Let's Use Stimulus to Boost Open Source in Schools

Wednesday Feb 18th 2009 by Matt Hartley

Passage of the stimulus bill is an opportunity to leverage the cost savings of open source in schools.

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.

Using Linux to create sustainable jobs for tomorrow.

In this article, I’ve talked about how I see desktop Linux and open source technology refreshing the dated infrastructure many schools face today. And thanks to new stimulus money, US schools will be presented with some great opportunities to hopefully make each dollar count.

Yet I see the above call to action as going much further than simply providing schools with resources enhanced by Linux. I also believe other areas set to be funded by the stimulus package would also do well to "change" the way these sectors embrace technology. Not by adding more of the same, but instead, using open source ideas to create a sustainable eco-system where we’re putting one of my all time favorite adages into practice.

"Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day, but teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime."

Rather than putting total emphasis on "shovel ready" jobs exclusively for those lacking other skills, let's also consider the long term value of including re-trainable, sustainable jobs integrating open source software into other areas of society. So rather than simply handing a shovel to the unemployed guy looking to feed his family, let's also provide access to a training option where these same individuals have the option to come in on their off-work time to learn how to administer a Linux shop?

What? The idea of a blue-collar worker learning to administer Linux sounds completely impossible? Apparently you are not familiar with the fact that there a number of existing open source developers today who are blue collar workers by trade.

I can personally think of three off of the top of my head. The stereotype of the typical Linux geeks is fast proving to be a misnomer, thanks to a new influx of projects showing up on SourceForge and Google Code. Best of all, these same individuals are able to take the same skills they learned working with Linux and then go out on their own, should they wish to create their own businesses. They’re able to support themselves in the short term, while learning something potentially sustainable in the long term. Hence, teaching someone to "fish," as it were.

So were in the heck would these new shovel wielding Linux admins possibly find work in this terrible economy? After all, the educational sector already has a tremendous number of trainable IT personnel that are capable of learning to add Linux to their knowledge base. Well, how about healthcare? Considering it’s both growing and an area destined to see stimulus funds, the idea of putting people to work in the long term does not appear to be so insurmountable.

But it is a Windows world!

By now, there are still going to be a number of you who continue to believe I’m out of my mind for even suggesting such a radical change.

If this is your perspective, fine. But I would challenge each of you who disagrees to provide me with concrete reasons as to why something like this would never work. Not because you "hate Linux," rather due to a fundamental hurdle I might have overlooked. After all, I’m only human and cannot possibly forgo overlooking something along the way here. So well thought out counter-points are always welcome.

That said, I’m confident in the idea that I might be onto something here. If nothing else, it sure beats duplicating what hasn't worked for all of these years with regard to IT in schools and health care.

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