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Get More Bang For Our Stimulus Bucks With Open Source In Schools

Don't Throw Good Money After Bad

  • February 20, 2009
  • By Matt Hartley

Not too long back, I shared my thoughts with you on how there seems to be a real disconnect with US schools and desktop Linux. Differences of opinion were exchanged in the comments area of the article and I gained some new insight along the way.

The point that was driven home to me the most, however, is the apparent lack of resources to make the switch to (or even merely recognize the value of) desktop Linux. Clearly there are legitimate barriers that are in place that make educating teachers, IT personnel and to a degree, even students, difficult at best.

But something has taken place recently that might help schools overcome this barrier. It's called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Duplicable and sustainable technology for education?

We now have a new stimulus package that is set to change much of the face of our national. Like it or hate it, this "bundle of funds" is headed into a number of critical sectors of the US economy with the idea of jumpstarting our economy ��� including schools.

What's interesting is the fact that the previously mentioned challenges of resources for re-tooling our educational infrastructure to work with Linux suddenly seems a lot less like a viable excuse.

Indeed, it's not only foolish to take these funds and invest them into resources that clearly are not performing a belt tightening function, it borders the same mentality that thought throwing money into the financial sector's black hole was a good investment of tax payer funds.

Convinced that I am off my rocker? Allow me to present my case before passing judgment.

Sticking to what we have always done is clearly not something that works among all school income levels. Yes, schools with better access to immediate local funds are able to continuously revamp with new computers every few years, while schools from the inner city might be lucky to keep older PCs running at all.

Then there is the issue of sustainability. If I hypothetically donated 100 brand new computers to a school, powered by proprietary closed source software, what are the odds that those PCs will be running the latest secure operating system with the latest security patches five years later? Not all that good, I'd speculate.

As we have seen with Windows Vista, proprietary OS vendors such as Microsoft have a nasty habit of requiring more resources with each new OS release. And while this appears to be changing based on what I have seen with my own testing of Windows 7 beta builds, there remains the issue of licensing costs. Even if Microsoft decides to never charge US schools for access to Windows 7, I hardly think the same will hold true for MS Office or other non-Microsoft related proprietary software.

Need further clarification? Let me put it this way: if the economy keeps going the way it has been, this stimulus bill may be the only shot of fresh federal funds education is going to get for a very long time. This means whatever approach US education opts for regarding technology, it had better be something that can be sustained when the stimulus funds run out. This is where I see open source software and Linux stepping up to the challenge in a way that's not practical for Windows.

Obama wants stimulus to transform schools. Linux, anyone?

Without squabbling over the politics of what the new US president wants for our educational system, the fact of the matter is he now has access to enormous spending power to potentially improve what schools' financial resources.

And as we explored previously, using the same methods once believed to be successful as to "get our kids ready for the real world" is proving to be a lot less possible with our current set of economic circumstances. This translates into thinking "mean and lean." Put bluntly, this means training existing IT personnel how to integrate Linux resources alongside Windows solutions and hiring individuals who can make this happen with their existing skill set.

I know there is software, both proprietary and open source, that can make this transition work. Best of all, there is a two-fold benefit I haven't touched on yet. Incorporating Linux into the mix also translates into new jobs today in addition to creating mentors for students to emulate tomorrow. Job retention, job creation, and the new infrastructure will last a lot longer than anything exclusively Windows based alone.

Now before everyone reading this opts to immediately point out a variety of reasons why this could "never work," consider the following first.

  1. It's already been done. As much as I hate to break it to people, back in 2006, the Indiana Department of Education added Linux workstations for 22,000 students through a program called "ACCESS." The same goes for Ohio.
  2. Linux does Windows. As I pointed out in this article from 2008, blending in needed legacy Windows software is not all that difficult. As a matter of fact, you could keep needed Windows desktops running for Windows-dependent tasks, while reducing costs on unneeded Windows licenses for desktops better suited to run desktop Linux instead.
  3. Reviving PCs from the scrap heap. With distributions such as Puppy Linux, schools can suddenly wipe old hard drives containing Windows 95 and replace them with an actively used OS that is more secure and better supported.
  4. Familiarity is 99% hot air. One of the biggest issues teachers and many IT personnel tend to point out is that students are used to using Windows and the software designed for it. Some believe that asking these folks to switch is a productivity hit during the "retraining" process.

This is complete nonsense. First, desktop Linux can be made to look almost exactly like Windows if it's needed. And this process can be cloned very easily for duplication, district wide. Secondly, the only killer app that comes to mind that students will be taking with them as they grow is their familiarity with MS Office.

But thanks to the new idiot ribbon layout of Office 2007, this software already looks nothing like it did in previous revisions. So it stands to reason that Open Office or even Google Docs is something that students could wrap their minds around.

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