Linux in U.S. Schools: Why the Resistance?

Thursday Sep 4th 2008 by Matt Hartley
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Contrary to popular opinion, there are a number of effective low-cost options for the classroom.

“Software alternatives are just not available for Linux.”

I hear the statement above almost everyday. What makes the statement so ridiculous is that it is completely inaccurate 99 percent of the time. Normally I would dismiss this as the loss of the person or the business that has opted to limit their horizons with their platform decisions, but when I hear this coming from schools...I find myself shaking my head in complete disbelief.

Surely I am misunderstanding their perspective?

All over the world, there are schools that have saved tremendous amounts of money spent on education simply by switching to Linux. Despite the common belief here in the U.S. that there is a "software shortage" for this open source platform, schools in other countries have managed to make the switch to Linux with very little sacrifice.

So what is the hold up here in the States? Surely the ongoing teacher strikes and the frustrated budget managers for various school districts – among other challenges – are reason enough to at least explore the possibility of switching platforms?

Recently my own research indicated that schools are interested in hearing more about open source, despite most of these same schools finding themselves at a loss as to where to begin making the transformation.

Despite what you might read elsewhere, I believe it is not a lack of software or solutions that have prevented school-based Linux adoption here in the U.S. It’s that schools find that they lack the level of support that they believe they need – at a price point they can afford.

So even if Red Hat and Novell and others are able to provide them with viable solutions, the perceived cost for needed help for the switch is still too high in the short term, due to switching from the often dated solutions still in circulation today.

Regardless, I have found that there are indeed Linux for school solutions out there that do not require a new IT staff or cost the district a costly new contract to implement them. And in this article, I will highlight what they are and where to find them.

Student grade & curriculum management software

For many U.S. schools, the closed source STI Classroom is "the" solution when it comes to student grade management. And to be fair, I can see the appeal. A teacher can grade a student's work, while also providing those same grade results to the student with a built-in database. Seemingly, it's a great solution for teachers and students alike.

So what do we have within the open source world that is going to be able to provide this level of functionality? Surprisingly, I found half a dozen open source grade management applications that worked well with Linux. Of those located, none of them appear to provide a database sharing option that make the data contained available to students without help from a Windows application.

After further investigation however, I did locate a closed source application that is Linux supported that does just that, and then some. Enter MyClassRoomHelper.

Designed with the teacher in mind, MyClassRoomHelper puts the Web browser in the driver’s seat as the client application in which students can get the latest data on their grades and assignments. Students and parents will also find classroom assignments as well, thus ensuring that students are able to access any changes to homework both in and out of school. It is great for kids who are home sick who want to stay caught up.

Picking up where MyClassRoomHelper leaves off, "ClaSS" provides the teacher with everything they need to manage attendance, grades and student performance. ClaSS also goes a step further by providing teachers with the ability to quickly and easily generate performance reports about their students. This can provide an effective tool when working with kids who require extra assistance in and out of class.

Now clearly, there is much more to running a school/classroom than mere working with grades & the provided curriculum. There is also the matter of managing the classroom itself and the students it contains.

Classroom management software

Another major hurdle for school adoption of Linux in the classroom is competent software that allows the teacher to present, teach and to a degree, control what the students are doing during class. In the closed source software world, this would mean using something like Master Solution Vision (a.k.a. Altiris Vision).

So in order for a school to take this approach, they will need to consider the cost of OEM Windows boxes, along with the per instance license of about $50+ per install of the classroom management software such as that provided by Master Solution.

Yet if we are willing to go out on a limb a bit, there is a viable alternative using older PCs loaded up with a predetermined distribution of Linux. The cost is practically zero. Using existing hardware that can be found via many PC recyclers, through a used PC drive put on by the school, a tech savvy group of high school kids could do the whole thing for extra credit (school rules and state laws allowing).

The key to seeing success above with the open source approach is to use an application called iTALC. I discovered iTALC by accident, when researching different software options for this article.

I say by accident as it did not rank well for the search query I happened to be using at the time. Despite me simply stumbling upon this classroom management application, I was stunned at how well done it was considering the lack of obvious corporate funding. Generally speaking, this feels like it could be the money saving alternative to Master Solution Vision that I bet many schools are looking for.

In other words, pay for some a quick setup and train the teachers using the software – end of continued cost right there.

Ideally, it would be even more compelling if the schools sought out help on how to use this kind of software from their gifted computer savvy students. Trading their time for extra school credit in the applicable class sure sounds like a win-win to me.

Student management software

Everything listed above provides a valuable start for the school interested in making the leap to an open source universe. But it does leave one very important item left unchecked – student management software. Thankfully there is Open Admin for Schools to fall back on.

This server software provides easy access to:

• Student Demographics

• Student Attendance

• Student Discipline

• Online Grade entering for teachers and report card management as well.

While there are a number of other impressive features, these are the most important that struck me personally. Open Admin for Schools provides the school's office staff with the ability to do their job with regard to attendance, discipline and other related matters that often go beyond the initial scope of the typical classroom.

The Windows dependent bubble

And there we have it. A clear set of example applications that can be used with popular Linux distributions in lieu of the Windows platform and the current software licenses being renewed year after year. Best of all, it would not require a massive event just to get these solutions put into play, either.

Yet despite all of the options presented above, there will still be those who insist that Windows must be used, as clearly, Linux software is just not taking hold for the sciences...right?

Actually, there are more applications providing computer learning for the sciences than you could possibly imagine.

So you see, it’s not Linux or the applications that run on it that are holding back schools here in the U.S. It is a lack of understanding from the school districts and in some cases, the states themselves, as they firmly hold onto thinking reflective of that of the 1990's. The rest of the world has already begun to get their classrooms out of the Windows dependent bubble. Perhaps someday soon, we will begin to see more U.S. based schools doing the same?

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