Taking a huge step toward its goal of a computer for every high school student, Indiana will introduce 1,600 new desktop computers running Linux-based operating systems and software in its classrooms this fall. The program could be the largest such undertaking involving open-source software ever carried out in U.S. schools.

Novell Inc., the industry’s largest provider of Linux services and applications, and Linspire Inc., a Linux provider based in San Diego, will provide the OS and the applications. Discount hardware provider Wintergreen Systems Inc., a local Indiana company, and Dell Inc. will supply the computers.

Indiana officials say using Linux-based systems will enable them to save what could amount to millions of dollars on operating systems and software. If successful, the state’s open-source initiative could serve as a model for other states or districts around the nation to follow.

Schools in South America, Australia, and other parts of the world already have implemented large-scale open-source software projects, but K-12 schools in the United States so far have been slower to adopt open-source solutions–particularly at the desktop level. Concerns about the expertise needed to support Linux and the range of educational applications that are available to run on it are some of the factors that have hindered its adoption in U.S. schools.

In response to these concerns, Linspire CEO Kevin Carmony said his company’s offerings can perform at least 80 percent of the functions of most proprietary software. Linspire offers an office suite, media software, and a number of other applications. Carmony said these applications are “completely interoperable” with proprietary solutions, answering concerns about compatibility in an environment where documents are exchanged between one kind of OS and another.

“More and more, you’re finding that these companies are offering a Linux version of their software,” Carmony said.

For applications that function only on Windows or Macintosh operating systems, there are solutions that permit these applications to run natively on the Linux OS, such as the WINE Operation, an open-source project that provides a complete implementation of Windows for Linux and Unix systems.

Regarding the complexity of Linux, companies such as Linspire and Novell offer full support services, both through their own operations and through local partners. Linspire also provides a deployment solution called “Click and Run” (C&R), which permits IT directors to install and update the software remotely.

“About 2,500-ish applications can be remotely installed,” said Carmony. “Schools can pick and choose what they like from our [online] warehouse. It’s all installed digitally; you’re not worrying about authorization codes, CDs–all that [stuff]. The technological infrastructure is already all there [in Indiana], and we’re working with the state to make the administrative function even more robust.”

Indiana has been piloting its one-to-one desktop program over the past three years, with the ultimate goal of bringing a desktop computer to each of the state’s 300,000 high school students. The use of Linux operating systems and applications has been essential to the initiative, officials say, because these open-source products are available at a fraction of the cost of similar proprietary models. Open-source solutions already have saved Indiana several thousands of dollars in licensing fees, they report.

“Although initial funding for the … initiative comes from the state, many of the schools themselves think this is such a great idea that they are kicking in their local dollars to accelerate the deployment of the computer systems,” said Mike Huffman, special assistant for technology at the Indiana Department of Education.

“Indiana is committed to progress and improvement in education, and this initiative will allow for online testing, increased access to information, and many other means to enhance learning for students. … Open systems offer many advantages, the foremost being cost savings for schools,” Huffman said.

Though the cost is a primary concern for Indiana state officials, Laura Taylor, director of Indiana’s Office of Learning Resources, said it is not the only issue to be considered. “This model is really about scalability, sustainability, and repeatability,” said Taylor. “It’s not just about cost, but cost needs to be considered if this is something that’s going to be replicated in multiple classrooms. But cost means little if it doesn’t work.”

She continued: “What we don’t want is for this to be less expensive at the classroom level and more expensive at the district level in terms of personnel. One of the things we don’t want to do is shift the cost from hardware to personnel. So program management is something we’re focusing on this year.”

Taylor said the state’s open-source alternatives have become so similar to the proprietary models on which they are based–and with which teachers and students have become so comfortable–that teachers and students pick them up intuitively.

According to Susan Heystee, president of Novell North America, in the past six months more than 130 educational institutions around the world have signed on to use Novell Linux Desktop. “Both in education and business, we’re seeing growing adoption of Linux on the desktop to increase security, simplify management, and control costs, without sacrificing functionality or productivity,” she said.

Linspire’s Carmony said Indiana’s example likely will prompt more school systems to try open-source desktop solutions. “The phones here have been ringing off the hook,” he said.

Not everyone is happy with the arrangement. A technology director at one urban Indiana school district told eSchool News he has concerns about hidden infrastructural costs that he feels the state is not doing enough to address as it proceeds with its program.

The official, who wished to remain anonymous, said it will be up to local districts to pay for the additional needs that will accompany desktop computers for every student, such as upgrades to electrical systems and more support staff.

“What is the cost beyond the cost of the computers?” he said. “This is really a question of [total cost of ownership]. If I have to install 30 new outlets to each classroom, I’m not just running cable; I’m going to have to install a new transformer.”

He added, “If you’re proposing 5,000 new computers in my building, I am also going to have to quadruple my staff. Many of the admitted successes of the pilot have been in small towns; [the situation] is different for an urban area.”

The anonymous official further pointed out that his IT staff lacked the proper training to successfully implement a Linux program. He said the services provided by the state were more like “orientation” than training.

“It’s like they called us all up and said, Hey, we’re going to levitate!'” he said. “It’s the part about staying off the ground that we’re having trouble with. A lot of people are concerned about it.”

Huffman’s response to these concerns? “I think probably we have 95-percent support from local tech directors,” he said.

Huffman added, “We know electricity is an issue; that’s why we’re deploying it like we are, doing this in English classrooms first, then science. We also know there are infrastructure issues regarding the network; that’s why we’re using wireless [technology] on the desktops.”

As for the lack of Linux training, Huffman said, “We have done a lot of research on this. I would agree 100 percent with that comment if it were made about the server side. [But] Linux on the desktop, at least the iterations that we’re using, comes preconfigured. You get a copy, you load it on your computer. It takes ten minutes, asks you three questions, and it works.”

See these related links:

Indiana Department of Education

Novell Inc.

Linspire Inc.