for open source are limited/immature still.”

    You are right. When DCSS buys a computer, they are really buying not just the cost of the computer but also the installation and maintenance of that computer by the vendor. Since they are a Microsoft shop, this means they also buy Office products as part of the bundling. The DCSS personnel do not install the hardware and do relatively minor maintenance. The hardware vendor does the install and the bulk of the maintenance. That is why a computer bought by DCSS with SPLOST dollars is so expensive – it includes the installation and maintenance and labor and parts for 5 years (or the length of the contract). The MIS personnel mainly work with the network to push out the software onto the computers that are in place. That’s the reason why DCSS discourages any other arrangement including the ones commented upon here.

    Cloud computing is the indeed the future of technology. It will take a completely different way of thinking about networks, hardware and software, and the learning curve is steeper and steeper as change is so rapid. Pehaps some school systems may find outsourcing most of their Information Systems division will be more cost efficient and effective for students and teachers. A number of governmental organizations already do that. They leave some management in place to direct the company or companies that they are outsoucing to and to ensure there is a liaison that can properly communicate the needs of the end user.

  32. Jim Kinney says:

    OpenSource software is just the tip of the iceberg for making education work in DeKalb schools. I did run the highly successful Linux Thin-Client Pilot Project for Atlanta Public Schools. In that project, I installed tiny, classroom computers , called thin-clients, at a ratio of 2 students per computer. They are called thin clients because the tiny machines have no ability on their own when they turn on. Instead, they get all they use from centralized servers running a variant of RedHat Enterprise Linux. This provides Internet access, word processing, spreadsheets, graphics, databases, programming tools, specialized K12 applications, and a huge collection of puzzle games. Software cost – $0. License cost – $0. Support cost – 1 good Linux admin on staff ($145k/year total) to support ALL classroom servers district-wide. Extra support for hands-on at the school/classroom level can be done with a tech-minded teacher as it rarely required more than “is it plugged in?”. But APS did the “friends and family” thing as well and managed to squander more resources than I care to think about without feeling ill. But for about 2 years 4000 students had reliable computers and their performance scores showed dramatic improvement. After it was all dismantled by more upper-level incompetence, APS had to continue to show improvment in test scores and then the test score scandal began with the schools I had installed the Linux systems in. I was very saddened to watch all of that final outcome having seen the beginings of real academic improvement as a result of my effort.
    I have since done some consulting and reworked the numbers about 4 years ago. For the then cost of about $350 per seat, schools can have thousands of fully-installed Linux client-server setups that support more capabilities than any school can even dream of. That’s turn-key, ready to log in for students and teachers (assuming that the network wiring in place actually works to the classroom). The hardware in the classroom is fanless and has no hard drives to fail or make noise. The thin clients have modern LCD screens (low power cost) and speakers, keyboards and mice. The servers are enterprise-class, fully redundant systems. At $350, that’s about the same cost of the typical school desktop that then requires re-imaging every semester with additional anti-virus and other expensive applications on each system. Add a roving support tech to bring systems back online after a failure. For the thin-clients, all that is required is to turn them off and then back on. All the software is installed remotely on the servers and available to all students in the building with no additional cost.
    Currently, most computers that I’ve seen in DCSS for use by students are either in the lab that is used 20-30 minutes once a week by each student or mostly dead in the classroom. The teachers systems are maintained for grading needs but the student systems break often and stay down for long periods of time. If a system is down, teachers can’t rely on using it for class. Enough failures and the class is ineffective. So the teachers don’t count on the computers working and then the students don’t use the computers at all.
    Most of the existing teacher and student systems could be converted to Linux thin clients or full desktop systems with some decent Linux admin work. There are Linux people in the area that would actually volunteer some time to do some of the leg-work on the hookup/rollout. There are Linux people in the area that are professional sysadmins that would be happy making Linux computers work for schools. Most of us in the field see the tech writing on the wall – learn Linux or become irrelevant.
    The most challenging part of this process is what I told the NECC crowd in 2008 – political engineering is the greatest obstacle to open source in schools. The people that make the decisions are not technologically savy. They know what Microsoft is. They also know it doesn’t work well, is very expensive and hard to maintain. So when someone like me comes along and says, “Here’s this Linux stuff for free!”, they think it must be worthless. Besides they know what they get with Microsoft and it’s sort-of workable. Change is hard.
    So can Linux thin clients do everything that standalone desktop can? The short answer is no. But they can do the vast majority of it (easily 95% or more) which makes them an ideal candidate for the bulk of all deployed computers in the schools. There will still need to be a few Microsoft Windows machines and some Macs around for specialty things. But the servers can all be Linux. All the teachers can run Linux. All the students can run Linux. All of this for their typical, daily desktop needs.
    Most school systems spend big money on a SIS, student information system. There are several open source versions that are $0 to use. And they are very capable systems. Add in lunchroom accounting tools and a library software system (Evergreen is open source and a product of Georgia taxpayer funding! – so why are we using anything else?). From art, music, writing, drama, every branch of science and math, Open Source tools are available.
    Now add in the ability to send each student home with a CD that let’s them run the same stuff on their home machine from the “live CD” without installing anything. Just start up the computer from the CD, insert their USB thumb drive with their school work, and they’re up and going. Or install a free encryption tool from a CD provided by the school that allows them to remotely and safely use the school server from their home machine with internet access. Cost of both of these is a CD burner and a stack of CDs and some admin time to build the image.
    Linux systems run the Internet. The sooner DCSS jumps on board, the better off they will be. I jumped on full-time in 1997 after having tinkered with Linux from 1992 until I finished grad school. All of the computers in my house run Linux (RedHat/CentOS for long-life servers and Fedora for desktops and specialty servers). My kids have used Linux their entire life and actually balk at having to use windows or mac systems as they are deemed “unreliable” or “broken crap”. My wife uses Linux systems exclusively in grad school and at her work.
    For DCSS to make the switch gracefully, it will require some outstanding leadership at the top and some specific hand-holding for key people in each school. A roll-out would have to happen in phases so teachers have the time to adjust their process. Part of the funds saved from license costs would need to go towards teacher training for specific applications. Much of the basic how-to from windows and Mac is very similar in Linux. But there are some key differences that need to be trained. Additionally guidance for what applications to use for specific classroom needs will need to be provided as teachers like to go buy stuff and install it in the classroom. Most Windows-platform software will not work on a Linux system. So help needs to be provided to find suitable replacements or a re-evaluation of needs.
    Our students don’t need to know how to use Micorosft Office Version 12-a Student/Teacher release version 23. They need to know how to write. With LibreOffice (OpenOffice version not controlled by Oracle), the spell check ability can be disabled for in class tests while access to the Internet is also blocked so students must be totally using their own brain resources and then all turned back on after the test time. That can’t be done in Windows.

  33. Very helpful, interesting and thoughtful comment, Jim – thanks!

  34. Jim Kinney says:

    Reading back over some prior comments:
    Wireless technology is not a large-scale, reliable way to get lots of computers online for schools. Wireless Access Points, WAPs, are finicky hardware and subject to difficult engineering issues. Many older schools, as well as some new ones, have wall materials that just flat block the radio signals. Wired networks are far more reliable and can support far more simultaneous users than wireless. Wireless LANs also work at some of the same frequencies as cell phones do so intereference can be a big issue from cell phones in pockets. (won’t even mention cell towers here)
    The current techno-buzz is “cloud computing”. This is a non-starter for schools due to the huge increase is Internet access loading. The current systems can barely survive the usage with most data stored locally. Moving that storage “to the cloud” means a huge increase is network access costs. Add to this that there is very little reason to move storage or computing services out of the school LAN. Cloud computing is for web services that need to rapidly expand, or high-cost computation needs. Moving data storage to cloud providers is the most expensive service they offer and the most expensive process for schools to use with absolutely zero payback. In house is best for this. IT, like most fields, has trends. “Cloud” is a current one. It _can_ work for schools but the cloud for schools needs to down the hall in the server closet, not somewhere at Amazon or Google or wherever.
    DedicatedEducator – contact me off list and I’ll see about getting your classroom computers printing again.
    RealWorldEducation – you’re completely correct that running 100 students through 30 systems for testing is a non-starter. DCSS will have to address the student:computer ratio at some point soon. I do advocate using Linux systems as a way to reuse those older clunkers. It is feasable to get the older coporate desktops that are “junk” and repurpose them as Linux thin clients. It requires some dedicated people to keep scavenging as well as some leadership to say “Yes! Do it!”. I once tried to donate a dozen computers to Brockett Elementary. They had Linux installed and were ready to go. I was going to set them up, train teachers and maintain them for 2 years while training DCSS IT at $0 to the school system. It got upstream that someone was going to install systems that did not have the “offical DCSS IT loaded and paid for software” and the entire process was scrubbed. The school limped along for the next 6 years with IBM PC Jrs (yes – that old) running windows 95 and Novell for networking and failing daily. Less than half of the lab was working at any given time.
    Dekalb Inside Out – If anyone on this list wants a live Linux CD to look at what you can do for free, I’ll happily provide them. Note: running from a LiveCD is slow (really slow on older hardware) but a good way to look before you leap. I got on the Linux bandwagon before there were live CDs 🙂 I just leaped and never looked back.

    Side note: DCSS pays for Microsoft software twice for each PC they have. when purchased, the PC comes with Microsoft Windows installed by the manufacturer. That license costs about $50 (Windows 7 is about $100 in bulk from the hardware makers). Then the system is wiped and the official DCSS version is installed using the bulk license purchased by DCSS. This costs another $50-$75 per PC for licensing the exact same software that came on the machine. Very few PC makers will provide built system that have no operating system installed as Microsoft will will punish them by discontinuing their bulk access. The ones that do only offer a Linux system with different hardware so no direct comparison costing can be made. Dell will sell laptops with FreeDOS or Ubuntu. Maximum hardware savings can be made by using the local student geek talent and pc build parties. Involve the high school computer club students by organizing build parties. For the cost of pizza and soda, a dozen students will assemble, test and install hundreds of computers from scratch over a school year as long as they get to tinker with a few. The cost of having spare parts is less than the extended warranty and the system(s) are returned to serfice faster. Plus it’s great resume material for the students to be able to say they helped build 500 machines one year.

  35. Dekalbite2 says:

    @Jim Kinney

    Interesting information about cloud computing and school systems. You read a lot of pros but not a lot of cons about this.

    DCSS has always been a Microsoft shop to the extent of resisting connecting Apple computers to the network on the premise that they might compromise the integrity of the network. Linux is a great system for schools and the Open Office software is virtually the same as the Office products. You’ve got to understand though that the network group has controlled things for many years in DeKalb. Having a centralized group of network folk who remotely install the software and maintain absolute control over technology has been the number one priority in DeKalb Schools. The initiatives you cite are terrific, but they are not compatible with the DeKalb Way for Information Technology. Perhaps the new guy Brantley will “shake things up” a bit – particularly since he comes from a small, probably more versatile and nimble school system.

  36. howdy1942 says:

    This is a very informative, very helpful post. Thank you for sharing the educational web sites. These should be very useful to students in the learning process.

  37. DekalbParentPositive says:

    Open Source software is an option but have any of you paid attention to what Microsoft has put in place to cut cost for educational institutions? Please do your home work on EES. It allows the district to buy licenses for employees of the district but our students can use it for free. Example We have 99,000 give or take and about 13,000 employees. We would only pay for the 13,000 employees and not for the students. This is a huge savings and one reason why school districts have not switched to open source. Do your homework on it and you will see this is not offered to businesses but only to educational institutions which is why they have to use open source to save.

  38. Jim Kinney says:

    DekalbParentPositive – 13,000 Microsoft licenses for the operating system, plus 13,000 licenses for the office suite, plus 13,000 licenses for the anti-virus software, plus 13,000 licenses for the is a huge pile of cash! Now add in the cost of a full-time person just to maintain licenses for IT to keep DCSS from getting clobbered by the BSA goon squad and the cost just to play the game is crazy. The maintenance costs (called TCO – Total Cost of Ownership) depends on who does the maintenance. A good Windows admin can effectively run 50-150 Windows servers as long as they are all identical (or nearly so). This still requires expensive server software that is NOT part of the discount program you are pointing to.
    A decent Linux admin can run 300-1000 servers that are identical (or nearly so) for a payroll diffference of about 25% more than the windwos admin. 25% more admin cost for 100% more coverage. That cuts admin cost by at least 75%.
    Actually that’s not really true. A good linux admin can admin a nearly infinite number of identical systems by using the Linux scripting tools and the enterprise management software available for $0. A decent Linux admin can deploy (install the operating system and required software) a server using included, automatic tools. I have seen a thousand Linux server deployed in a single day (Google – my little corner of the datacenter had 12,000 servers – we replaced all the hard drives in two weeks – 10 work days!). There is NOTHING that Microsoft has that come even close.
    There is no “license to use” cost from RedHat. There is a support license they sell. That lets DCSS call RedHat and say “Hey! This isn’t working. Help us out!”. The RedHat looks at the problem and finds a solution and hands it back over. The next release of RedHat, that solution is included for everyone.
    The license to use a Microsoft product does NOT include support. That costs extra. I’ve used their paid support. Well, tried to anyway. They were unable to solve the problem. I needed to lock down the desktops in the lab so students could not change the background screen (boys were being crude and the girls were rightfully complaining). It simply could not be done. Microsoft decided to not bill for their time since they couldn’t solve the problem. As a result, I converted the student machines at Emory’s Physics Department to Linux. The girls quit having to complain and boys started getting their work done on time.
    Microsoft will never, ever, give at $0 all their software to all the students and teachers now and for the full time they are in the school system. Never. Every dollar spent on ANY software license is another dollar not used to hire teachers.
    Microsoft will never, ever, allow any student to see the source code of their products. That is an extreme impediment to the education of our students. Student learn by looking at how things are done. This is what teachers do every day – show the “source code” to history, math, language, music, etc.
    I can not find a single argument in the 10+ years I’ve been working schools and Linux that justifies any large-scale deployment of Microsoft systems in any school system when the alternatives are so obvious, plain, simple and effective. Mac systems are even more expensive and onerous to maintain.
    All arguments in support of Microsoft large-scale deployments are all the same, “Everyone else is doing it.”.

    And if all your friends decided to jump off a cliff….

    yeah.

  39. Jim Kinney says:

    Dekalbite2 – actually installing Linux systems provide even more centalized control over the installation of software. As Linux is a modern derivative of UNIX it inherits all the network-oriented, multi-user, multi-tasking that was the core of UNIX. The ability to centrally (and distributed as well) manage Linux systems is essential for the cost efectiveness to be realized. Besides, what works for one school software-wise, will probably be used somewhere else as soon as it’s available. Deploying a new application can be as simple as 10-20 keystrokes. And that will push new abilities to all the systems in the entire DCSS district if that’s what’s needed.
    To quote Arthur C. Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”.

    Linux is magic to most executive types.

  40. Dekalbite2 says:

    Yes. The thin client in a Linux network has many advantages including the centralized control, remote access for students, less downtime and lower associated technology maintenance costs. However, DCSS is a Microsoft shop and has always been reluctant to support or allow on the network any initiative that is not Microsoft. The bids for new or replacement computers have never entertained any computers that weren’t PCs because that’s what Information Systems knows and therefore wants to use. It would require a completely new skills set for most of their personnel and may even eliminate the need for some technology positions. The end user is not really where the process starts or ends.

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