Sydney school teaches with Linux monopoly

Linux may be struggling to gain a foothold in the primary and secondary education market but one Sydney school is setting itself higher grades - all without Microsoft.

At the Lorien Novalis School in the suburb of Glenhaven, 350 students from kindergarten through to year 12 and 38 staff have been learning with the penguin for the past four years.

Stuart Rushton, the school's ICT manager, told Computerworld that senior students first suggested the move to Linux.

"The school was Mac shop and when it was time to upgrade they said why not try Linux?" Rushton said. "So we bought cheap second-hand computers and put Linux on them and we've been running it ever since."

With about 30 desktops running Mandriva (formerly Mandrake) Linux 2006 - chosen for its ease of installation and use - on modest 1GHz Pentium desktops, students use a variety of open source applications for their coursework, including OpenOffice, Firefox, Nvu for Web editing, Evolution for e-mail, Scribus for publishing, the Gimp for image manipulation, QCad for design, and KDevelop for Pascal programming.

"They more than cover everything for education," Rushton said. "If we came to a blockage we would organize around it but have not yet."

The non-open source application is Mojo for animation which Rushton said "works brilliantly on Linux".

Other computers at the school are eight "legacy" Macs used for administration and two Windows machines required for a proprietary library catalogue application. Six other classic Macs are used for video editing but Rushton is seriously looking at replacing Apple's iMovie with the open source Cinelerra video editing tool.

The school's main server is also running Mandriva, version 10.1.

"In 2002 our first server was a well used Sun Ultra 10 (Sparc) running Mandrake 7 [and] it worked very well until the hardware failed," Rushton said. "In 2003 our second server was a very well used HP Netserver LD Pro 133MHz, running Mandrake 9. It couldn't cope with the demand [but] nonetheless it gave good service 90 percent of the time. Late in 2004 our third server, a new HP Proliant ML 110 running Mandrake 10.1 has given 100 percent service ever since [with] no downtime."

While Rushton's focus is on the "education side" everyone at the school is interested in extending Linux use, including moving the library system to the open source Koha. Also under consideration is locally-born Moodle for online course management.

"We have an opportunity to consolidate everything on Linux," he said. "Most important is students working with open source and evolving from there. We started with education because it's where the future of Linux is."

Because Lorien Novalis is comparatively small, Rushton said it does not suffer from the bureaucracy or the "enormous inertia to overcome" of a large school so Linux could get in easily and "everyone was unanimous".

"Our reason for going to Linux was predominantly philosophical, then for quality, and third was the cost - we wanted the best option," he said. "We bought the Mandriva PowerPack to get the manuals and to support open source companies. Often we download free stuff but the latest version was purchased. We're interested in free as in freedom, not that you don't have to pay for something."

Rushton said cost is important but likened vendors that give away educational software to McDonald's giving away free food, "that's a short-term gain".

"School education should be about cooperation and sharing knowledge, which is exactly what open source is about - that's why I can't understand why schools don't embrace it on that level," he said, adding there is a "big black hole" when it comes to Linux in education.

"People are talking about it but are still way behind," he said. "Everyone's interested in teaching a word processor, but not interested in a political statement. The deep technology literacy issue is not even discussed."

Students using Linux at school is also having a flow-on effect outside campus with at least 12 using the operating system at home.

"The kids love their lab and have a lot of ownership. We take it seriously how they feel about lab, and they enjoy that it works," Rushton said. "The tinker value of Linux is brilliant and kids love to tinker so they organize their desktop in a way most people couldn't understand it."

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