Classroom Technology

Software Solution Saves Dollars

By Andrew Trotter — September 30, 2004 8 min read
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A growing number of cost-conscious school districts are finding budget relief in low-cost computer software known as “open source” that can do everything from manage school Web sites to equip classrooms for learning.

Administrators cite open-source-related savings of hundreds of dollars per new computer, plus benefits such as reduced exposure to computer viruses and to copyright violations.

Open source refers to software distributed with a proviso that gives anyone the right to dissect, modify, and redistribute or even resell it, on the condition that the people receiving it have the same right.

The software typically is developed through online collaborations between programmers and users that can reach across the world. The software is usually created for the open-source operating system Linux, but can also be designed to run on Microsoft Windows and Apple Macintosh operating systems.

David N. Trask, the technology coordinator for the 600-student Vassalboro Community School in central Maine, stumbled into the open-source world four years ago after he mistyped student login data on the K-8 school’s main computer. The Windows-based system crashed, wasting nearly two days of labor. And it happened just a few days before the start of the school year.

“I was a dyed-in-the-wool Microsoft user,” Mr. Trask said.

Because of his frustration, he took a tip from an online forum and downloaded a free, Linux-based program called “SME server.”

Technology Terms

“Open Source” is used to describe software that is developed and distributed under a type of license, called a general public license, that allows anyone to make changes to the software and redistribute it without being charged.

Linux is an operating system—a basic set of programs that allows other software to work on a computer—that was developed under a general public license that makes its underlying code available to everyone for free. Linux has won popularity in the open-source community and among commercial software developers because of its robustness and availability. Some large banks, airlines, and online retailers use it to run their operations; it can also be used on personal desktop computers.

“Eighteen minutes later, I had a fully functioning server,” he said.

Then another school technology coordinator e-mailed him a Linux program that transferred the 600 student names from a text file and completed the logins in less than an hour, something he couldn’t do with Windows. “I was blown away by that,” he said.

As he tested other open-source products, he realized they were just what he needed.

“[Software] licensing was killing us,” Mr. Trask said. “For my Windows server, I was paying 5,400 bucks annually to do a school my size, for just the software site license.” After balancing the pros and cons with his principal, Mr. Trask said they concluded that “the pros on the Linux side of the list were very long; on the Windows side, the list was very short.”

As a consequence, the school gradually shifted to open-source software in most of its administrative functions and many instructional ones as well. The school has reduced its Windows license to fewer functions, halving the cost per computer.

Now Mr. Trask is something of an apostle for open-source computing in his state.

So far, Maine has at least 40 school districts using Linux and open-source software, he said. An all-day seminar for educators on open source held in Bethel, Maine, during the past two summers sold out its 50 seats both times.

Experts say a national move to open source is gathering steam.

In Oregon, Scott Robinson, the chief technology officer for the 55,000-student Portland schools, said he got started using Linux after receiving a letter that Microsoft sent to Oregon and Washington school districts in 2002.

The letter, which many educators considered high-handed, demanded that the districts audit all their computers within 60 days to remove illegal copies of Microsoft software.

Yet the Microsoft letter also included a brochure with information about the company’s latest campuswide licenses, which it said could help schools avoid illegal use of software.

“I said, ‘Go ahead and audit us, and I’ll just erase the computers and use them for Linux,’ ” he said.

Paul Nelson, the technology coordinator for the nearby 550-student Riverdale, Ore., schools, said an online forum of school Linux enthusiasts that he moderates has more than 1,000 members from the United States and overseas.

Nationwide, 19 percent of districts use Linux, according to a new survey by Denver-based Quality Education Data, a market research firm owned by Scholastic Inc. But those districts may use other operating systems as well.

The open-source movement in schools, Mr. Nelson said, is “at the-snowball-at-the-top-of-the-hill stage.”

Saving Money

That snowball may get its first big push from the K-12 Linux Terminal Server Project, the focus of the online forum.

The project offers free packages of school-oriented Linux software that works on inexpensive workstations, called dumb terminals or “thin clients.” The method relies on linking the workstations using a network to computer servers, which do the processing chores and store users’ work.

The setup can give classrooms and computer labs the capabilities of costly PCs at a small fraction of the cost.

Mr. Trask in Maine, for example, converts into thin-client workstations the old and donated computers that cannot handle current Windows applications. He has added three workstations to each of his school’s 23 classrooms, which otherwise would have only one computer each.

Oregon’s Portland schools—one of the first large, urban districts to plunge into open-source—bought 800 new computer terminals over the past two years to create Linux labs in its 20 middle schools and five high schools, according to Mr. Robinson.

Each terminal cost $300, hundreds less than a computer equipp ed with a hard drive and proprietary software. That saved the district $500,000 on computer labs over two years “purely on labs alone,” Mr. Robinson emphasized.

Plus, the simplicity of the terminals and the fact that the software is maintained centrally lower the cost of upkeep, he said.

The productivity software—such as office and graphics applications and Web browsers—tends to mimic popular Windows or Macintosh titles, and saves work files in formats that can be opened in any of the systems.

Microsoft Speaks

Microsoft Corp. acknowledges that open source may appeal to schools.

“The initial attraction for a lot of folks is free access to software,” said Anthony Salcito, Microsoft’s general manager for education,

But, he argued, open-source is not a long-term advantage for schools. In the long run, products by Microsoft and its education partners offer better performance “out of the box,” he said.

In addition, the Redmond, Wash.-based company believes its products work together more smoothly and are more secure, more upgradable, and easier to maintain than open-source software.

Mr. Salcito also cited the software discounts and site licenses that Microsoft offers to schools as well as a program that allows donated computers to receive legal Windows operating systems.

And Microsoft office tools are the ones that families are likely to have on their home computers, he pointed out.

Maine’s Mr. Trask, however, simply lets students take home the school’s office applications on a CD-ROM, which is perfectly legal.

He and other open-source advocates dispute Microsoft’s claims of technical superiority and raise the ante by pointing out that legions of virus writers specifically target the company’s Internet Explorer Web browser.

Still, open-source advocates acknowledge drawbacks, such as the fairly bare cupboard of the drill-and-practice software programs that schools commonly use in the lower grades.

For that reason, open-source schools often maintain some Windows and Mac labs.

Experts also say that, in some areas, it is still hard for districts to find or hire technicians with experience in Linux.

Another problem is districts’ existing libraries of software that run only on Windows. That hurdle proved too high for the Clear Creek Independent School District in Texas, which recently investigated the possibility of using a Linux system.

The 33,000-student district decided to stay with Windows, said Nancy Keese, Clear Creek’s technology director. She said the large collection of Windows software programs the district already owns “is what continues to keep us tied to the Microsoft solution.”

‘The Right Pressure’

Open source veterans underscore the value of discussing their technical problems in the online open-source forums, such as the Schoolforge Coalition, which involves more than 80 groups internationally, and the K-12 Linux Terminal Server Project, which is supported by Red Hat Inc., a Linux developer in Raleigh, N.C.

“When I describe to them what my problem is, they refer me to the right piece of open-source software, or if one doesn’t exist they sometimes create it for me,” Mr. Trask said of other participants in such forums.

Such collaboration is an essential substitute for the help-lines that big software companies offer, and users pay for, to support conventional products.

Software companies are also springing up that specialize in open source, adapting products to users’ specific needs while charging only for their services.

Sharon Betts, the technology director of the 2,450-student Kennebunk public schools in Maine, works with npv Inc., a small technology company based in Newton, Mass.

The company first developed Linux-based student-tracking software for the district from scratch. It also adapted an open-source digital portfolio system and an online course management system to fit the needs of Kennebunk and 10 other Maine districts, which split the cost.

Although open-source proponents enjoy shooting barbs at Microsoft, educators in the movement say they don’t expect to abandon the giant company’s dominant Windows operating system altogether.

For example, the Portland schools, in addition to their Linux labs, have Windows and Macintosh labs for brand-name professional software that is available only for those systems.

The Oregon district’s Mr. Robinson advises adding open source to a district’s technology mix to gain leverage in the marketplace, if for no other reason.

“Having a variety of [software] environments,” he said, “provides the right pressure—incentive, if you will—for your vendors to be responsive to you.”

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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