Saturday, October 01, 2005

Why Is Thin-client Linux Such a Good Fit for Schools?

Linux thin client addresses two aspects of computer use in schools that have been particularly problematic.

The first is financial. Schools are expected to provide computing resources for students, but many find that it is an enormous financial burden to do so. Detailed studies indicate that most schools spend on average $2400 per computer per year, factoring in the purchase price, upkeep and maintenance costs, software licenses and upgrade fees, virus- and spyware-protection measures, and staff time. If the principal has to take the role of computer technician, as is sometimes the case, his or her valuable time that is needed for other projects is often spent diagnosing and repairing computers. Many schools will spend a substantial amount to modernize their computer technology, only to find that three or four years later they have to spend an equivalent amount again. Thin-client Linux may not meet all of a school's computing requirements, but it can take care of a very large percentage of general computer use by students (web research, word processing, spreadsheet use, and presentation-building), thereby freeing up funds for other school programs or salaries. Just as a family might need a more costly car for vacations and car-pools, but drives a more modest sedan or pickup truck to run local errands, there is no reason to use the most expensive computers for regular tasks.

The second aspect is academic. More than ever, colleges and businesses are indicating that fewer and fewer students are coming out of school with adequate computer technical skills—at the very time that computers have become more widely available in schools. This is because the focus on Windows® and commercial (or “proprietary”) software that has dominated school teaching environments does not easily allow for the teaching of computer and programming skills. Not only is there an expense to the commercial software, but most of the code of that software is protected, or hidden, thereby eliminating some of the most significant aspects of learning that might take place. The students are then trained in what appear to be complex programs, but are actually learning skills that the business world would classify as “clerical.” There is another unfortunate consequence to this model. Not all students who learn to use a $500 program on a $1000 computer are likely to be able to afford those on their own after they graduate, putting them in the position of not being able to continue to practice their skills, or potentially pressuring them to use “pirated” versions of the software. Open Source programming software, which is 1) free, 2) as highly regarded as any commercial software, and 3) able to run on older computer hardware, becomes the logical choice for the teaching environment, but does not have the marketing dollars behind it which drive the adoption of commercial software by schools. The exodus of programming jobs from the United State to India and other lower-income countries would appear to be a direct result of their ability to learn those programs which are most needed, not those which have been most vigorously marketed. Linux and thin-client Linux have typically been considered only by schools that have hit a financial impasse and have been forced to search for an alternative; only then do they discover that it is often not just better for the school because of price, but also because of the end-result of its use.
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