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[PLUGGED IN] Game Plan

By Brian Nadel | September 2007

Open-Source Solutions

By getting laptops with Linux, the San Diego (CA) Unified School District (SDUSD) saved money and opened up a larger world for its students.

The roughly $200 a year that it costs the schools to purchase, install, and maintain the Microsoft Windows operating system and necessary software on a single classroom computer doesn’t seem like a lot of money in the larger scheme of things. But it adds up quickly when you have 130,000 students. That’s the quandary that SDUSD was in last year when it wanted to bring laptops into its 200 schools but quickly realized that commercial software was out of reach. Its answer: Steer clear of expensive commercial products and use open-source software that is available at a fraction of the cost or, better yet, is free.

“That’s money we’d rather spend on curriculum and teaching,” says Dan Wolfson, program manager of educational technology for the district’s deputy superintendent. Rather than being sold commercially by companies like Adobe, Apple, Corel, or Microsoft, open-source software is primarily written by volunteers. The most popular example of the open-source movement is Linux, the operating system initially developed in 1991 by Finnish software engineer Linus Torvalds as an independent project. Today many Linux versions are available for free or at minimal cost.

The district started with a pilot deployment of Linux laptops that began last spring with nine teachers and 400 Lenovo ThinkPad R60 notebooks. The savings add up because rather than Windows and a slew of other commercial programs, the district decided on Novell’s SUSE Linux operating system, as well as OpenOffice.org, the equivalent of the ubiquitous Microsoft Office suite, and other freebies, including applications for browsing the Web and sending and receiving e-mail and instant messages. The district also uses Moodle, an open-source course management system, and Google Apps, online educational software that the search engine provides for free. In fact, these systems are so tied to online activities that Wolfson refers to the ThinkPad R60 as the “Internet Baby.”

At $683, each Internet Baby system costs 50 percent less than the proprietary systems the district would have ordinarily purchased. The software’s price tag is just $10 per machine, about one twentieth of what commercial software would have cost. The notebooks were deployed on carts that stayed in classrooms and were used throughout the day by a succession of students. Total cost: $238,000, or about $26,500 per class.

San Diego’s Linux rollout was such a success that a second phase is now in the planning stages, and will likely include another 1,000 systems at a slightly lower cost per machine this fall. “After that, we’ll add about 2,000 laptops to the program,” notes Wolfson. This last group alone could save the district about $400,000 compared to using Windows or Macintosh systems, thus making them affordable.

The real payoff is when the district’s teachers and students get their hands on these new systems, says Wolfson. “The laptops extend the four walls of the school to the outside world,” he says, “and take education to a higher level.”

Other Open-Minded Schools
Windsor (CA) Unified School District began shifting from Windows to the Linux-based operating system SUSE Enterprise in January 2007, along with OpenOffice.org , with plans for all 5,200 students and 250 teachers to be using the new system this year.

Noxon Schools in Noxon, Montana, shifted 185 desktops to OpenOffice.org in December 2005. Sixty of these desktops run on Windows systems and the other 125 on Linux systems.

Glenwood School for Boys and Girls
in Glenwood, Illinois, migrated to OpenOffice.org on over 100 desktops in its grades 2–8 school in September 2005.

Brandon Elementary School in Atlanta currently has 250 desktops running OpenOffice.org. The school began shifting over in May 2005.

Pleasant View Christian School in Pleasant View, Tennessee, uses OpenOffice.org on Windows desktops exclusively in all of its classrooms. The school was able to buy additional computers using the savings from forgoing Microsoft Office.

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