IT Trends | Feature

How To Get Started with Open Source in K-12

Open source has proved attractive for K-12 school districts for any number of reasons, from upfront cost savings to freedom from cumbersome restrictions to the quality of the software itself. But how does a school or district get started with it? Three K-12 IT directors shared their experiences with THE Journal--the good and the bad, as well as the lessons they've learned in the process.

For K-12 IT directors, the major appeal of open source software (OSS) generally focuses on savings in licensing fees and access to software that would not otherwise be affordable. Many also are finding that OSS simply is the best solution for their school districts--even compared to commercial versions.

IT directors with OSS experience largely have been opportunistic about how they got started. In a series of interviews conducted for THE Journal, three IT directors shared their experiences--the hows and the whys--launching OSS in their districts.

They have very different stories, but have all learned that the transition to an open source "shop" takes time.

Tim Goree, director of technology services for Norris School District, Bakersfield, CA, estimated that it takes at least three years for a school district to become a "self-supporting open source IT department," even with help from an outside firm.

"The thing holding people back from doing open source: They have staff whose expertise is with other software, and that's what they've been with for 10 years," Goree said. "Going with open source, most of the people in my realm don't know that much about it, other than what they've heard."

Miguel Guhlin, director of Instructional Technology & Learning Services (ITLS) in San Antonio Independent School District in Texas, said that the system has not changed--even as views toward proprietary software are shifting.

"We're still, as a movement, facing the habits of yesterday, which involved vendors wooing school officials," Guhlin said. "You have to get the latest and greatest, when the fact is the latest and greatest is very expensive."

Kevin McGuire, director of technology for Michigan City Area Schools in Indiana, said the district has far more support and solutions available to them now with OSS. "There is a learning curve, and we do have some users that are still negative, but all in all we are finding our users are capable of doing more," he said.

How IT Directors Start with OSS: 3 Examples

1. Tim Goree, Norris School District, Bakersfield, CA

When Goree started his job three and a half years ago, he entered a district that was all Macintosh, from servers to desktop computers--an environment that was entirely new for him.

"Coming here was an adjustment, but it allowed me to start thinking in some different terms," Goree said. "Some of the things I was used to in Microsoft shops that I had come to think you had to have, we didn't have. I started to see that there were things you didn't have to have, and we still managed to do our jobs without them."

OSS Implementation
His first OSS project was the e-mail system, Zimbra, which the district has been using successfully for two years.

Goree said that the Macintosh server side was not as full-featured as he was used to in Microsoft environments. There were things that were missing that he thought was needed, but he did not want to create a Microsoft back office type of infrastructure for an all-Macintosh district.

Finding and implementing a solution was the district's first project with Quebec-based Revolution Linux, a company that focuses on large-scale OSS projects for education.

In 2009, Revolution Linux helped to design, plan, and implement the district's OSS backoffice infrastructure (in the Apple environment). The district uses VMware to virtualize and run Linux, and it only runs Windows for products that require Windows.

Rather than Apple servers, the district now purchases Dell servers and puts Ubuntu on them.

"Even though most of our client computers are Macintoshes, almost all of our backend hardware isn't Apple anymore," he said. "Apple hardware is really expensive, and their servers are really expensive."

Other projects with Revolution Linux have included a disk backup system (BackupPC), central management of servers, and upgrades for e-mail (Zimbra). The district was running Zimbra on Macintosh, and Revolution Linux helped move it to a Linux server.

Open Source Schools
In 2007, when a new school was under construction, surveys of teachers showed that classroom computers were primarily being used for Web/Internet applications, light word processing, and presentations.

Goree proposed putting $300 Linux-based computers in the new classrooms rather than Macs. With the savings, the district could purchase two 30-computer labs for the library. Most elementary schools have 15 to 20 computers in the lab, he said, which is not enough for many classes. The teachers agreed.

The district purchased 105 student computers from linkLINE, which came with the company's custom version of Linux. The original plan was to use linkLINE's custom Web portal, which did not work out. Instead, in March this year, the district upgraded all of those machines with Ubuntu. At this point, the district has all the tools and software needed to administer the Linux machines, and everything is running smoothly, he said.

Goree said that teachers and students have taken to the Linux machines, and he has since spread the idea to other sites. "The thing you have to manage more than anything is expectations," he said. "They have to know in advance what they're getting, what it's good for, what it's not."

For example, the machines are very small and compact and do not have CD or DVD drives, which the teachers needed to know in advance. IT staff worked with teachers to find Web-based equivalents of their CD software.

As other schools have needed computer upgrades, Goree has continued this process. At one school, the district has added 16 computers in the library (now running Ubuntu) and 40 netbooks for classrooms. With funds saved on higher-end systems, the school put in a wireless network.

"As bad as budgets have been--and everyone has gotten use to the mantra 'we don't have any money'--you can go around our campus and be delighted and surprised at the things we have," he said.

What's Next?
The district's next project with Revolution Linux will be implementation of OpenLDAP, an OSS directory service, which will allow teachers and staff to log in only once for the multiple Web-based services that the district now uses.

Goree said his district is still a Mac district; Linux machines are just viewed as a different tier in the quality of their computers. In short, Macs are high-end systems that have polish and finish, he said. New computers for teachers will still be Macintoshes, and some labs will continue to be Macintosh. If the need is video or photo editing, or making presentations, the district will still buy Macs.

However, if the main need is for Internet research and writing papers or basic word processing and office applications, then, Goree said, he goes with Linux. With the lower processing power, there are limitations to the OSS software that will run successfully on the machines. "If the needs are lower end, if we don't need a lot of processing power, then a Mac is overkill," he said.

With a Linux backend and OpenLDAP, the district can exert the necessary control over Linux desktops. "It's made to do that," he said. "Macs are basically Linux under the hood."

Lessons Learned
The District now uses OpenOffice.org, though it has been a slow transition from Microsoft Office, Goree said. Staff members were concerned primarily about file compatibility. "That was one of the first things I tried to do, because it would have saved us a lot of money--and I got a lot of backlash," he said. "They were afraid to move away from MS Office, so I backed off on that initiative."

How OpenOffice ended up getting traction in the district was through the Linux machines. "We're starting to get all the Linux machines in the classroom for students, and they don't make Microsoft Office for Linux," he said.

"[Teachers] are getting used to it and finding that it's okay," he said. "They're seeing where the 'gotchas' are but working around it. They are getting used to the things that commonly happen.... A lot were afraid of things that wouldn't happen."

Now, knowing that, if he were to go to a different district and plan an OSS initiative, he said he would do it through the "backdoor," placing Linux machines where appropriate and giving staff exposure before fully transitioning.

After a few more projects with Revolution Linux, he said, Goree expects that his will be an "open source shop" that can implement OSS projects without external assistance. The Norris School District has five schools (all K-8) and 3,500 students.

2. Miguel Guhlin, San Antonio ISD, San Antonio, TX

For Guhlin, at San Antonio ISD, the time to adopt OSS came when the district's proprietary database was changing to a new version. He was not familiar with the technology and was going to have to learn something new anyway.

OSS Implementation
Filemaker Pro Server's shift from CDML (codes placed in HTML Web pages that interact with the database) to XML resulted in Guhlin implementing MySQL. The main advantage, he said, was the variety of solutions that worked with MySQL--solutions that were themselves free.

"While I knew CDML fairly well having worked on it for a few years, I hadn't a clue about XML," Guhlin said. "This made switching to PHP/MySQL easier because I could use [Adobe] Dreamweaver to do the 'coding' for me."

Guhlin's district also set up a Red Hat Linux server after finding that the district's Windows server could not handle the latest version of Joomla and kept crashing. The new server was set up with Apache, MySQL, PHP, and Joomla.

Another OSS experiment was the selection of a CMS. Teachers were expected to maintain Web sites, but Guhlin realized that most would not achieve even a low proficiency at designing their sites. They needed a CMS that used a simple word processor.

The first CMS the district tried was Plone for two department Web sites--Advanced Academic Services and Reading/English/Language Arts. Staff members in Advanced Academic Services, in particular, found it easy to update their sites without using Dreamweaver. "They were impressed they could go in and make the changes themselves," he said.

IT staff used Plone for a few months, while researching solutions that would be even easier for end users. Early on they selected Mambo, the precursor to Joomla, which had been in place for a year and a half. When the Mambo development team split off to form Joomla, Guhlin decided to follow the Joomla team.

"The old approach was a Webmaster at the center who had control," he said. "We had campuses with years of information that was completely out of date." The new approach can be seen in a series of video testimonials from principals who now maintain their own sites.

For a learning management system (LMS), Guhlin selected Moodle, which the district runs on a Mac server, though he said the optimal solution would be to run Moodle is on a GNU/Linux server. He wrote an article about setting up Moodle servers on his blog.

He selected Moodle because it is easy to support and has a large support community, he said, as well as opportunities for professional development. Still, to develop the level of complexity that was needed for a large organization, the district hired a vendor for support, Alchemy.

Another OSS project was to find a solution for surveys. Collecting data was not difficult, but designing the surveys and then analyzing the data was challenging. Now they use the OSS UCCASS (Unit Command Climate Assessment and Survey System), as well as Moodle's Questionnaire module to collect information.

For a frequently asked questions (FAQ) database, he found a variety of systems that are based on PHP and MySQL. The best resource for finding software during the process, he said, was Sourceforge.net, which features solutions for PHP/MySQL. He also put a list of recommendations on his blog. Ultimately, the district decided to use Moodle.

Other experiments were not as successful. B2evolution and WordPress did not take off, partly owing to account management with 3,000 teachers and 54,000 students. "We let these initiatives die because of support issues. If they had become popular, it would be overwhelming for a small staff," he said.

"We've jumped into several different solutions," he said. This is possible with OSS--to experiment and find the right solutions, since there are often fewer funding approvals needed and no licensing fees.

The only thing lacking from the OSS has been support and the ability to hold a business accountable, he said. Still, this was only an issue when a change in staff left his department short-handed. To do a district-wide upgrade, he paid a local company to upgrade all the sites over a five-month period.

Cost Savings
"We're saving the district tons of money," Guhlin said. However, while there is cost savings between Blackboard and Moodle, for example--and elimination of the annual recurring licensing fee is a major savings--that is not the whole picture.

"I couldn't give you an estimate on total savings of all free open source software solutions because we just wouldn't have implemented the solutions unless they had been free," he said. "We simply wouldn't have done anything."

The San Antonio ISD has about 92 schools, including 52 elementary, and approximately 54,000 students.

3. Kevin McGuire, Michigan City Area Schools

About five years ago, Michigan City Area Schools in Indiana made the decision, with state funds, to begin a 1:1 desktop initiative. McGuire, the district's director of technology, realized that it was necessary to get the cost per machine below $300 to sustain the program, which was only possible through OSS.

OSS Implementation
To start, the district evaluated applications to find where it could cut dollars and implemented those changes. IT staff converted the district to OpenOffice from Star Office and Microsoft Office. They switched to Gimp as a photo editor instead of Photoshop, Scribus instead of Publisher, and Firefox instead of Explorer; and they use VUE for graphical idea organization.

After a couple years working with desktop solutions, it was time to eliminate costs on the server side. "We had been a Novell shop for nearly 20 years, but our SLA (service level agreement) was a cost we didn't feel we needed to pay any longer," McGuire said.

The district hired Revolution Linux to help convert its entire infrastructure to open source. The district now uses OpenLDAP for authentication, Samba for file storage and sharing, CUPS for printing, and Drupal and Moodle for content management and learning management, respectively. All the solutions run on an open platform (Ubuntu server) and are housed in two data centers.

The district now has 2,000 machines running Ubuntu. Primarily, they are in locations where the system used is a word processor or Internet station, but that is changing. Two elementary schools are 90 percent open source, and others are expected to follow. Teachers, administrators, and students are using OSS on their desktops, tablet PCs, and laptops.

Their 1:1 initiative uses HP 2400 mini towers. The OSS solution ITalc is used to monitor what the students are doing from the teacher station. Desktops were chosen because of cost, though that is changing, and the next rollout will be a netbook initiative. "Netbooks give us the opportunity to take advantage of low cost and mobility that we didn't have as an option five years ago," McGuire said.

McGuire also has converted desktop software over to browser-based tools, whenever possible, allowing the district to move around on any platform. Another large deployment was the virtualization of servers with OpenVZ.

To prepare for the OSS shift, IT staff placed open source on school Windows machines. "This also helps our open source users work on a Windows platform on projects they may have started in the open source realm," McGuire said.

Little training on the OSS is offered to teachers, though he said they would like to do more. Instead, professional development (PD) is focused on integrating technology in lessons, rather than how to use the technology.

"Teachers are expected to learn the technology as they go, or ask specific questions as needed," he said. "This has slowed the process a bit, but the teachers that were going to use technology before are figuring out the open source stuff, and those that are slow adopters would have been slow regardless."

A hitch in the OSS transition, he said, was that some software --Scholastic Read 180 and Scientific Learning Fast ForWord--will only work in Windows. McGuire said IT is working with both companies to beta test browser-based alternatives.

His tip?

"Find a location where students only need a Web browser or a word processor, and place a Linux box in that location," he said. "Our study shows students don't care, or in many cases even know, what they're using, as long as the resource they need is accessible."

What's Next?
McGuire and his staff are increasingly supporting projects independently and utilizing Revolution Linux on only a limited basis. For example, they are now moving forward with a Linux Terminal Service project (LTSP), and Revolution Linux will be contracted for 25 percent of the project.

"Primarily, [we call them with] pieces [for which] they have extensive knowledge and resources and will save us large amounts of time," he said. "Our last support bill to revolution Linux was for $250. This was two support calls for the month of May."

Cost Savings
McGuire said that use of OSS is saving the district about $100,000 a year on licensing costs and providing $100,000 in hardware savings.

THE Journal previously covered the district's classroom "makeovers," which were made possible with OSS savings. The district has 14 schools, four support buildings, and 7,000 students PK-12.

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