Technology Plans for Schools: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

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:

  1. What do we want to do with computers? The answer is usually, “more of the same”.
  2. Make a list of toys: networking, servers, OS, PCs, software and work up a budget.
  3. 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.

About Robert Pogson

I am a retired teacher in Canada. I taught in the subject areas where I have worked for almost forty years: maths, physics, chemistry and computers. I love hunting, fishing, picking berries and mushrooms, too.
This entry was posted in Linux in Education, technology. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Technology Plans for Schools: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

  1. Phenom wrote, of M$ paying OEMs, “this is impossible from a pure accounting point of view.”

    Well, if the accounting is “cost of sales” it shows as an expense but there’s still a hole in revenue where the OEMs are not paying M$. You don’t expect the OEMs to pay M$ $50 while M$ pays the OEMs $55? That would be silly and the tax man might be interested. M$ paying the OEMs $5 is just a “promotion”.

  2. Phenom says:

    You don’t know how much really MS does per sale. You simply speculate. Since I don’t know that, either, I merely explain your fallacy that paying someone can result in a reduced revenue.

    You are simply wrong that reduced revenue is caused by paying to OEMs, as this is impossible from a pure accounting point of view.

  3. If M$ had charged a few dollars, their revenue would have risen, not fallen. It fell.

  4. Phenom says:

    Pogson, a post to resurrect. Thank you.

  5. Phenom says:

    The only way to do that is to dramatically cut prices across the board for no reason at all or to pay OEMs to install XP.

    But these are two absolutely different things!

    You pay OEMS – this is expense. It does not decrease your revenue; it decreases your profit. Basic accounting, not to be confused with math.

    Cut prices – you reduce your revenue. Pure and simple. It decreases your profit again, but this is definitely not expense. Again, basic accounting, not to be confused with mathematics.

    Be careful now. We’re speaking of an old product, which has long since paid its investment. Vista is on the market now, and XP is not to be offered anymore. Therefore, MS are perfectly free to give it for any price, even for $0, if they want to. No chance to accuse them of dumping practices. Since Vista, was no OS for a netbook back then, due to its higher system requirements, and it was not feasible to install a netbook with Vista, MS actually gained some profit from a market, which was out of their initial reach with Vista.

    This is exactly what they did. They sold XP to OEMs cheaply, for a few bucks. However, still more expensive than Linux, which costs $0.

    In other words, two things happened:
    1. Microsoft earned some unexpected income from an old, amortized product.
    2. Linux failed to compete with XP, again.

  6. Phenom, unit sales of PCs rose, reflecting shipments of netbooks. Revenue for M$ fell, reflecting negative revenue for those netbooks. It’s not English that’s the problem. It’s mathematics.

    Suppose M$ gets an average of $50 per PC. The world sells hundreds of millions of PCs with that other OS, say, 300 million. That’s $15billion in revenue. Along comes the netbook, adding to shipments, say, 30 million. M$ should be making $16.5 billion, an increase of 10%, but they make 1% less. The only way to do that is to dramatically cut prices across the board for no reason at all or to pay OEMs to install XP. As usual the simplest explanation is best. M$ does not cut prices when there is little or no competition (or the OEMs are locked-in). When the OEMs showed some spine, M$ showed a lot of flexibility. The OEMs will do that again in 2012-2013 because they see Android/Linux as a growth industry just like netbooks. M$ has no product to compete on ARM so ARM is flourishing. This time, by the time M$ comes to market, the market will be too large to buy off. HEHEHE!!!

  7. Phenom says:

    Pogson, it is true that English is not my mother tongue, but I fail to perceive from your post how exactly you deduct that MS paid anyone.

    Even if they did pay, it would be the profit that would have decreased, not the revenue. I know you hardly want to believe your notion of bribery, but you fail to bring any proof so far.

    It is true that Linux is a religion – when you believe, you need no proof.

  8. GNU/Linux on netbooks was selling out. There was no business-reason to switch to XP. M$ paid them to switch. M$’s revenue for the quarter was down $1billion compared to what one would have expected when they did it. PC shipments rose 12% while their OEM revenue dropped 1%. Essentially, they were paying OEMs to install XP on netbooks:
    “OEM revenue decreased $46 million or 1% while OEM license units increased 8%. The decline in OEM revenue reflected the four percentage point decrease in the OEM premium mix to 71% as well as changes in the geographic and product mixes. Based on our estimates, total worldwide PC shipments from all sources grew 10% to 12%, driven by demand in both emerging and mature markets.”

    M$ paid OEMs to drive GNU/Linux from the market.

  9. Phenom says:

    They paid OEMs not to ship GNU/Linux. It cost them $1 billion to do that.
    Care to show some proof?

    Mind you, offering a product cheap does not equal to “pay to” someone. Since Linux costs 0, XP was still more expensibe to OEMs.

    Does that ring any bells to you?

  10. In side by side tests I have done in front of teachers and students GNU/Linux always trumped XP. M$ did not beat GNU/Linux on netbooks. They paid OEMs not to ship GNU/Linux. It cost them $1 billion to do that. Netbooks with GNU/Linux were selling out globally. Now that GNU/Linux on netbooks are scarce, the netbook is near death because “7” bogs them down.

  11. Phenom says:

    XP has been around for a decade and still thousands of new malwares are developed for it daily. I have no expectation that after M$ stops security-updates any XP online in two years will not run forever.

    So far XP, even being more than 10-year old, has always been successful to beat the crap out of Linux on any platform, netbooks being the latest striking example.

    Now you wait for MS to end the support for XP, so that Linux finally gains some chance to compete with it.

  12. The best way to extend the life of PCs is to use them as thin clients. Then students get the performance of the server, not the client. Anything made in the last decade should make a good thin client. New machines with quad-core CPUs and gigabytes of RAM and gigabit/s NICs and multiple fast hard drives make wonderful terminal servers with GNU/Linux. All over the world, folks are sharing new idling PCs amongst dozens of users who are quite happy with the improved performance. People’s resistance to change is easily overcome by increased performance. Re-using existing PCs to do that is magical.

  13. XP has been around for a decade and still thousands of new malwares are developed for it daily. I have no expectation that after M$ stops security-updates any XP online in two years will not run forever. Perhaps DeepFreeze will get increased business…

  14. oe says:

    Scarce educational funds are best not wasted on extravagant IT and bling, and most certainly not on proprietary software that doesn’t scale wall nor has well documented internals. Pogson’s approach of using crowd-sourced software, recycled hardware, and donations. It strengthens ties to community in which the schools, provides vo-tech training to students building, deploying boxes and network (better than Gingrich’s janitorial help), leverages talent in-house (insourcing). Anecdotally, I have seen this model work well in two-relatively cash strapped schools…he’s onto something here.

    When use use FOSS from the ground up you have no worries about the BSA coming knocking on your door…that’s extra teacher time NOT diverted to lockdown, control and non-value added auditing.

    Linux is a very good system for teaching kids the internals of how OS’es, software, and the 7-layer OSI network work…FOSS is a natural lab. For the science and math inclined is is packed to gills with capable, potent software (maxima, scilab, Octave….I’ve used some of these for real-world I may further mention BTW there are many publishing papers with numerical studies in them whom only will run computations on FOSS because they felt that reproduciblility and verifiability of results demands not only an open numerical code but an open compiler/interpreter and OS layer beneath it, hence many prefer Octave to Matlab, or Maxima to Mathematica running of a FOSS OS for that precise reason). For the business studies and the non-quantitative studies it got at least 3 major office suites (OO/LO, GOffice, Koffice). I’ve got machines from 2002 era running Lucid Lynx just fine and they are unoptimized at that most machines last years now like VCR’s and other commodity electronics, the ones that fail can be cannibalized and recycled with a slow steady intake of donations. No punctuated equalibriums of mass upgrades of hardware or OS needed with Debian rolling releases….sounds like the right way to due educational IT, just like mission critical IT (Amazon, Google, etc.)I could go on but I’ll leave it here.

  15. oldman says:

    “What good will those old machines be without GNU/Linux? HAHAHA! GNU/Linux is rapidly becoming the only option for many schools.”

    They will be thrown out and replaced or kept running forever if need be.

  16. TickTock wrote a bunch of interesting stuff:
    wrt to CFSL – “come with a full XP license, so the OS costs *nothing*”

    “nothing”? Nope. I was working extra hours almost daily re-imaging the damned things because they had no anti-malware as shipped. I added Sophos to the mix and still they picked up malware. There was constant conflict between upgrades of applications and the anti-malware system. Every new software had to have its checksum approved. This either conditioned users to approving everything or made work for me having to re-image for every upgrade. I switched to Debian GNU/Linux and the workload plunged. I had a SSH script that could upgrade any unit, OS+applications, without leaving my chair and at any time of the day. Now, I could have set up a server we did not have with that other OS and installed WSUS etc. but I could do all that from my PC at no charge. So, XP cost a lot in terms of labour.

    “other used computers, are good for about 1 year service before the school division has to PAY to recycle them, because old hardware like that begins to fail (fans, (proprietary) power supplies, capacitors).”

    That’s utter nonsense. The MTBF of most of the components of a PC these days is hundreds of thousands of hours. In two years of using CFSL machines 8 years old at my last gig, not one failed. We had 40 such machines. Used as a thin client from a good server I set up, they out-performed some new machines we obtained. Students’ response to the new machines? “They’re so slow!” (with extreme facial expression…). CFSL Manitoba refurbishes PCs we received. They looked and felt like new machines. I doubt I could have made them any cleaner. In my previous gig, I used machines up to 10 years old to increase the number of machines running reliably in a lab from 14 to 24 just by grabbing stuff sitting on shelves around the school. With GNU/Linux they worked better than old machines with XP. Some of them had only 64MB of RAM but I used them as thin clients of a 5 year old machine. That old machine was maxed out in the configuration but students and teachers loved the system. Instead of coming to me daily for help getting XP to boot, they just learned and taught. The old machines are ATX as well. Schools can fix them instead of discarding them. Students should be taught how to do that. I did when I worked as a teacher.

    “How do you expect to maintain any sort of control? Who becomes responsible when it’s time for an audit and you find all manner of non-free software installed”

    Get over it twit! Students and teachers want to use IT for learning/teaching not break things. With GNU/Linux I never gave students and teachers root passwords so they could not mess up more than their own files. If they did that, I could re-create their account in seconds and they were back in operation. GNU/Linux is a robust OS, unlike that other OS.

    “SERVERS – because only a complete moron uses cast-off second-hand servers with their limited life and zero warranty support (been there and done that)”

    GNU/Linux needs a lot less support than that other OS, in my experience, because it just keeps working. I have set up complete systems in several schools and they don’t need much support at all. Warranties are useless if one can replace failed parts for less than the cost of freight on a PC. I taught all my students how to strip and re-assemble PCs. In all the years, students have not killed a PC in my classrooms. At one place with carpeted floors and little vacuuming, PCs were quite dirty, so I had the class open every case and like an assembly-line cleaned every one with students assigned different tasks: opening closing, vacuuming, wiping. They also learned how to install Debian GNU/Linux and applications. What need have these students of support?

    Schools are long on manpower and short on cash. GNU/Linux works for them. I have worked in many schools that needed Board-approval for any expenditure over $100 so IT is almost impossibly burdensome with external support. Students and teachers can get the job done in-house. It’s in the curriculum to offer such training. I just did it for everyone instead of the select few. Chuckle. Problems with GNU/Linux are often due to lack of imagination. I have plenty and so did my students. I am retired now and still quite busy.

    Support for XP, the OS most used in schools from M$, is due to be killed in two years. This time for sure… What good will those old machines be without GNU/Linux? HAHAHA! GNU/Linux is rapidly becoming the only option for many schools.

  17. TickTock says:

    Couple points

    Computers For Schools – even their free used systems (still pentium 4 level), come with a full XP license, so the OS costs *nothing*.

    Second – those free pentium 4 machines, and other used computers, are good for about 1 year service before the school division has to PAY to recycle them, because old hardware like that begins to fail (fans, (proprietary) power supplies, capacitors).

    Third – I don’t know what kind of bloody idiot IT department would let teachers and students FIX computers (a sure way to shorten their life span and/or have parts go missing) OR let teachers install software – Are you seriously advocating giving staff admin (or, in your case “root”) access to school systems? How do you expect to maintain any sort of control? Who becomes responsible when it’s time for an audit and you find all manner of non-free software installed (teachers are some of the worst casual pirates I’ve ever seen)?

    What about network security?

    I don’t know, Bob – how many years has it been since you worked in the business?

    I’ve PLAYED the free PC game. All it is is a Bandaid solution for schools who want the tech but have not got the budget. And the back end costs when it comes to man hours to pick-up, set-up, haul-away and recycle this junk makes it a false economy.

    You can buy brand new government subsidized beige boxes from Computers For Schools for $300. We get, say, 4 to 5 years out of them before they begin to fail, because computer parts are engineered to be disposable, now that speed is no longer king.

    Guess what? Those ones come with a free Windows license too, same as the $100 used Core2 systems, same as the FREE desktops and laptops.

    Guess what #2? Outside of a couple of the computer technology courses, not even the geekiest teachers has ever shown any desire to run Linux. We have one tech who lives and breathes it, and he fights with it regularly (I could tell you about the network quirk in one site that blocked any linux computer or network device from accessing the WAN, where the MS stuff worked fine). I have one student who uses Mint on a laptop, and It’s caused him trouble accessing our public wifi (which run an embedded linux I might add).

    As for software. Over the years I have been in the business, demand for desktop software has gone down to the bare essentials due to the internet. I can typically load – Office,, Acrobat Reader, Tux Paint (for the little kiddies), Google Earth, and that’s all that anyone wants.

    Do you know where the bulk of technology money gets spent? On high ticket things – photocopiers, the odd colour printer, upgrades to network infrastructure from layer-1 to the WAN radios (this is a BIG one), SERVERS – because only a complete moron uses cast-off second-hand servers with their limited life and zero warranty support (been there and done that). Things like Projectors are big, Smartboards are VERY popular (and about 7 grand when all is said and done).

    I’ve not had to purchase software now for a number of years but, as you probably know, MERLIN gives schools dirt-cheap licenses for anything we might need – it’s in the corporate interest to get their software into schools, where users become accustomed to it {which is why MS gives us Windows for free via CFSL and why teachers can buy a personal copy of Office 2010 for something like $10}).

    So in summary

    – free PCs are not free, unless your time is worthless and you have a landfill that you can dump them into every year for no cost (this is sarcasm, not advocating such methods)

    – software is nowhere NEAR the cost burden on school division IT that you like to imagine that it is (subscription service gives us office, unlimited CALS, and Server costs something like $130 thru MERLIN, last I checked). This is a drop in the bucket.

    – Infrastructure, back-end and specialist hardware, and broadband internet access comprise the greatest burden on IT budgets. Desktops follow this.

    – Linux has given our Linux guy enough headaches that we won’t trust it for anything other than embedded systems (with vendor support), or the odd FTP or Web server that can sit there and do its thing.

    Peace Out

  18. Hmmm. The migration was completed over a weekend in Extremadura, Spain.

    There are two ways to do migrations: suddenly or gradually. Gradualists like the idea that things don’t break and suddenists like the idea that the project gets completed on time and under budget. I once planned a migration for 30 days. In the end we had only 10 days because stuff (like the building) was not ready on time. The system was alive on Day One but not in its full glory. No insurmountable problems were encountered and the system was much more useful than it ever had been with that other OS. The last migration I did involved re-imaging systems one at a time. A few days’ work was all it took. When I connected the GNU/Linux machines, I showed teachers how to log in and where the menus were. Students already were familiar because they visited the lab. No one needed any hand-holding. GNU/Linux works.

    One thing I am sure of is that any problem encountered in a migration can be solved either through adaptability of GNU/Linux or by making some small change in the plan. Where I last made a migration there were multiple types of PCs and I only needed one image to make it work. I needed several images with that other OS just to maintain the system. So, there were fewer problems migrating to GNU/Linux than migrating to that other OS. Budget? $0. It took me about the same effort as keeping that other OS running.

  19. Roy says:

    Steps 1-3 were used in Toronto Catholic (and other boards I imagine) and what a waste of money it was. A few teachers behind the scenes got promoted to board level positions to manage the ordeal, yet the board had to hire other ‘experts’ to complete the job.

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