The nation’s eighth-largest school system is rolling out a one-to-one computing project that uses the open-source Linux operating system and custom-designed laptops to make mobile computers affordable for all students.

The San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) is taking a slow-but-steady approach to its one-to-one project, which leaders say will allow the district to transform its classrooms into 21st-century learning environments.

Officials in San Diego–the second-largest school district in California, with more than 130,000 students–hope that by implementing their Always-On Learning Initiative cautiously instead of rushing head-first into the project, they will be able to avoid costly financial and technology mistakes that might hamper the initiative’s progress.

Always-On is split into three phases, and SDUSD is in the middle of the first phase, which began in March. The project’s goal is to give students access to laptop computers with software tools and resources to help prepare them to learn, live, and work in the 21st century.

Toward that end, the district is using Novell’s SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop as the standard platform for the initiative. Linux is a freely distributed, open-source operating system.

The Always-On vision includes student access to a managed network that will provide an internet/intranet connection to students’ schoolwork, teachers, and classmates, giving students “anytime, anyplace” access to education resources. The school district will be using open-source applications included in SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop for office productivity, audio and video, web browsing, geography, language arts, math, and science.

Before beginning the project, officials realized that–in a district with 130,000 students, 7,000 teachers, and close to 70 percent of students on the free or reduced-price lunch program–SDUSD would have to evaluate carefully how the laptops would be purchased and how the program would be financed.

“Other districts have a parent program, where parents basically buy laptops, and we realized there was no way we’d be able to have that type of program,” said Doug McIntosh, an educational technology resource teacher who is involved in the Always-On project.

The district’s technology staff began looking at alternative operating systems, and they spent about eight months reviewing various Linux distributions.

“Novell’s Linux, out of the box, worked very well with our district’s equipment,” McIntosh said. “We liked the idea of having their enterprise solution. … Even though we’d spend money on licenses, we knew we’d save [in the long run].”

For the project’s hardware, San Diego is working with Lenovo to custom-design the laptops.

Deputy Superintendent Geno Flores said the Always-On initiative should give all students meaningful learning experiences–especially those students who might not have access to computers at home.

“We believe it will help students develop higher-order skills and to function effectively in the world beyond the classroom,” he said.

Phase I of the pilot, which began in March, used $300,000 to fund machines in nine elementary, middle, and high school classrooms. Each teacher has his or her own set of laptops; some have the same students all day long, and others rotate students, so the students who go to that specific teacher’s classroom have access to the laptops.

“It has worked very well for them, and we are encouraged by [the program]–we’re off to a really good start, although it’s a small start,” McIntosh said. “We’re very, very far away from district-wide [implementation].”

The district is not putting a time limit on the project, he added, noting that the second and third phases could go on for several years.

In Phase II, ed-tech staff plan to upgrade to a cart-based laptop system and concentrate more on how all schools can afford the laptops, as well as aiming for $500 machines. The Lenovo model that McIntosh and his colleagues designed, with its open-source operating system and software, came in at about $683.

“Phase II begins in September and could actually last for many years,” McIntosh said. “We could have it as a solution that we scale and sustain for many years. The big initiative, why we call it the Always-On, is that Phase III, which would be scheduled for September 2008, would … be a home-to-school program. There are many ‘ifs’ in between.”

He added: “We don’t have the money to do a full initiative like some other places are doing, but I think it’s going to serve us well–the mistakes we make are going to be at a smaller scale. We’ve learned a ton already.”

In turning to Novell’s SUSE Linux for its laptop project, SDUSD joins a growing cadre of schools that are using open-source software to extend computers to a broader number of users. The One Laptop Per Child initiative uses a custom version of Linux to keep the cost of laptops for students in developing nations under $200, for instance, and Indiana is using Linux to power desktop computers for every student (see Changing the world–one desktop at a time: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=7139).

“I have been shocked at how fast Linux is [catching] on in education,” said David Brower, global education market manager for Novell. “Usually, education is not the early adopter when it comes to technology.”

Links:

San Diego Unified School District

http://www.sandi.net

Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop

http://www.novell.com/linux

Lenovo

http://www.lenovo.com/us/en