Inspiration for Leaders

Enjoy this news and reflection blog brought to you from the LHRIC Technology Leadership Institute!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

How Freedom Toasters can Democratize Education

(Reflections from David Thornburg, January 8 LHRIC TLI Session, "Open Source in Education")

If you’re like me, this is one of the many unrecognizable terms that we are building our careers and lives around. When David mentioned it in his keynote this morning, it was so intriguing to me that I had to “bold” it on my Word document. It turns out, that a Freedom Toaster (freedomtoaster.org) is a structure that resembles a vending machine. There currently is one sitting in a school in Indiana. Students built it. As a matter of fact, a student in the automotive program adorned it with yellow and orange flames, and I hear that this pattern nicely complements his tattoos. You could turn it on its side, put wheels on it and probably go from 0-100 in 45 seconds. (Back to this student – there’s no scratches on his machine. There probably never will be. No one is brave enough to touch it without the utmost reverence.)

Anyone, including visitors, can pop in a CD or DVD, access a touch screen, and choose what software they wish to download. Open Office, Project Gutenberg, you name it. The machine produces the CD, ejects it, and the user leaves ready to be productive and satisfied, whether they return to a Mac or a PC.

The best feature is what this machine does not have – a slot for money. It’s free. And this started in South Africa.

We’re talking about Open Source in Education this morning: what it is, what it could mean, how other countries (like Brazil) and states (like Indiana and California) are saving astronomical amounts of money by basing their instructional infrastructures on Linux rather than Windows operating systems. Here’s an interesting statistic: in 1984, the student to computer ration was 65:1, and in 2006, decreased to 4:1. Impressive, yes? But if you represent the data another way, we see that penetration of computers has seen no real change since 2000. We’ve essentially leveled out to the point where only 25% of US students have access to computers in schools. Basically, the replacement model has become a “zero sum” game.

David made an analogy to vaccinations: we don’t vaccinate some kids (unless of course parents object); we tend to vaccinate all kids. The same goes, theoretically, for access to laptops, which apparently have become ridiculously cheap, especially if you visit Tiger Direct and grab a laptop off a shelf for $ 395.

Whatever you think or believe about Linux, it certainly is a compelling story: it’s free, it’s reliable, it’s scalable; Apple “figured out a way to charge us for it by building a gorgeous interface.” Sustainability and scalability: two key prerequisites for realizing the goal of 1:1 computing.

David told us about a case study in Brazil. The whole country is moving toward open source technology. Microsoft wanted to be the operating system of choice but whey they met with the president and gave him a cost, the president of Brazil basically showed them the runway back to the US. (They have to sell 60 bags of soybeans to pay for one Microsoft “seat” per year.) This President decided to expand program to home and businesses ; a computer for everyone: Computer para todos.”


For those who have heard about the common objection, which represents a deep entrenchment in the world of beefy operating systems -
“I want kids using the software they will use when they leave school.” – David reminds us, simply, that the software kids will be using hasn’t been invented yet. And he also reminded us that it’s more ubiquitous than we think: Spring uses Linux for all their switches, and the software that runs the docking to the international space station is based on Linux. According to a Gartner Group study, 90% of the world’s 2000 largest companies will use open source software by 2010; 70% will have migrated to Linux. (companies such as Morgan Stanley and IBM.)

“Kyle” is a mischievous looking 4th grader whose picture David flashed on the screen. If you looked closely you could see the USB key around neck. On that USB drive was a bunch of software that Kyle brings from home because he likes using it. So how is he able to do this on his school network? He has Linux on pen drive.

The points of David’s talk this morning about Linux in education highlights the following value points:
• Easy to install and maintain
• Reliable
• Low TCO
• Graphical user interface
• Useful titles for all grades

He reminds us that “free” software can be reliable, because:
• It’s created by people who depended on it
• The support is truly global
• There is intense pride of authorship
• And hey, just look at Wikipedia!

There ‘s a lot more to this conversation. I’m going to stop writing and listen now. In the meantime, we can take a drive up to New Hampshire or Indiana and see what they’re doing. In the meantime – take a look at tcpdpodcast.org .

1 comment:

Mike said...

I enjoyed this presentation but left it wondering if this would ever become a reality in our district/region. A couple of questions:

On a national level, will there ever be a mandate to move to open source/free software (like Brazil) when the producer of Windows is one of the star players on the home team? Given the impact of lobbyists and the power of political contributions, I just don't see the US government telling everyone to abandon Microsoft in favor of Linux.

On a local level, while I would love to start moving towards open source apps like Open Office and Firefox, like Eric, I wonder if the RIC is really committed to supporting these apps. It's not a question of good intentions. I just feel that it's an uphill battle to implement some of these apps in a Windows environment that is designed around vendor lock-in. It's just easier to implement IE7 than Firefox since there is a whole infrastructure built around controlling it. Thornburg's contention that open source apps just update themselves without user intervention was naive - it works for a single computer sitting on his desk but 700 computers in a district all pulling down updates for individual applications would choke the bandwidth in most districts.