Recently, a High School in Millersville Pa struck a cord with me personally. Like many east coast advocates of Linux, I often have to watch California, Europe, and other countries from the sidelines, engaging fun and interesting Open Source events and projects. Imagine my excitement when I learned of one such champion of Open Source, but not from Europe, from a place not more than a few hours from me. Deploying over 1700 laptops, armed to the teeth with Ubuntu and Open Software to students, I knew there was more to the story than the small stories floating around. Even if for my own personal education, I wanted to know more.
Thankfully, Charlie Reisinger, Technology Directory of Penn Manor School District, allowed me to conduct a phone interview. What follows is, what I can hope you find, a look into how Open Source is changing our schools and minds of young students around the globe. I learned some new things, and I hope you do too.
Penn Manor School District is situated in south-east Pennsylvania here in the United States. The Lancaster area is full of nature, wildlife, and open spaces, but at its center, is a school that knows the real value of leadership and technology in education. Most recently, Middle School and High School student won multiple awards at the Lancaster-Lebanon Technology Student Association regional competition.
Penn Manor blends technology perfectly with students, offering hands on learning and engaging education. The Open Source work doesn’t end with technology either, with Penn Manor being a partner in The OpenCampus program, which provides increased opportunities for students to learn.
Integrating Hardware with Software
For hardware, Penn Manor chose the Acer TravelMate TMB113 laptop. When asked why they chose this particular machine, Charlie noted that the laptop more than fit the needs of the project, in both cost and capability. Of note as well, is that Penn Manor is a “tri-platform school,” engaging in hardware products from the 3 major OS manufactures including Windows, Mac, and Linux. Before this project began, there was already an astounding 1800 Linux devices in use between the Penn Manor school system.
Stories circulated early on that the school was using Ubermix, a variant of the Ubuntu distribution aimed at educational institutions, however that was not the end result. While a fine choice, Charlie added that “Ubermix is a phenomenal educational distribution for Linux, it just simply did not serve our needs.”
The Challenge of Open Source
Linux is a very scary word for some folks. People don’t like the unknown, let alone some fancy operating system for techno-hooligans. For the initiated though, Linux and Open Source technology is a powerful combo that empowers young and old to dig into technology, collaborate with others, and enjoy computer software in its full entirety. Adventuring into the unknown, especially when you convince a a board of educators who make important decisions on how to mold and shape young minds and professionals of tomorrow.
You see, “free” does not always mean free as in “no cost” rather “free” as in freedom. Besides understanding the driving principles and ethics behind Open Source and Free Software, no project is without it’s unique set of challenges. Hardware, software, time constraints, and more must be assessed, approved, and implemented. In the end though, Charlie estimates a cost savings in the neighbourhood of 360,000 dollars. He especially notes, “to be very truthful…I don’t know if we could have done this project without going open source.”
There are many merits and advantages to Open Source technology in schools. As of January 2014, Penn Manor students regularly utilize nearly 3500 laptops and desktops running Open Source software, no easy feat. It is very hard to break the decades old footing Microsoft has had in the commercial computing world. Rather than replace the ageing white Macbook computers the school had, the IT department chose the road to Open Source for their ambitious 1:1 laptop program.
Students For Tomorrow
Students went to work preparing the laptops, after a whole year of preparation. A project of this scale takes very careful planning, heavily orchestrated by Charlie, the I.T. staff, and his talented students. Student Apprentices filled in the gaps where needed, and went above and beyond the call, developing the programs ticketing system and deployment software, FLDT (The Fast Linux Deployment Toolkit). FLDT development stemmed from using FOG for prior projects, eventually evolving into the highly capable FLDT.
When asked how Students and staff handled having no support contract or direct vendor support, support was a trivial point, with Alex Lagunas adding that there is “”so much community support, so it’s almost like a non-issue.”
The deployment software’s story in particular was interesting to me. Developed out of a need for better features, the software makes painless multi-casting imaging of not only the Ubnutu 13.10 image, but also post install scripts for configuration. Much of the software, including the ticketing system is interesting to review, and I highly suggest reviewing the code yourself.“Conversations in education are changing very rapidly from sorta old days where this was this insistence that we had to be teaching Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office…”
-Charlie Reisinger, Managing IT Direction, Penn Manor
After what seemed like a marathon 2 month sprint to the finish line, the project was complete. The end result is something I am immensely proud of, even as a bystander. The empowering nature and unlimited possibilities of Open Source technology is something anyone can marvel at. Deployment of over 1700 laptops is no small feat.On of the large motivations for the 1:1 program was to “have any time any place learning,” enabling students to get the best out their hands on educational experience.
Full Audio Interview
For more visuals on the fantastic journey, head on over to Penn Manor’s 1:1 tech blog for more!
Full Credit goes to the following:
Charlie Reisinger, Technology Director
Alex Lagunas – Penn Manor High School Systems Specialist
Chad Billman – Penn Manor School District Systems Engineer
Also, Members of the the student team in the interview: