Putting Linux in Classrooms around the World

by John D. Biggs

Forty-three top students at the Shree Bachhauli Secondary School in Bachhauli, Nepal are learning computer programming, a skill that could keep them out of the child-labor market and rocket them into higher education and a real job after graduation. Their school has 14 teachers and over 600 students, but the computer classes are kept small and staffed by German and Swiss volunteers who work for a group called Ganesha’s Project. They make do with donated machines and focus on open-source software like Linux, a move that cuts the cost of acquiring software licenses for an already impoverished school system.

?The main goal of Ganesha’s Project is to try to create a humane alternative to child labor in Nepal?, said Kirstin Boettcher, a German graphic designer who is working with the group to raise funds. She added,

In Nepal, as in other third-world countries, most people don’t profit from the spread of progress. The point of our Project is to narrow the digital divide that keeps computing resources away from the masses and to show people how to bridge the chasm of poverty with education.

Ganesha’s Project is only one startling example of under-funded and under-staffed schools around the world that are turning to Linux as a way to create an inexpensive and intensive computer curriculum. Like Apple’s early efforts (in the 1980s) at giving free Apple II machines to schools, Linux software distributors and volunteer organizations are gaining life-long users by delivering open-source technology at little or no cost to elementary and high schools.

The key to this program’s success is the freedom that administrators and teachers gain in using open-source software. Peter Farina teaches computer science using open-source software at Montini Catholic High School in Lombard, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. ?Once the students get past the hurdle of learning the Linux commands and the Linux directory structure, they get pretty excited about it?, he said. ?Then they find that there are thousands of programs out there that are free for them to grab. It’s not like they have to get some bootleg copy from a friend.?

Farina’s school is part of SuSE’s Free Linux for US High Schools Program. As part of the program, SuSE donated over 2,000 copies of their version of Linux to high schools across the nation.

?Having it in high schools around the US demonstrates the open-source philosophy and shows students, teachers, administrators and IT specialists that they do not have to be tied to expensive operating systems and ongoing costly upgrades?, said Dirk Hohndel, president of SuSE’s US operations.

Like the volunteers at Ganesha’s Project, Farina also is faced with a cash-strapped department, and he is turning to Linux to reduce costs.

?We’re at a point now where we’re trying to increase the size of the network?, he said. ?The cable and infrastructure is in place, but licensing is so expensive. It’s crippling us. I’m trying to find a way to increase our offerings without paying through the nose for each PC that’s on the network.?

Farina uses Linux as a teaching tool and has gone as far as to instruct students how to build their own small computer networks. He said the biggest stumbling block was trying to convince teachers to learn the new operating system. He explained that most of the teachers were just beginning to feel comfortable with Microsoft Windows products, and that he ?would get a lot of grief? if he sprung Linux on them too suddenly.

Students, parents and teachers at New York’s Beacon School, on the other hand, use Linux daily but hardly know it’s there. Shantanu Saha, deputy director of technology for the New York Board of Education, says Linux is the backbone of the Beacon School’s network.

The Beacon School’s web site, which runs Red Hat, provides an outlet for news and announcements. It also includes a parent/teacher interaction system that makes the many messages broadcast on-line by the administration hard to miss.

?This site is largely developed and maintained by the students, and it improves on every iteration?, said Saha. ?I’ve been doing my Linux initiative purely as an opt-in program, with interested schools participating in a workshop that I ran this year?, he said.

So far, Saha plans to install networked servers running Linux to handle most e-mail and web-related tasks for each of the 70 schools in the area. He explains:

My current paradigm is to install Linux servers at selected schools as the core of their networks, to train the teachers and technicians in basic administration and maintenance, and to help them out by managing the servers remotely, without traveling to the school or sending a technician.

?I want to replicate success where I find it?, he added, citing the Beacon School’s reputation as one of the most high-tech schools in the New York school system.

Volunteer organizations around the world also are trying to replicate the success of many open-source educational projects in their own areas. One volunteer organization, headed by Paul Nelson and Eric Harrison of the Multnomah County Education Service District, located near Portland, Oregon, developed the K-12 Linux Project, a system designed to allow schools to use old and outdated hardware to their fullest advantage through Linux networking.

?Schools get old hardware?, said Nelson, who spent the last 20 years with the Riverdale School District as an educator and, later, as a system administrator:

These computers come with the hard drives wiped and no operating system, and you have to pay a one-hundred-dollar license fee to Microsoft to get it running again. With Linux, you don’t have to have a fast or new computer to make it useful.

The K-12 Linux Project uses a central server to transmit GNOME to computers around the school. Currently, Nelson administers hundreds of computers in the two school districts where he works. He says the Project has taken off. ?Kids require no training at all. They just start clicking. In a matter of days, they’re experts?, he said. ?That’s how kids learn. We want the operating system to be an on-ramp, not a roadblock.?

?The K-12 Linux software is spreading?, said Nelson. Schools in London and Belize are running the program already, and he has had requests for the software from as far away as Malaysia and the Philippines. ?It’s a snowball at the top-of-the-hill stage. There’s a lot of potential here?, he said.

Nelson believes that the open-source paradigm is the best way for schools to remain competitive in an international marketplace. The software is free, he says, the need is great, and ?schools have no money.? He adds,

With this Project, we have one computer for every three students. We’re able to administer those remotely at locations around the building, something we could never do before.

The companies and volunteers that are offering services and software to schools are doing more than marketing their products, although a healthy capitalist instinct obviously prevails. MandrakeSoft is working with hardware vendors to supply schools in under-funded and low-income districts of Los Angeles, as well as poorer schools in Canada and Mexico.

?In the next two to three years, most Mexican schools will be running Linux?, said Daniel Morales, vice president for MandrakeSoft in the Americas. ?We are donating software and some of the servers, just to put installations all together?, he said. ?We, as a company, are emphasizing education and creating new talent to handle open source.?

Ultimately, Linux is sneaking into schools around the world and becoming as ubiquitous as the Apple icon to America’s educators. The real bottom line, of course, is money. Saha believes that the kind of computer literacy provided by open-source systems, coupled with the traditional three Rs, is key to future success.

?If you want to learn about computers, you need to know the operating system that basically drives the universe?UNIX.? Saha believes that students who know Linux, and by extension UNIX, have a ?license to print money? in any job market. Even the one in Nepal.

email: jdb252@nyu.eduJohn D. Biggs is a writer and consultant in Brooklyn, New York.