Monday, April 24, 2006

Case Study: An Elementary School Uses Linux Thin Client

By Mary Jo Spencer, Technology Coordinator, Stratham Memorial School

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I know there are not many Elementary folks working with K12LTSP - that is one reason why the word needs to get out.

I think often the general word is that the main reason to use Linux Thin Clients is that it is cheap. This tends to be a total turn-off to teachers who infer that this is the old "Try to make do with junk..." or for the Elementary School folks the "Give the little kids the hand-me-downs from the middle and high schools.

Yes, cost is a factor but the real selling point is that of freedom... Freedom from limited access, Freedom from students losing files, Freedom from recurrent breakdowns/viruses/spyware, Freedom from being limited to the software programs that your school has purchased, Freedom from being bound inside the walls of your classroom and school.

I do have to say that I was not enthused with the K12package from the beginning. It took me quite some time to understand what a marvel this K12LTSP package really is. My brain still has trouble understanding how it can be that you take a server with processors that are just a bit faster than some XP machines we have, put K12LTSP Linux software on the server, and hitch tens of clients to the server and they run essentially as fast at the XP machines. The first time I was shown the K12LTSP package it was based on a single PC as a server and thus was very slow and unwieldy. The second time a real server was used but it was an older model so the thin clients were still slow. It wasn't until I had a real K12LTSP server connected at my school to play around with that I started to see the light...

People also need to understand that it doesn't need to be all Linux or nothing... We still have Windows machines. Grades 3-5 teachers still have at least one Windows machine for their use in their classrooms and access to Windows laptops for their classes. The primary student accounts for grades 3-5 are in K12LTSP but I have just set up Samba so that students can access their Linux home folders from Windows. Since we have Star Office set up on the Windows machines the students can work on their files no matter which machines they are using. Starting with Open Source software on Windows allows a much easier migration to K12ltsp. The grades K-2 classes are still working with Windows but will probably switch to Thin Clients for writing projects next year.

I think the main problem with K12LTSP is getting so many folks out of their comfort zone but the payoff is big time... Embracing K12LTSP also enables classes to tap into the myriad of educational resources on the net. One thing that greatly assisted our thin client program is that this year the SAU required all teachers who give homework to have updated homework pages. Rather than go with Homework Now or other commercial ventures, our teachers were taught how to use Star Office/Open Office to make webpages. It works fine - not all the bells and whistles of the dedicated web software but it built on their basic word processing skills, got them used to this new office suite, and then provided a ready avenue for extending these efforts to classroom websites filled with Internet links and to the use of internet-based curricular units. Sure, not everyone jumped at this opportunity but a few did and have pulled many other folks along... And the students are benefiting greatly.

I do have to admit on my part it has been quite a bit of work especially since I am still teaching classes essentially full time to boot. I think there needs to be more info available as integrated cookbook guides to moving to open source software and K12LTSP especially for elementary schools. The K12 package is not really well set up for elementary schools. Our students are forbidden to use Google but the stock K12 package blazes Google all over the place in Firefox... Yes you can change it but the first impression has been made...

So how do we make this a seller????? I don't know ... We need to help more elementary folks get started and open their minds to the possibilities... Maybe focusing on the opportunities that all this affords rather than getting stuck on platforms etc... Speed, Ease of Use, Roving Desktops, Tapping into Internet resources... Successful student use of technology... Elementary schools serve as the foundations for learning... It is important that students see technology for its use as a fantastic resource for learning not just as another video game platform...

But we're still not quite up to that "gotta have it" stage... NCLB doesn't help either - it tends to have schools looking for quick fixes rather than real innovations...

Cheers, Mary Jo
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