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Classroom Technology

Schools Combine Netbooks, Open Source

By Patricia Mohr — October 15, 2010 6 min read
Fifth grade teacher Nicolette Vander Velde works with one of her students on a netbook at East Elementary School in Littleton, Colo.

Thanks to the relatively simultaneous development of smaller and cheaper laptops and advances in open-source computing, schools that could not afford 1-to-1 computing programs a few years ago are finding ways to adopt them today. As they do, teachers are relaying the message to students that their learning environments are becoming more mobile, virtual, and interactive than ever before.

“This year is different than any year in the past,” Chris Scott, a history and technology teacher at Santa Ynez School, a public school serving students in grades 2-8 in Santa Ynez, Calif., says he told his students on the first day of class. The 222-student school, now wireless, gave every student in grades 6-8 a netbook computer to use in language arts, history, science, and math classes.

Students will carry their netbooks from class to class, access materials from the Internet to supplement lessons from their textbooks, and create class blogs, videos, and Web pages.

The marriage of low-cost netbooks and open-source technologies to create 1-to-1 computing programs is a relatively new development. Open-source technologies, which evolve when individuals voluntarily contribute their creativity and knowledge to online networks of innovation, were once thought to be too free-wheeling and untested for schools. But that is now changing as schools look for more creative and cost-effective ways to use technology.

“[Open source has] finally gained enough notoriety that people are starting to take a look at it,” says Randy Orwin, a school technology consultant at Orwin Consulting in Seattle who specializes in introducing new technologies into schools

Though Orwin is a strong advocate for open-source software and systems, he offers a cautionary tale about adopting them too quickly and broadly. When he was a technology director for the Bainbridge Island School District in Washington state, he installed Linux, an open-source operating-system alternative to Microsoft, on the district’s desktops to save licensing costs. The change created disruptions most educators were not ready to handle. “People freak out when they see new interfaces,” Orwin says. “You end up fighting against people’s love for the previous product.”

But now that more schools are computing with netbooks, which cost anywhere from $227 to $570, more open-source tools are reaching classrooms, and educators are becoming increasingly comfortable with them, he says. One of the pioneers of marrying netbooks and open-source tools is Jim Klein, the director of information services and technology for the 11,000-student Saugus Union School District in Santa Clarita Valley, Calif. Through extensive planning and documentation, Klein learned how to execute a successful Linux-based netbook program. When he launched a 1,700-netbook program two years ago, his goal was to have seamless and efficient implementation that would not require additional support staffing.

Now, Klein wants to help others establish similar programs. He designed a system that makes it possible for anyone—tech directors, principals, and teachers—to replicate his 1-to-1 program without having to start from scratch. He developed a template of sorts that makes it possible for schools to set up netbooks for the classroom.

The Web tool he created and offers for free allows people to download a complete package of education-oriented applications and software programs onto a USB flash drive. The package is based on an open-source operating system called Ubuntu—a variation of Linux that is specifically designed for netbooks. While less than four gigabytes in size, Klein’s mix provides more than 50 free educational applications and tools, including OpenOffice Word and Spreadsheet, Firefox and Google Chrome browsers, Gimp and TuxPaint graphics design, Tux Math and Multiplication Puzzle games, Virtual Microscope, KWordQuiz, Audacity audio editor, and RhythmBox Music.

It was that mix that enabled history and technology teacher Scott to implement his school’s netbook program just four months after suggesting the idea to the district’s superintendent.

“It came together in lightning speed,” Scott says, thanks to the discovery of Klein’s customized method. “This has totally retooled the learning environment. We are really pleased with it.”

‘Not Just About Cost’

The advantage of an Ubuntu—or Linux-based netbook is that it combines accessibility with speed—two qualities that encourage impromptu use. Because it is a lighter operating system than Windows or a Mac, students do not have to wait for it to preload automatic features, says Alex Inman, the director of technology at the 413-student Whitfield School, a public school in St. Louis and a partner at Educational Collaborators, a national organization of teachers and technology directors who advise others on innovative learning strategies.

“The boot time for Linux is so fast, students don’t have to think about whether they are going to use their computer,” Inman says. “They just use it like they would a cellphone.”

Linux-based netbooks are also advantageous because they require less support time than other operating systems. “Windows requires a lot of tech support to keep it running,” Klein says. “It’s not terribly reliable.”

For 1-to-1 computing, Linux-based netbooks are attractive because tech directors can install them for a fraction of the cost of providing Windows-based laptops or desktops.

“The netbooks made it very affordable,” Inman says, adding that free open-source tools also cut the costs of paying licensing fees for proprietary products. “We are still spending plenty of money. But if we weren’t using open source, we simply wouldn’t be able to do it.”

Inman cautions, however, not to view open-source materials as being free. “Anytime you are introducing a change, you are introducing a cost,” he says, emphasizing that new tools take time to learn, implement, integrate, and support.

Rather, he says, one of the better reasons to choose open-source approaches is that they allow students, tech directors, and teachers to be part of a development process that is constantly improving.

“It’s not just about cost,” Inman says. “The value of open source is like the value of free speech. It’s about freedom of innovation, not free software.”

Let Learning Goals Lead

Dan Maas, the chief information officer for the 15,500-student Littleton public school system in Colorado, started installing Ubuntu-based netbooks in his schools after the district identified student writing as an area it wanted to improve. While the district’s students had scored above average on state achievement tests, their writing performance was consistently weak. District leaders viewed the use of netbooks as a way to improve writing skills.

“We started with a learning goal. That learning goal was to raise achievement,” Maas says. Littleton now has 4,600 netbooks in its schools, and every 5th to 10th grade student has one. The use of the netbooks quickly changed the learning environment in powerful ways, Maas says.

“The kids taught us a very important lesson,” he says. Online-publishing tools like blogs motivated students to communicate with peers in New Zealand and Sierra Leone. “They are writing, and they don’t want to stop writing,” Maas says. “They have an audience that is authentic.”

Maas credits the district’s teachers and its professional-development program with making the 1-to-1 program work. Each year, before introducing netbooks to teachers, the technology team immerses itself in the school curriculum. Then the team focuses its training on showing teachers how publishing tools and online materials can help them teach their subjects.

Maas says that like any technology, netbooks act as a force multiplier—not the force. “It is really good instruction that takes the netbook out of the box and makes it powerful,” he says.

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