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Alternative Computing in Education
by Michael C. Barnes

Calling for computing options in education, Michael C. Barnes examines the integration of proprietary applications in homework assignments. Barnes challenged educators at his daughter's school to defend a social studies project that required the use of Microsoft's PowerPoint presentation software, and won. Barnes raises the issue of software costs in educational computing and offers some great examples and approaches for implementations that make the grade . . .



Alternative Computing in Education
by Michael C. Barnes


Two years ago, my daughter, a high school freshman, was working on her social studies project and she told me I had to go out and buy Microsoft Office. At that time, I worked for Sun Microsystems so I used StarOffice and insisted that my whole family use it. I asked to see her homework assignment.

The assignment looked as if it was a study guide written for the school by Microsoft. The requirement was for the students to do a presentation and on each page, they would use a function that was built into Power Point.

The first issue I had was that I did not believe that this exercise helped my daughter learn social studies. The second issue was that I don't believe the school has any right telling the students what software they had to use to prepare their homework assignments. I wrote a letter to the school and met with the administrators. The administrators assured me that it was not the school's policy to dictate what software a student used.

I won the fight, but I wonder how many parents have had to go out and purchase Microsoft Office in order to complete some homework assignment.

The other day, I watched my daughter work hard on an assignment. The document looked like it had some very advanced formatting features. I asked her what word processor she was using. She said she was using OpenOffice. I was surprised because I had only provided her with StarOffice 5.2. I was quite proud that she had downloaded OpenOffice and had adopted it as her standard word processor.

Many years ago, I bought Microsoft Works. It was the MS DOS version. I thought that MS Works was one of the best software packages I had ever used. It had just enough of the features I needed to write sophisticated letters, do spreadsheets, and create databases. Back in the days of laptops with no hard drives, I used MS Works to do everything. I would write proposals and costing, all on this one, very nicely integrated program.

I had not heard about MS Works in a long time and wanted to know if it was still available. I was surprised to see that not only is it available, but the price is very reasonable--$46. MS Works will run on a Pentium 120 Mhz or faster processor. It will work with Windows 95, 98, NT 4.0, 2000, Me, or XP. It only requires 32 MB RAM and 90-180 MB hard disk space.

The list price for Microsoft Office is $450. A student version is available for much less. StarOffice is available for $79.95. While $79.95 is far less than $450, if $79.95 buys more functionality than you need and MS Works will do everything for less, then MS Works is the cost-effective choice.

Free software might not be appropriate. I have an old laptop. It has 133 Mhz processing power and 32 MB RAM. The laptop is too old to upgrade. It has a nice screen and it is in good condition. I tried loading various Linux configurations on the laptop, but I decided that the best OS for this laptop was Windows 98 and since I owned the software, replacing it with Linux would not save me any money.

Windows 98 runs very well with 32 MB. I downloaded OpenOffice and planned to use Windows 98 with OpenOffice. OpenOffice is a modern program with all the power of a large office suite. 32 MB was just not enough RAM to run OpenOffice. I decided that in order to make this laptop useful, I would buy MS Works and use it with Windows 98.

A very good software suite is available from 602 Software, Inc. The suite consists of a word processor and spreadsheet, a graphics program and a graphic album program. The filters are very compatible. I downloaded PC Suite here. Individuals can download the software and use it for free. Organizations can purchase a site license for $399.95. Discounts are available for schools.

PC Suite is more compatible with existing Microsoft Word files than AbiWord. Microsoft Office users will find the user interface for PC Suite more familiar than OpenOffice's. OpenOffice is more powerful and runs on more systems.

Consider that for $399.95 (perhaps less), a school can purchase unlimited rights to provide every student and teacher with the software they need to do their work. Should the assignment call for features not provided in PC Suite, such as presentations, OpenOffice is available for free.

I believe it is this sort of reasoning that must go on in schools. Schools will need to consider what software works best with the computers they now have.

Just as I don't see why a student would need an expensive office package, I also don't understand why students need to use expensive exchange servers to pick up their mail. Every copy of Microsoft Windows comes with a program called Outlook. Outlook is an integrated package that provides for mail, calendering and collaboration. Without Exchange servers, Outlook allows the individual to keep a personal calender, receive and send e-mail and keep a personal address book. With exchange servers you get the added features of shared calendars, meeting management, public folders, global address books, and busy/free time.

Perhaps, for administration functions, the added features provided by Exchange servers are required. It is unlikely that this function is required by students. It is far more economical to provide e-mail using Open Source solutions such as Send Mail, Qmail, or Postfix.

The first place for a school to start integrating Linux and Open Source into the school is where the solutions are transparent to the end-user. It is possible to swap out a mail server without anyone ever noticing the difference. Look for solutions that solve problems with little or no impact on the organization.

Fortunately there are many schools that have implemented Linux into their school systems. There are many websites that have lots of information. Check out www.openssourceschools.org, http://www.seul.org/edu/, and www.k12linux.org.

A list of case studies of other schools that are using Linux in their systems can be found here.

The areas where schools are most successful: using older computers to handle email accounts, news servers, web servers, file servers, print services, firewalls, virtual private networks, and content scanners. Older systems can also be used as thin clients or Xterminals that will increase the number of seats available for students to access the Internet.

Everyone agrees that the modern school requires computers. When I was in high school, we used 16 mm movies in classrooms. These 16 mm projectors were replaced with televisions and VCRs, laser disks, or DVDs. While the television can be an important educational tool, it can also be a time waster.

While the Internet can be a powerful teaching tool, the Internet can also be a cesspool of misinformation and inappropriate content. Allowing students to simply passively browse the Internet is no more educational than allowing a student unsupervised access of a TV and any video they stumble across.

Teaching students broad concepts is much better than teaching them the specific mechanics of a particular software package. Students should understand the concepts of using the Internet to research information, understand how to use a word processor, a spread sheet, and database. It is more desirable than simply teaching the specifics of a software package.

Young people have always had little trouble adapting to new technology. My daughter started using a computer when she was three years old. She has had a computer in her room since she was four. She has not suffered academically because she is using OpenOffice. The skills she has learned using a computer is transferable from one operating system to another.

The other day, my daughter told me she preferred the Apples in her yearbook class to the other computers she has used. I had hoped she would prefer Unix, but she is still young. Perhaps in time. The point is, the concepts she has learned are transferable.

Not every school system has the same situation, the same students, the same computer literacy or the same level of funding. It is impossible to assume that cost savings is important to every school system.

As of this year, 2002, 98% of all schools in the United States has Internet access. Given the cost of computer hardware, it is now very easy to purchase equipment for less than US$400 that will allow students to access the Internet. It can cost half as much for the software to allow the computer to boot and run a browser.

GNU/Linux allows students and teachers free rights to copy and distribute the operating systems. Distributions can be purchased for a nominal fee and handed out without restriction.

GNU/Linux can breath new life into older computers. Even older x486 based systems can be used as thin clients or used as servers. The major restriction is that all of the computers have to be using the same graphics driver.

A very successful project in the United States is, mentioned earlier, is www.k12linux.org. Their website has documentation and links to download a version of Red Hat 7.3 (K12LTSP) that supports terminal servers for diskless clients. Oregon School districts report that with 100 K-12 labs, they have saved US$1.5 million.

According to PRWeb, a typical installation of Windows OS based on a computer lab of 20 workstations may cost more than US$20,000, while the same lab running K12LTSP will cost $6000 using new computer hardware and $2,000 using existing hardware.

The latest version of K12LTSP includes Rdesktop. Rdesktop allows Windows sessions from a Windows server to be remotely accessed on a Linux workstation or thin client.

The Linux kernel is only 400 KB. Even on a 10Mbit network, you can download the kernel in less than half a second. 100Mbit networks are of course faster.

In a school environment, there are many reasons why a thin client is preferable to a PC. The users' information is stored on the server. As students move from class to class, the information is always accessible from any client. The traditional PC model stores the information on a specific desktop and students must access their information locally.

Student information is also more secure on a server. All of the information can be backed up at one point instead of having to backup information on multiple computers.

Finally, the only upgrades that ever need to be performed are adding memory and disk to the main server. The traditional PC model requires RAM and disk to be added to every workstation.

K12LTSP has excellent network support for existing PCs and Apple computers. The applications provided on K12LTSP are also available for free on Windows. These include AbiWord, OpenOffice, GIMP, and Gnumeric.

An April 2002 article in the Oregonian magazine stated that the licenses required for Microsoft Office to run on all of their personal computers, including iMacs and Power Macs would be equal to the salaries of 10 full time educators. Software companies have become more aggressive about threatening audits on school districts.

Software does not wear out. Because of the maturity of the software industry, there are very few new features to add into software applications. The primary technique to encourage individuals to upgrade to newer software is to introduce noncompatible file formats. If enough people use the newer versions of software, then the rest of the organization becomes compelled to upgrade.

To avoid this, schools need to standardize on file formats that are more universally available. Documents that are published documents can be distributed in PDF format. For Microsoft Windows users, there is generally a license fee that has to be paid to Adobe to generate PDF files. Software 602 makes a low cost alternative to Adobe Distiller . GhostscriptGhostscript, which is available on almost every Linux distribution and can be downloaded for free, has a utility that will create PDF files. There is a free servicefree service, will convert files saved as Postscript files into PDF files. It is very easy to create a Postscript file. You simply add a Postscript printer and then print to a file.

Another free service can accept:
  • PDF (Portable Document Format),
  • RTF (Rich Text Format),
  • TXT (Simple Text Format),
  • DOC (Microsoft Word Format),
  • XLS (Microsoft Excel Format) and
  • PPT (Microsoft PowerPoint Format)
This service has even started an e-mail service where you simply e-mail your file as an attachment and it is automatically converted and e-mailed back. The URL is here.

Linux users can create PDF files very easily. The Linux version of PDF will create a PDF file if you select print to file and then select PDF as the file format. The utility ps2pdf can be found on most Linux distributions.

XML and XSL are standards that will allow document sharing between virtually any computer and any application. XML is currently being used as a messaging format so that different applications can communicate with one another. OpenOffice and StarOffice 6.0 have adopted XML as their standard file format. OpenOffice and StarOffice 6.0 also use XML to communicate with other applications. RTF can be used as a format to exchange files between applications until XML is more widely adopted.

If you have to share a file and RTF is not appropriate, it is best to save the file in an older version of the software than to store it in its newest format. If you are using Office XP, you might want to force the save to Office 97 format. This will allow more people to read the document than saving it in the latest format.

OpenOffice and StarOffice do a very good job with almost all Microsoft Office generated documents. AbiWord is less adept, but still does a respectable job.

It makes no sense to replace the existing infrastructure completely with Linux or any other solution. Linux needs to be integrated into the existing architecture in a way that causes the least amount of confusion.

As software does not wear out, schools should continue using the software they have unless there is a free alternative that is more appropriate. Open Source and low cost solutions are available for both Microsoft Windows and Linux. It is possible to upgrade functionality on existing systems by simply installing Open Source alternatives to commercial software.

Linux provides a very powerful tool to reduce the increasing costs of supporting personal computers. Many school systems have reduced their software costs to zero and have been able to recycle computers.

There is a lot of support for Linux in the education community. The solutions are mature enough that installing Linux solutions in schools should not be a mystery. There are many websites that have detailed information for educators explaining how to integrate Linux into their schools.

Finally, as educators make decisions about what software to use in the schools, they need to consider the costs; not only for the school, but also for the parents and students. While educational facilities are entitled to very high discounts, the students and parents are not. Even if the school decides to purchase commercial software, they should make allowances for students and parents to use Open Source solutions.



About the author: Michael C. Barnes is currently president of NorhTec. Mr. Barnes has over 20 years experience with computers and another 10 years experience with more primitive networks, to include paper tape and morse code. Mr. Barnes has 18 years of experience with various Unix systems and spent 13 years with Sun Microsystems.

Mr. Barnes became fascinated with GNU/Linux turned the common PC into a Unix like workstation. By 1998, GNU/Linux surpassed the desktop environments offered on traditional Unix workstations.

When GNU/Linux is combined with low-cost x86 platforms, organizations now have the power to create enterprise computing for the small organization.

Mr. Barnes, born in Kentucky, now lives in Bangkok, Thailand with his wife, Linda Kubota-Barnes and his daughter Karen Barnes.

Copyright 2002 by Michael C. Barnes. Reproduced by DesktopLinux.com with permission.



Also by Michael C. Barnes: Desktop Choices



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