Is Linux doomed to the server room in schools?

This question has been asked many times before in many different settings. It's the mantra of Windows desktop devotees: "Linux is fine in the server room, but...

This question has been asked many times before in many different settings. It's the mantra of Windows desktop devotees: "Linux is fine in the server room, but..." Normally, I wouldn't even ask it myself. I'm quite a believer in Linux and a happy cheerleader for highly functional, free software in education (and anywhere else, for that matter). And yet...

And yet, I've now built three Linux servers for school and one for home since the beginning of this year and they're all working brilliantly. I've installed Ubuntu on a netbook that replaced one I passed along (after reinstalling Windows for the new user) and OpenSUSE Li-F-E on another desktop that I use regularly to test and demo Moodle. The servers handle important functions in our schools, particularly as web servers, print servers, and network storage. The PCs are just for me.

So why does all of this matter? Because nobody sees the advantages of Linux in the server room (they just know that they can print or view our website). But when I suggest that users struggling with software issues, malware, or instabilities on their machines start fresh with Ubuntu, their eyes generally glaze over after 15 seconds of me explaining just what Ubuntu is. I'm a pretty good explainer, too, so I don't think it's just me.

When I talk about the hidden costs of Windows licensing on refurbished or donated computers and suggest that Linux would provide everything that most students and teachers need on these machines, I'm not getting much in the way of enthusiasm.

When I look to extend the life of aging machines that are buckling under the weight of XP Service Pack 3 and provide them to students or seniors running Linux, most people would rather have a painfully slow computer than a relatively snappy machine running Linux. Why? Adrian Kingsley-Hughes probably says it best in his pro-Win XP post:

Stick with what you know Every new OS comes with a learning curve. Sometimes that curve is gentle, sometimes it’s steep. By sticking with what you already know, you’re bypassing the whole learning curve thing altogether!

What if what you know, though, isn't as good as what you don't know? Or doesn't meet your needs as well? The first time I tried octopus sushi I was fairly skeptical; I'd been a relatively pedestrian tuna sort of guy. It turns out that octopus is actually my favorite sushi so far and I still have quite a few varieties to try.

My point is that it's easy to get discouraged in the face of so much resistance to change. I'm not whining here. I know that change is hard; I also know that change for the sake of change is worthless. I even know that Windows 7 is a pretty darned fine operating system. I also know that Ubuntu and other Linux distributions can have an extraordinary amount of value on the desktop, in the same way that they have saved me time and money in the server room.

Just as I start to get discouraged, however, and expect to build Windows licensing fees into every budget I ever prepare, something gives me a little more hope. A district not far from us just rolled out a lab of 30 machines running Ubuntu. The PCs had been internally refurbished by students and the students handled all aspects of the installation and rollout, providing the school with a media center lab it couldn't have afforded otherwise.

Then there's the local police officer who stopped by to talk about cyberbullying but ended up asking me, "So what do you know about Ubuntu? I've been thinking about giving it a try." Well gosh, I just happen to have a CD here!

Then there's the principal from a nearby school district who relayed the story of how one of his techs managed to save all of the data on a dead laptop by booting from an Ubuntu CD and asking how I felt the OS compared to Windows 7.

Then there's the school-based tech who asks, "We really don't need antivirus software on Linux machines? Seriously? Well that's interesting."

These seem like small things, but the fact that people are not only implementing, but at least thinking about something other than Windows (even in the face of Windows 7) means that we still have a chance. There will, for the foreseeable future, be Windows-only applications that are important to what we do as educators and should really be run on Windows machines (rather than under Wine). There's nothing wrong with that and, if those applications meet the needs of students and staff better than open source alternatives, we have an obligation to support them (and the OS on which they run best).

Increasingly, though, as the web becomes the educational platform of choice and educational software can run on the web, in virtualized environments, and across platforms (and as more open source alternatives emerge), there is just as much a place for Linux on the educational desktop as there is for Linux in the back office.

Why should we care more about this in education than elsewhere in the world of IT? Because in education, perhaps more than anywhere else, thousands, or even hundreds, of dollars can make the difference between implementing or aborting a project. If licensing costs or the cost of hardware appropriate for Windows 7 stands in the way of weaving technology into the way we teach and kids learn, then we owe it to those kids to look at free and open source alternatives.