While digging for information about use of GNU/Linux I stumble upon various educational and technology plans for schools. Some are pretty good, while others are horrible. The bad ones go something like this:
- What do we want to do with computers? The answer is usually, “more of the same”.
- Make a list of toys: networking, servers, OS, PCs, software and work up a budget.
- Oops! We can’t afford much…
The really ugly plans get to the last stage after a year or so of implementing the plan and $millions may have been spent but the full quota of toys is not obtained and there just aren’t enough computers available to make a difference. The reasonably good plans start with a realization that money is scarce and a well-defined target of getting the most IT for the least money brings them to GNU/Linux and donated hardware. It often turns out to be a superior solution to all new stuff that is not affordable.
In my experience the right way to plan for IT in education is not to start from first principles of educational theory but simply to plan to get the most IT in the building as possible. Once you have the IT, you can put it to work achieving educational goals. Without the IT in place, you cannot get any benefit from it. Even if a school has plenty of PCs, spending more money on them may bring very little benefit compared to achieving that number. It’s diminishing returns to spend more money on desks when you have empty desks…
The fundamental principle should be that there are some things PCs, networks and servers can do much better, faster and cheaper than any other technology: creating, finding, changing and presenting information. There’s just no better way to do those things. So, make sure there is enough IT to do those things in every classroom, for every student and teacher, all the time. There are lots of things that are best done by human beings and with older technology. It’s hard to beat a chalkboard or pencil and paper for teaching/learning fundamental mathematics. Practice and apply the skills with computers but teach/learn whichever way is best.
The throughput of an IT system in a school goes something like
students X PCsn
Read about Metcalfe’s Law. The particular power of a PC is almost irrelevant when one has a network of them with a good OS like GNU/Linux.
So, obtain tons of free PCs (large businesses and governments often scrap thousands of working PCs at a time, eg, Computers for Schools) and load lots of GNU/Linux on them. I recommend Debian GNU/Linux because it’s very flexible and there’s no nonsense about serving M$’s needs/wants. Maintenance of ATX and desktop-style PCs is pretty easy and students and teachers can learn to maintain them (cleaning, installing software etc.) with no need for an increase in staff due to an increase in the number of PCs. A school still needs a few good servers and modern PCs for some purposes. A good mix is a few servers in a server closet somewhere and one modern PC per classroom. It does not need to be very powerful. Moore’s Law takes care of that. Almost any PC you can buy today will have several times the throughput of older machines. The important thing is to have plenty of disc storage and memory on the newer machines and servers. Spend money where it does the most good. If no local business will sell you PCs with GNU/Linux, you can buy parts and build your own. Because you don’t need a licence for M$’s OS, you can often save money in the process. Something like $100 of the retail purchase price is for the OS that M$ sticks on everything. You can buy case, power supply, motherboard, memory, CPU and CPU cooler for about $250. You can add several hard drives and optical drives if you need those. Many PCs can boot from a server on the network instead of a local hard drive. The users’ applications can also run on the servers or newer PCs if they are not doing full-screen video. See LTSP.
If no one in a school happens to have the necessary expertise, a school can start with a “skunkworks” and just get a few old PCs to practice installing desktop operating systems, services and applications. Within a few months, there will be enough expertise and familiarity to install a complete system including networks, databases and web applications. It is that easy. Usually the computer teacher or someone with some expertise and interest will step forward and make things happen. The bottom line is that a school can have a powerful IT system in place within a few months with a rather modest outlay, similar to what some “school trips” cost… It is possible to fund a good system for the price of a few BINGOs, bake or rummage sales.
It pays to be resourceful. I have found miles of CAT-5 cable abandoned at construction sites. Where I worked a few years ago, I fixed a networking problem for the local hotel and the manager mentioned that the bank had some work done and cables were laying about. I went to the bank and the manager there was only too glad to get rid of the clutter in his office… Buy a crimping tool for RJ-45 and a few hundred connectors in bulk and learn to use them. Where I last worked the ISP was only too glad to give the school some rack-mounted switches. For $0 we went from 10 mbits/s to 100. The copier repair guy was glad to give us a print server and configure the copier to work with it. He expected to have more copies printed and we got to use less paper and save trips to the copier without maintaining as many printers around the school. It was a match made in heaven. If you don’t ask, it is less likely stuff you need will be given you.
Where there’s a will there’s a way and a school using recycled equipment and GNU/Linux can obtain a superior IT system that will enhance the productivity of the school for a fraction of the cost of buying everything new, especially with licensing fees paid to M$. I have worked in schools that paid M$ $40K for licences and had a worse system than they could have had following these few principles.