East Chicago, Michigan City, Switzerland County, and Tell City share more than a common Hoosier heritage: They–along with more than 70 other Indiana high schools–are using inexpensive computers and open-source software to reinvigorate teachers, engage learners, and ensure that Indiana’s students are prepared for the world of tomorrow.
A less expensive way of reaching one-to-one computing in classrooms, Indiana’s Affordable Classroom Computers for Every Secondary Student (inACCESS) program is changing the way teachers teach and students learn by introducing state-of-the-art technology and technology-rich resources to English and language-arts classrooms in high schools statewide. In some schools, science, math, and social studies classrooms also are coming on board.
The inACCESS program focuses on cost-containment, keeping costs low while increasing students’ access to technology. InACCESS provides just-in-time technology access and the integration of resources and materials on demand in the classroom. Instruction drives the use of technology–and it’s no longer reliant on access to overcrowded, overscheduled, and often unavailable computer labs. Instead, inACCESS facilitates ubiquitous access to technology.
“After a decade of technology spending that resulted in a 4-to-1 student-to-computer ratio, and few quantifiable results, we recognized that any viable program would need to be affordable, sustainable, and focused on instruction to produce results,” says Phyllis Usher, assistant superintendent of public instruction. “It is important that we are able to provide high-quality education and enhanced learning opportunities to all of Indiana’s students, not just a few. We knew we needed to rethink technology access if we were serious about improving learning.”
Rethinking the way technology is purchased, deployed, and used required some new ideas, serious thought to our purpose, and the willingness to try new things. The nexus of several key factors helped influence development of the inACCESS program: Funds for technology were dwindling. State funds had been cut, and federal funding was continuing to shrink. The advance toward ubiquitous computing had been stalled, with a student-to-computer ratio of approximately four students for every computer. With decreased funding, the prospect of being able to improve on that ratio was dim and fading.
Another wake-up call came in early 2003 when we began looking at how schools were using their dwindling technology resources. In short, it became clear that the average student in an Indiana high school had access to a computer for only about 35 minutes per week. Without adequate access guaranteed, it was not feasible to plan complex, rigorous activities that depended on the use of a computer, because it was not always possible to assure completion of these activities in one scheduled lab session. Teachers reported that, with so little time for classes to access computers, it was not realistic to revise the curriculum to increase technology integration.
Indiana’s ed-tech staff looked at several approaches to improve the situation, but all of the available options cost too much money, relied on special one-time deals, or simply would fail in a large-scale implementation. Then, a fresh approach began to take shape: high-quality, low-cost hardware, combined with open-source software. Would it work? How would students and teachers react? What guidelines should be used in setting up the program? Could schools count on consistent, high-quality performance from both the hardware and the software?
Today, an estimated 100,000 high school students use Linux and open-source software on a daily basis in inACCESS classrooms. When asked if the Linux operating system and open-source software had hampered his productivity in any way, one student said, “It’s mostly the same–the web is the same, the word processor is better than what I have used before, and Moodle is great. I have a Windows computer at home, and my friend has a Mac. I use Nintendos, Xboxes, and PlayStations, and I also use my cell phone, my sister’s cell, and my friend’s. They are all just a little different, but it is no big deal. It’s just nice having access to computers in my classrooms.” It’s clear that today’s students are routinely involved with multiple operating systems and software as a regular part of their lives.
It was somewhat surprising to learn, however, that teachers see little difference in the operating system or application software. “The kids figure it out quickly and help us if we have trouble; a greater concern is finding ways to make the curriculum more engaging and challenging,” says Mary Gish of the Michigan City Schools. “Today’s students tend to be much more project-based and technology savvy. I work with teachers to modify their tried-and-true lessons so there are more problem-solving activities. This evolution of the curriculum is dynamic and ongoing.”
The hardware, which costs no more than $299 for the CPU, is 64-bit capable, has 512 megabytes of memory, and includes on-board Audio/Video/Ethernet ports. Thin-client versions may be purchased for about $229 and are available from Dell, HP, and several whitebox suppliers. Some schools have opted to build their own. Each unit comes with a one-year warranty. Hardware costs are expected to trend downward in the coming years.
Schools install a variety of open-source software titles that include Sun Microsystems’ Star Office product or Open Office, Celestia, Scribus (for publishing), GIMPShop (photo editing), InkScape (drawing), and other packages that suit the curriculum. If a school has Microsoft Windows applications that must be used, most of them work just fine using Codeweavers’ Crossover Linux.
Another open-source product, called iTALC (Intelligent Teaching and Learning with Computers), allows teachers to monitor student activity. The teacher may take control of a student’s workstation to assist or can share any of the students’ monitors with the entire class. iTALC adds to the teacher’s ability to manage 30 workstations to check that students are on task with just a glance at their monitors.
Operating systems in use include Novell’s SLED10, OpenSUSE, RedHat’s RHEL5, and Fedora. Linspire and Ubuntu Linux also are used. The final selection of operating system and application software is a local choice.
Placing computers in schools through a staged deployment in core subject areas made logistics and professional development issues more manageable. Professional development for inACCESS projects is delivered on demand and just-in-time. Another advantage of introducing the technology into subject-specific areas was unexpected: the development of teacher learning communities. inACCESS teachers are working together, sharing lesson plans and quiz items, and collaborating on new ways to use inACCESS in their classrooms.
No discussion of inACCESS would be complete without a word about management of the technology. State Education Department staff knew little would be gained if the program saved on hardware and software costs, but necessitated hiring a larger staff or new specialized staff.
The management issue speaks volumes about the skill levels and can-do attitude of local technology departments. While some adjustments were needed, technology directors in Indiana schools are meeting the challenge of adding large numbers of computers and integrating Linux and open-source software into their networks. Management is generally handled with Novell’s ZLM or RedHat’s Satellite server. Schools choose the products for imaging and updates that best fit their needs.
While the program is too young at this time to measure high-stakes test results, schools are seeing a dramatic increase in engagement by students. Discipline referrals are down significantly, and attendance is up. Teachers in the inACCESS classrooms are working more closely together to change the curriculum.
“I have never seen this degree of collaboration and excitement among teachers in all my years as a superintendent. The students are excited, too. It works,” says John Williams, superintendent of the Rush County Schools.
“These are not computer labs. The technology is in my classroom. Every student has access [to a computer] every period of the day. The computers are available on demand,” says Carla Beard, English department chair at Connersville High School. “Not only do we use a variety of software packages, we also have full access to the internet and all of its resources. inACCESS is making a positive difference in learning. Students are engaged and feel more comfortable with rigorous research on more complex topics. This is what they are used to and how they have learned to work.”
Mike Huffman is a special assistant for technology at the Indiana Department of Education. Laura Taylor is director of the department’s Office of Learning Resources.