Why haven't cash-strapped American schools embraced open-source operating systems on the desktop?
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Come December, about 500 Indonesian schools will be running openSUSE Edu Li-f-e (Linux for Education).
In the Indonesian deployment, which began in 2010, each school has one local server running about 20 client PCs. Using rsync, the schools' Moodle course management databases are synchronized with a central data center weekly. Each school also has a Web page, through which students access coursework via a Flash-enabled Web browser, such as Firefox.
"With openSUSE Education, we don't have to install additional software -- it's there already -- and we can even use the same DVD for server and client," Edwin Zakaria said. Zakaria is an IT administrator for the Educational Quality Enhancement Program, which is endorsed by the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology of Indonesia and the Office of Education in Yogyakarta Province, Indonesia.
Like other Linux distributions aimed at the education market, Edu Li-f-e includes a selection of open-source software for students, educators, IT administrators and parents. The DVD image can be installed on a hard drive or run "live" from a DVD or memory card.
Although emerging markets such as Indonesia and China have embraced open source in their classrooms, adoption has been much spottier in the US.
Observers and practitioners cite three broad reasons:
1. Lack Of Market Share.
Commercial OSs, notably Microsoft Windows and Apple's Mac OS, enjoy a decades-old hold in the mulitbillion-dollar education market. Both Microsoft and Apple have built substantial, dedicated sales and marketing operations, and both offer a variety of educational discounts for schools and students alike.
Tied to the marketing reach of Microsoft and Apple is the simple fact that most teachers are unfamiliar with the Linux desktop. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Linux offers so many options for desktop environments (known in Linux parlance as "DEs"). Linux can run on a high-powered desktop using a graphics-intensive DE like KDE or a low-power system using a DE like Xfce or LDME. However, this profusion of desktop choices can be very confusing to new users. Edu Li-f-e, for example, ships with the KDE, Gnome, Cinnamon and Sugar desktops.
Offering multiple desktops is a mixed blessing, said Zakaria. "In our experience, it is not easy to train the teacher about how to use desktop," he said in an email. "Selecting one default desktop can make our life easier."
3. Technical Gaps.
The last and most powerful objection to using Linux on school desktops is that these OSs still lack services required by school administrators or technical staffs. Even advocates of desktop Linux in schools consider it a problem.
"Linux is easy to put on a desktop," David Burke told InformationWeek Education in a phone interview. "But getting it on a domain with an Active Directory Server or your own central authentication takes a lot of work." The backend configuration tools for Linux systems aren't as intuitive as those for Windows, he added.
Burke serves as a part-time director of IT at Cristo Rey Brooklyn, a private school for low-income high-school students. A couple of years ago, he set up 25-seat computer lab, complete with donated Pentium 4-era PCs and a high-speed Internet connection, all for around $2,000. "I don't think you could do that" except by using open source, he said, adding, "Schools with more money don't care, because they can afford expensive licensing fees and faster PCs running Windows 8."
The lab uses Edubuntu 12.04, which is based on Ubuntu 12.04. Last April, U.K. firm Canonical Ltd., which administers both Edubuntu and Ubuntu, unveiled Edubuntu 12.04, its first Long Term Support (LTS) release. The LTS will be supported for five years.
Nevertheless, the Cristo Rey deployment wasn't without issues, even for Burke, an experienced IT consultant whose company, burkesoftware.com, specializes in using open source in schools. For one thing, the school's staff and teachers teachers balked at using LibreOffice, the open source office suite that comes with many Linux distributions.
"So we bought Microsoft Office and run it with CrossOver," Burke said. CrossOver is a commercial version of Wine, a compatibility layer application for running Windows applications under Linux.
A bigger problem, Burke said, was setting up server authentication and shared folder synchronization in Linux. "It isn't trivial to get that working well," Burke said. "So I suspect a lot of these poor schools can't go out and hire a highly-paid system admin."