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. Officials hope that by implementing their Always-On Learning Initiative cautiously instead of rushing headlong into the project, they will be able to avoid costly financial and logistical 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. 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. The school district will be using open-source applications included in the package 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–they would have to evaluate carefully how the laptops would be purchased and the program financed.

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,” said Doug McIntosh, an ed-tech resource teacher who is involved in the Always-On project. “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 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. “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].”

In Phase II, which begins this fall, 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 $683.

Phase III, scheduled for September 2008, would let students take the laptops home–though “there are many ‘ifs’ in between,” McIntosh said.

In turning to 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.

“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.”