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[school-discuss] FEATURE: GNU/Linux from Kindergarten to High School

URL             :  http://www.linuxjournal.com/article.php?sid=6349

   [47]Issue 106: Linux from Kindergarten to High School
   Posted on Saturday, February 01, 2003 by [48]Michael Surran
   [49]Printer Friendly Page   [50] Send this Article to a Friend 

   [51]Linux in Education Moving the school computer lab to Linux was not
   an easy decision to make--but it was a beneficial one.
   As the bell rings to begin class at Greater Houlton Christian Academy,
   enthusiastic students sit down at their shiny, new computer
   workstations. In one corner, the red cabinet housing the server hums
   quietly as two stuffed penguins look on fondly from their perch. Other
   penguins keep watch from different locations as the students enter
   their user names and passwords to access their accounts. Ask a student
   who ``Tux'' is, and he or she will point to the large penguin painted
   on the front wall of the computer lab and say, ``He's the Linux
   penguin!'' About this time KDE has loaded, and young boys and girls
   are opening the application they need for class as easily as kicking a
      Figure 1. First graders learning some penguin art fundamentals.
   Now for a little history. Greater Houlton Christian Academy (GHCA) is
   a private school and nonprofit organization in Maine. As such, it does
   not have the same access to funding as the public school system. As
   the computer science teacher and system administrator, this means I
   have to be creative about providing our students with computer
   technology while working with a tight budget. In the past I relied on
   area businesses and generous individuals to donate their used
   computers. While these donations were a great blessing to us, they
   were a temporary solution at best.
   Last year it became quite evident that we would need to replace our
   old, secondhand computers running Windows 95. The decision to move
   from donated computers to new computers was based on many factors,
   though our primary goal was to make sure our students had the best
   technology available for the enhancement of their educational
   experience. Therefore, this would be a software upgrade as well as a
   hardware upgrade. In fact, choosing the software was by far the bigger
   Interestingly enough, it was during this time that many schools in the
   western US were being audited by Microsoft concerning the school's use
   of Windows and Office software. I began to realize my ignorance
   concerning exactly how strict and inflexible the Microsoft EULA is. It
   was also during this time that Microsoft's new licensing initiative,
   called Software Assurance, was causing quite a stir in the tech
   headlines. As my research opened my eyes to the various limitations to
   proprietary software, I began to think that the answer for us might be
   found in open-source software.
   The decision to switch to an open-source platform for our new computer
   lab was not an easy one. My experience was with DOS and various
   versions of Windows and not with UNIX-compatible operating systems. I
   had experimented with Linux a few years earlier but found it somewhat
   difficult and incomplete. Because some time had passed, I decided to
   give Linux another try. Going with Mandrake's 8.0 distribution, I
   installed Linux at home to see if it could replace Windows in a
   desktop environment. To my amazement, I found Linux to be much more
   capable this time around. I was one step closer to making my decision
   to switch our computer lab to the Linux OS.
   Other factors went into the final decision to go with open-source
   software, not the least of which was cost. By purchasing bare-bones
   computer ``kits'', we were able to save considerable money on the
   hardware. Part of the savings in purchasing a bare-bones system is
   that the computer does not come with an operating system. We knew by
   then we would have to spend more money on software than we did on
   hardware if we went with Microsoft. Not only would I need to consider
   the initial purchase of the operating system and application software,
   but I would also need to factor in the costs of upgrading our software
   every couple of years. Needless to say, going with an open-source
   platform would save us considerable money now and in the future.
   Another key issue was flexibility. As many of you know, it takes time
   to install an operating system, customize it for the particular
   hardware it runs on and install the desired applications. Having
   purchased 20 new, identical computers, it made sense to completely
   configure one machine and then clone the hard drive to the other 19
   computers. However, Microsoft's EULA prevents a user from doing this,
   even if they have 20 copies of Windows. Not only would Linux save me
   considerable time by allowing me to clone my configured PC, it also
   gave me great flexibility in the degree to which I could customize the
   OS for the hardware. By recompiling the kernel to take advantage of
   our specific hardware, I could fine-tune the OS to run at peak
   performance. Linux would even save us money in the cloning process,
   thanks to the dd command.
   A few aspects, however, made the decision to switch to Linux a
   difficult one. The smaller software base to choose from and the lack
   of mature drivers for our hardware were among the lesser obstacles.
   The major obstacle was my own lack of experience with the Linux OS. In
   fact, most of the money and time spent in the software upgrade of our
   computer lab was for a shelf full of books I had to purchase and read
   to really feel confident using and teaching Linux. It isn't always
   easy to teach an old dog new tricks, but I found the experience one of
   the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my IT career.
   Today our private school of over 170 students has one of the finest
   computer labs in Maine. We have 20 computers with Athlon 1600+ XP
   processors, 128MB of RAM, 20GB hard drives and all the
   accessories--3-D graphics, sound, 17" monitors and 100Mbps Ethernet
   networking. Our computers run Mandrake Linux 8.2 with KDE 3.0.2. What
   is most amazing is we upgraded our computer lab for under half the
   cost of what many neighboring schools paid for inferior equipment.
   Most of this savings was the result of switching to Linux.
   Our servers also run Linux. Using NFS, students can access their
   accounts from any computer in the lab. Student- and staff-owned files
   are backed up on a daily basis, so gone are the days of ``the computer
   lost my homework.'' Our proxy server runs Squid to help speed our
   wireless internet connection to 20 workstations, and we use proxy
   software along with iptables to provide firewall protection. A nice
   program called Dansguardian provides filtering to protect our children
   from pornography and other inappropriate content.
   Many of you may be asking at this point, ``How do you use Linux in
   teaching your students?'' GHCA is a K-12 school, and so we strive to
   offer some level of computer training for each grade. Kindergarten
   students, for example, can use such programs as Potato Guy to practice
   hand-eye coordination and familiarize themselves with how to use a
   mouse to manipulate objects on the computer screen. Elementary and
   secondary teachers integrate the computer lab into their curriculum by
   using the computer for research, multimedia enhancements or even
   something simple as coloring digital pictures.
                Figure 2. Potato Guy develops mouse skills.
   Starting with grade seven, education in computer science takes a more
   formal approach. Seventh graders are taught keyboarding skills using
   programs such as KTouch and TuxTyping. Grade-eight students are taught
   the basics of programming with the kate editor and yabasic
   interpreter. It is during this class that students gain a better
   understanding of how computers process instructions.
             Figure 3. Students learn touch typing with KTouch.
   Computer Fundamentals is a one-credit course that introduces the
   ninth-grade student to ``how a computer works'' and ``how to work a
   computer''. During the second semester, students learn about the
   purpose and use of the operating system and various applications, such
   as word processors, spreadsheets and web browsers. Because our
   computers run Linux, it is the Linux OS and open-source software that
   students learn in this class. Being sensitive to the fact that
   Microsoft currently dominates the PC market in corporate America, I do
   spend time discussing the similarities and differences between Linux
   and Windows.
   Tenth- through twelfth-grade students can chose from a variety of
   computer electives, including how to upgrade and repair computers, web
   site design, advanced programming and even an upcoming course in
   robotics. In making the switch to Linux, I easily found all the tools
   needed to teach these courses using open-source software. In many
   cases, the open-source software we now use is superior to the
   proprietary software originally donated to us.
   This is our first year with our new computer lab, and I am very
   pleased with how it is progressing. One of the most pleasing
   experiences I am having as a system administrator of a Linux-based lab
   is the actual ease of administration. Once I set something up in
   Linux, I rarely need to worry about it again. This was not the case
   with Windows. Last year we were constantly suffering from system
   crashes, frozen servers, strange bugs and the infamous ``blue screen
   of death''. Needless to say, it was a frustrating situation for many
   students. While Linux is not bug-free, it has been a far more stable
   operating system for both our workstations and servers. Linux also has
   shown itself to be a much more versatile operating system to
   administer in a network environment. My job is more pleasurable thanks
   to our switch to Linux.
   As a teacher of computer science, I am finding this year a fascinating
   test for Linux. Very few of our students, parents or teachers knew
   what Linux was before this year. I have actually found this to be a
   great advantage in teaching computers. In the past, I have found
   students to be disinterested in learning about the personal computer
   running Windows, because it is something most of them grew up with at
   home. This lack of interest made it more difficult to teach the
   more-advanced aspects of the operating system. However, Linux is
   something completely new, different and unexplored. Instead of being
   intimidated by the change, as many adults might be, young people are
   excited to explore the ``uncharted territory''. This opens a door for
   me as a teacher, allowing me to educate eager minds in the
   more-advanced aspects of computer operating systems and software. In
   fact, it only took two weeks until students began to ask me, ``Where
   can I get Linux?''
   People sometimes ask me, ``Is teaching our students Linux preparing
   them for the workplace?'' This question is based on the fact that
   Microsoft is the current dominating presence in operating systems and
   office software. It is a question I have thought over a long time, and
   the answer I always come up with is, ``Yes, most definitely.'' The
   basic principles of any type of operating system, office application
   or other similarly grouped software are the same. A student who
   becomes proficient in Linux will not find themselves lost in a Windows
   environment. I have found Linux to be the more advanced of the two
   operating systems, yet our students are very quickly and easily
   learning it. The process of copying a file or formatting a paragraph
   is not so different between one operating system and the other. The
   important thing is we are able to offer the latest in hardware and
   software tools to train our students in these fundamental
   principles--something we could not do if we went with proprietary
   Another question that may be even more important to ask is, ``What is
   the future of Linux?'' When our students graduate a few years from
   now, will they enter a Microsoft-dominated workplace or will the tide
   have changed? Even in our small New England town of Houlton, Maine,
   businesses are beginning to look to Linux as an alternative to
   proprietary operating systems. These businesses will need qualified
   personnel familiar with the Linux operating system and open-source
   applications. Greater Houlton Christian Academy will be graduating
   young men and women who will be able to meet that need, a claim not
   many schools in our nation can currently make. In fact, some of our
   students may go on to write the future applications for Linux, giving
   back to the community that helped them during their school years.
   For us, switching to open-source software running on the Linux
   operating system has been the right choice, allowing us to provide our
   students with modern equipment and software for a fraction of the cost
   of a computer lab running proprietary software. If Linux continues to
   grow in popularity and gain a foothold in the workplace, we will look
   back at our choice as one of the most important decisions we've ever
     Michael Surran is the system administrator and computer science
     teacher at Greater Houlton Christian Academy ([52]www.ghca.com) in
     Northern Maine. Michael enjoys church, outdoor adventures, target
     shooting, sci-fi, collecting penguins and his wife, Lisa, who also
     teaches at GHCA. 

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