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How We Brought Linux to Our School!

2008-03-12 @ 00:01,

In mid 2006, I showed up for a job interview with a startup magnet program in San Antonio calling itself iMAK. (Interactive Media Applications at Krueger.) I brought with me a teaching portfolio, a resume, my laptop, and five years teaching experience. I was very interested in teaching technology, and the opportunity to do it with a magnet school seemed  incredible.

I brought along some classroom podcasts, videos, web pages I had created, and numerous examples of student work. The interview seemed to be going well until I mentioned that my laptop was running Linux. At that point, the technology department chair began asking me questions like, "How did you install it? Does it run Windows? What programs can it run?"

I felt it was important to emphasize my teaching experience in this interview, but the guy on my left was 'really' interested in what I had going on with a laptop that could indeed both run Windows XP and Linux. I did my best to answer his questions in adequate detail without alienating the other people in the room. I apparently succeeded. The director of magnet schools offered me the position 24 hours later, and I started teaching with NEISD the following school year.

So, I was asked to develop technology curriculum for a new magnet program. Within the first few weeks of school, one of my students mentioned to me that he had installed Red Hat on a computer at home and wanted to know if I knew anything about it. We sort of talked about what he was running at home for a while and I sent him off to his next class.

That afternoon I took a look around my class and targeted a computer in the back for Windows removal. (I had 28 computers after all.) I downloaded Kubuntu, and did a vanilla install on it, which took about 45 minutes. I figured it would be a good thing for this particular student. I'd give him a week or two to experiment with it, and maybe between the two of us, we'd learn a thing or two.

The next morning, he sat down in his usual seat and logged into Novell as every other one of the 60 some odd thousand students in our district does, and after I took roll I informed him that I was going to have to change his seat. He logged out, and I put him in front of the Kubuntu. He loved it. This was truly cool. I told him the root password, and gave him instructions to explore the system. The rest of the class carried on while my lone Linux user in the back row revelled in this new found Linux machine. It was a really neat experience for both of us.

Word spread quickly, and this default Kubuntu install became quite the student attraction at first. I had a line 10 students deep wanting to try this new operating system for the period. There was really only one solution that made sense: format more machines. So I did.

A few weeks after dropping that first vanilla install into my classroom, I got the notion to go ahead and see if I couldn't integrate 10 or so into the classroom on a permanent basis. Of course, in a district as big as mine this was dangerous territory. These computers essentially belonged to the district and I was deleting thousands of dollars in propietary software in favor of free alternatives. I informed my immediate supervisor before taking any action, and we both agreed that this kind of innovation would be good for our program. After all, we were a chartered technology magnet program. It was in our mandate to do things differently.

One evening in early November 2007, I sat down to re-image 10 student computers. These were nice machines too. (Dell Optiplex GX 620's) Because these machines all had identical hardware specifications, it was a snap to create one working image and export it to the other using netcat and dd.

Host Machine: dd if=/dev/hda | nc 9000
New Machine: nc -l -p 9000 | dd of=/dev/hda

I was able to knock out ten machines in a single evening. It was a simple image, but it would allow my students to browse the internet through our district proxy, print to the network printer, photo edit, and generally keep up with their peers using Windows.

The rest of that school year I had to differentiate my instruction for every class period. I had 10 students on Linux and the rest on Windows. It made things difficult because I often had to give two sets of directions to complete a single task, but I didn't mind. That's what teachers today have to do no matter what subject they teach --differentiate instruction.

There were many bumps in the road throughout the year to say the least. Vmware virtualization slowed down windows too much for it to really be usable, and applications like the Linux Novell client would act flaky. Student pen drives wouldn't work through a regular user account out of the box, and numerous other problems tended to arise on a weekly basis, but after nine months I had developed a rock-solid student image that was stable, secure, and easy for the kids to use. It really did take a full semester and a half of piloting 10 computers to get it right, but it was worth the experience.

In late May, Chris Groff and I petitioned our supervisor to let us export dual boot operating systems to our two student labs. He agreed, and although we were catching lots of flack from the district level IT administrators, we were paid to work over the summer and reimage our machines.

The end result: student choice. --Welcome to iMAK-- Would you like to use Windows or Linux today?