Will your students be using Linux in 2007?

Will your students be using Linux in 2007?

Summary: Will you be? More importantly, should you be? The short answer, IMHO, is probably not.


I'm writing this post using Fedora Core 6 on my new laptop.  I've been running some flavor of Linux for a while now and I think I've finally settled on Fedora Core since it's doing such a nice job with both multimedia and office productivity tasks.  Overall, it seems more stable and mature than the various 'buntus and the wide variety of free software is just plain cool.  Whether I'm running Xfce, Gnome, or KDE (KDE is my current favorite), the interface is slick and the whole system is quite usable (and really fast).  Of course, I couldn't let my Core 2 Duo go to waste, so I had to install 64-bit Linux.  Suffice to say, Java and Flash are a pain and some 32-bit applications aren't entirely stable (and yes, I know there are workarounds for Java and Flash, but gosh darnit, if I'm using 64-bit Linux, I want to be using 64-bit Firefox!), but it's working quite well for me overall.  When all else fails, I have an extra partition with Windows installed so I can dual boot.  Eventually I'll figure out Wine and virtualization when I have the time, so I can dump Windows entirely.

So what's this in my tagline about how you probably won't and/or shouldn't be running Linux in your Ed Tech enterprise?  Here's the thing: Everything I wrote above is Greek to most of my users, students and staff alike.  I'm not just trying to stir up a hornet's nest here.  Quite honestly, every line of my first paragraph would be lost on 95% of the users in my district, if not more.  The 5% on whom it would not be lost probably took one of my computing classes.

This certainly isn't the case everywhere.  There are many districts (or at least schools) who have made this work, whether through LTSP or a larger-scale rollout.  These districts deserve our applause and I wish them the best of luck.  However, this blog asks the question, will 2007 be the year that Linux breaks the Windows (and sort of Mac) stronghold on Educational Technology.  All signs that I'm seeing simply point to No. Quite frankly, Linux remains a powerful tool for the server room and a really cool toy for enthusiasts.  Businesses who have successfully made the switch to Linux often have a culture that caters to said enthusiasts and/or have dumped enough effort into training to get users up to speed.  It simply isn't effortless enough to make a dent in the educational market, though, particularly when Vista promises stability and security and the Mac OS just keeps getting spiffier (and easier).  

On a geekiness scale of 1 to 10, where a 1 is my 80-year-old grandmother in North Dakota, and a 10 is Stephen Hawking, I'm about a 6.5.  I'm perfectly happy to stay up until all hours getting my Linux laptop running just so and then blogging about it (OK, maybe I'm a 7).  However, even I didn't bother trying to configure Wine to run IE (I still need IE for some intranet apps and I hit more problems with the 64-bit issues than I wanted to deal with, so I gave up and dual booted).  I'm still not running Flash or Java, because I just got Firefox 2.0 (64-bit) installed and can't be bothered running 2 versions.  Now imagine the average user in a school setting.  Even most IM-sending, MySpace-posting teenagers only hit about a 2 or 3 on the geek scale.  Computers are tools for these folks and should work out of the box, not be a great project to lose sleep over.

As Marc Wagner has said, give me a first-tier vendor that starts selling a turnkey Linux distro, pre-installed and tested on OEM hardware (at a significantly reduced cost since software licensing will be a non-issue), and we might see my prediction blown out of the water.  Until then, I'll be a geek in my basement with Fedora Core, inconspicuously distribute Ubuntu and Fedora CDs to the same folks I invite to Gmail, and watch Vista dominate Ed Tech in 2007.

Topics: Linux, Hardware, Open Source, Processors

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • No

    Almost nothing they need runs on Linux.
    • Well....

      Even I have to take exception to that one. What do most of them need? Office and a web browser, both of which work quite nicely. Where Linux breaks down, IMO, is in the training and widespread usability. Some of the case studies I've seen point to adopting Linux in elementary schools, where students are young, have few preconceptions, IT budgets are non-existent, and the idea of an "enterprise" is irrelevant. Similarly, the small number of teacher users would allow for easier training.

      Again, this is where the idea of a turnkey Linux solution from a major vendor starts making Linux more attractive in this environment. We'll see where it goes, but, you're right, we certainly won't see it in '07.

      • Actually...

        The idea of an "enterprise" isn't irrelevant, except in the smallest of schools. Any school in a city is likely to have tens to hundreds of computers and definately constitutes an enterprise, or at least benefit by enterprise-type solutions. Heck, even the little catholic school my wife works at has a couple of servers, a network, and a couple dozen PCs. We're not talking stand-alone small potatoes anymore.
    • I never knew

      [i]Almost nothing they need runs on Linux.[/i]

      I wasn't aware that Linux still lacked browsers, remote terminals, word processing, spreadsheets, e-mail, etc.

      Or perhaps you mean something else?
      Yagotta B. Kidding
      • Basic apps are basic requirements

        [i]"Or perhaps you mean something else?"[/i]

        Of course I mean something else. In K-12 setting I could easily see Linux being an option, but when you get into higher education the external requirements put on students tend to require Windows.

        If all our students needed was standard productivity apps, I'd be all over Linux....or maybe FreeBSD.
        • Not true

          I've been a student for a long time. Right now I am a PhD student and I have been one for three years. I have never had an assignment or a project that required Windows. On the contrary, a lot of times Linux was required. If you don't run Linux at home, you can use the computers in labs, but it just had to be Linux (or some other flavor of Unix). There are, however, Windows machines in labs, but they are used almost exclusively for trivial tasks, like accessing the internet or printing. I have always wondered why the school continues keeping Windows on these machines, because I know for a fact that they are not used for anything Windows specific.
          • I'm guessing you are in a different state than me

            A few of the websites students must visit to apply for financial aid and I believe some other state-run sites where students must go require internet explorer. We also teach basic Windows and Office classes. Obviously Windows/Office are required there. Most textbooks nowadays come with software..software that of course requires Windows. Our faculty members usually want to make use of this software. There are several other miscellaneous external forces at work here that also require Windows for one reason or another. On the staff side, the interface to our county payroll system uses ActiveX as the interface.

            All of these "little" requirements mean Windows must be in many different places in our school.

            [i]"I have always wondered why the school continues keeping Windows on these machines, because I know for a fact that they are not used for anything Windows specific."[/i]

            You might not realize this, but to your school, Windows probably costs next to nothing. When I say next to nothing, I mean, your school has allready paid for it, so it's not extra cost for them. Schools get massive discounts on Microsoft Windows and Office through their "campus agreement" program. When you sign up for the campus agreement, it gives you the right to install any version of Windows and Office on all of your computers along with the full office suite and in some cases other things. It also gives students, faculty and staff the ability to purchase Windows and Office for an insanely low prices, like $50 - or in some cases get them for FREE. It can also give you unlimited server CALS, which make running WIndows servers dirt cheap.

            If a school decides not to use the campus agreement, they basically are forced to pay full or almost full price for the Microsoft software they do buy. This makes the campus agreement worth it, even if you only need Microsoft products on some of your computers.

            I would guess that at your school there are things they offer or do that require Windows - you just don't need them for your major. Or maybe you are right, and your school just wants to make a variety of platforms available for the students. I don't see what's so bad about that.

            Anyway, just because your school has nothing that requires Windows doesn't mean others don't. When I say "nothing that our students need (above basic requirements) is available for Linux", I'm not BSing because I don't like Linux or am afraid of it. I'm very comfortable with UNIX-types OS's. I have them in the server room, and on my desktop in the office and at home. I just don't see a need for them in the classroom yet. Active directory makes it very easy to manage large numbers of Windows machines with minimal work. Throwing another platform into the mix when there is no valid need for it only creates the potential for more work, as you have to establish a whole separate management infrastructure for them.
  • Viable in School

    I appreciate the writers reluctance to envision Linux and Open Source in schools but he is assuming the people who will be responsible for implementing have the same level of expertise he has. In our school district we have analysts and programmers with the skills to make the system work for staff and students. In fact our district has developed secondary and elementary school systems that use Linux Thin Client technologies, with hardware that require no site-based maintenance. The systems are administered centrally and require only hardware replacement at the site which school staff can easily perform. The software is not only usable but stable, desktops are available from home with the system being pervasive. Is it ready for schools? Not only is it here but ready for prime time. The cost to implmentent a thin client solution using the right people is a fraction of the cost of a "conventional" windows-based system. It not only saves maintenance costs but it saves power as well. Why should we continue to support systems that constantly break and require constant maintenance and support (not to mention the significant licensing costs) when we can do it with Open Source software and thin client "appliances". It is stable, pervasive and does the job we need it to do - assist the education of children and enhance student achievement.

    I believe that school districts are shackled to expensive systems that cannot be sustained. Investing in one or two individuals with the skills to make this happen can easily pay for itself within the first 1-2 years of deployment and I have data to prove this.
    • Questions

      How do your "analysts and programmers" get things like Shockwave, Authorware, and ActiveX to work on your Linux PCs? They don't, do they?

      At the school I work at 99% of the textbooks bought for classes come with software that requires Windows. 99% of other education software also requires Windows. Our school teaches Windows and Office classes. The only possible way to save money by moving to Linux would be to completely ditch Windows. This would mean throwing away a massive investment in software purchased over the past decade.

      Just because a platform costs less money doesn't mean it brings more value.

      [i]"Investing in one or two individuals with the skills to make this happen can easily pay for itself within the first 1-2 years of deployment and I have data to prove this."[/i]

      I'd LOVE to see this data because I would bet it uses retail Windows/Office prices (which schools don't pay) for the comparison.
      • Very good points...

        Good points on the textbooks - I didn't address this at all in my response to your first post. As educators, we have to use every resource available to us, including the texts and associated software for which we pay dearly.

      • The Reality

        The reality is I manage the IT Department in a school district with over 15,000 students. My staff include 2 degreed analysts, 1 programmer and 1 network administrator. I have 7 people dedicated to maintaining aging Windows-based desktops, 2 people maintaining hardware and 1 full time electrician.

        Here are the facts. A recent secondary school with 110 aging windows computers desperately required a new teaching lab of 30 computers. The cost of this lab is as follows: 30 computers (using old monitors) cost $600/each * 30 = $18,000. Software licenses for MS Office run $78/each * 30 = $2340. Total so far $20,340. You can extrapolate the cost to do the entire school using these numbers, this would just update one lab of 30. This school has one site technician dedicated at .6 FTE = $55,000/yr * .6 = $33,000. Cost includes benefits.

        What we did. Purchased 115 small footprint computers using AMD Sempron processors, 512MB RAM and 220W power supplies. $300/ea * 115 = $33,000 (5 for spares). Purchased upgraded switches to bring the backbone to 1Gb = $5000. Purchased 1 Dual Core AMD server with external backup = $4000. Purchased software for gradebook and typing tutor $3000. The remainder of the software was Open Source. Total cost of installation = $45,000 which gave the entire school new computers, latest software and no maintenance.

        What have we got now. System requires no site maintenance. Saved $33,000/year - extrapolate over 5 years. System now requires less than .1 FTE to maintain from a central location. Additional savings - licensing. Additional savings - cost for power. Old tower and desktop PC's are calculated to cost approx. $17.80/year * 110 = $1958. New thin client PC's cost $2,80/year * 110 = $308. Annual power savings = $1650. For a total yearly savings of $34,650 not including lost time, licensing (not added in), not including the differences in cost of hardware, etc. For the above users can login in using any language then like (the entire system is translated automatically including productivity software, browsers, etc.), files are located centrally and secure, and can login getting their desktop from home using FreeNX.

        To the note regarding Shockwave, Authorware and ActiveX. We run all necessary macromedia products which are necessary to do the job. Everything we run is W3C compliant so we do not want to run ActiveX.

        The question that has to be asked is What do teachers and students NEED to do and can this system accomplish this, teach to the curriculum and make technology pervasive, reliable and useful. Have we accomplished this? Don't ask me ask our administrators, teachers and students. Is the system reliable ask the people who use it - 99.9% up time.

        In any case I really don't care what anyone says who really doesn't understand the issues or looks at it carefully. I know for a fact it can save districts money and allow them to put their precious dollars into other areas such as teacher support and development.

        For what its worth that is just a brief analysis of our systems.
        • You have *got* to be kidding me

          If I read you post correctly, you have 115 desktops and [b]fifteen staff members[/b]? That's INSANE. Your school district is being financially raped by the costs of your massively bloated IT department. It is no wonder they couldn't afford new computers!

          Please tell me this school with 115 computers in your example is only a tiny fraction of the district and you actually have upwards of 2000 desktops to manage.

          I manage more than twice as many desktops than that myself (eight student labs) and that only makes up about 10% of my workload!

          This is easily the most pathetic "linux success story" I've ever read.
          • Ignorance

            At the risk of responding to this I will this last time. I have 15 staff members covering 55 schools, 5 admin site. We have all our 35 Elementary schools running thin client (1500+) and over 2000 computers running in our Secondary schools. This was our first full fledged secondary school.

            At the risk of debasing myself any further and lowering to this level... you are what I would call stubbornly stupid and I would indeed question anything you said. I do not want this to degenerate any longer. If you choose to continue to speak about something for which you have no knowledge so be it ... you wouldn't be working in my district. Good luck to you ... you'll need it.
          • What a relief

            Well you may be an a-hole but at I'm glad to hear you are not incompetent.
        • With your solution ...

          ... you are indeed addressing 90% of your student and faculty personal productivity needs but nothing which might be considered discipline-specific. That other 10% can make a huge difference to your schools academic mission.

          What about the wealth of Adobe Creative Suite products. Macromedia Studio. A wealth of Chemistry plug-ins dependent upon IE? What about all those applications which ship with textbooks?

          In your example, you assume that stand-alone Windows boxes would cost $600 w/o monitors but that your systems only cost $300. Gee, I just priced out a "headless" Dell for $359 -- and that's full retail. You also assume that your 1500 "appliances" require less care and feeding. I think you said you had a staff of about 15. I'd argue with that.

          We maintain 3000 stand-alone Windows workstations and another 450 Macintosh workstations with less than 30 people. Oh, and a handful of Linux boxes. Of those, fewer than 10 are responsible for the software on those systems. If a System becomes corrupted, it can be rebuilt remotely in a few minutes. All upgrades are remote and take place nightly. Our solutions are virtually equivalent but mine can run all Windows and Macintosh applications as well as most GNU code.

          You solution is fine. It works for you and meets 90% of your student and faculty needs but it has limitations which cannot be ignored.
          M Wagner
    • The trick is finding those individuals and getting them to accept your $

      and in my area, the schools and districts won't, or can't, pay a decent tech guy anything close to what he can make anywhere else. As a result, it is the teacher/hobbyist who is talking to the tech guys to get a few boxes to play with so he can figure out LTSP in his spare time; because the tech guys are all too busy wiring the new junior high to bother actually doing any tech support work...or any planning for that matter.

      But man, I wish you were in charge of our budget, 'cause your idea is absolutely right. I would love to be able to call a tech and have them tell me not to worry about it, they already are looking at it, and will have it ready to go in a little while. But we are so far behind the curve, it looks straight.
  • Doesn't this one sentance say it all

    [i][b]I'm perfectly happy to stay up until all hours getting my Linux laptop running just so[/b][/i]

    Which is fine (I wish you well!), but you could also slip in an XP or Vista disk and have the whole job done in under an hour.

    And you have to ask why Linux doesn't take off?
    • one hour? geez

      Considering it takes 35 minutes to install XP on a dual core from a CD, then an hour to download and install all the updates, then another hour to install all the apps (office tools, media players able to run Quicktime and RealMedia formats, codecs, DVD player software, CD/DVD burning software) - and this, provided you have all the latest versions on hand (add one hour or two if you have to download them), frankly I don't see how you can have the 'whole job done under an hour' - it takes at least 4 hours to have a complete, updated system (a Linux distro will take 25 minutes to install, comes with most softwares already installed, and can update itself transparently from floor to ceiling while you work)
      Mitch 74
    • No

      [i]Which is fine (I wish you well!), but you could also slip in an XP or Vista disk and have the whole job done in under an hour.[/i]

      That wouldn't get him 64-bit Flash. You missed that part.

      Basically, his labor cost is from insisting on having a 64-bit system with all of the gotchas that buys (Not only been there, still [b]am[/b] there, doing that.)

      If you are content with a vanilla 32-bit system, it's trivially simple to just insert disk, install. No real tweaking required.
      Yagotta B. Kidding
    • Man what a load!

      Under an hour? Right! Also you seem to have missed the part where he is tweaking to his tastes... something that I know a lot of Windows power users will do as well. So essentially he is no different than a Windows dweeb other than he is now a Linux dweeb.
      Linux User 147560