doug — off the record

just a place to share some thoughts

Is it time?

I think I’ve mentioned it before. My first version of Ubuntu was 4.10. I was at a conference in San Diego and there was a poster session in the conference centre lobby. Most of the posters were crowded except for this one display. I went over and got a demonstration of Ubuntu. In addition to demoing the software, I got a demonstration of how to make a Windows computer dual boot to get the best of both worlds. The best thing was that I got a free CD-ROM with Ubuntu on it. That may seem dated and silly given today’s state of things but in 2004, it was a huge deal. It was nothing to go to computer conferences and grab all the CD-ROMs that you could!

Upon return home, I installed Ubuntu on an old computer and wow! It worked very nicely. Much better than the dated version of Windows that had come pre-installed.

I kept it and Ubuntu just kept getting better with two major updates a year. What made it all so much fun was that it was all free. And, for geeky me, there were new things to learn and a terrific community of enthusiasts to get involved with. And so much free software. Since I’d had a long history of TRS-DOS, CP/M, MS-DOS and PC-DOS, dropping to a terminal/command line to get something done wasn’t a big deal. I recall being quite impressed with how seldom I had to do it though. It was generally to follow a tutorial or an example of something I wanted to do. SUDO became my friend.

This week, I found this article Why school district purchases and programs leave teachers cold and it reached out and pointed fingers where I think we’ve all seen fingers pointed before. Sometimes very explicitly and other times not so explicitly.

The article also caught the attention of Andrew Dobbie.

Andrew has immersed himself into this world on the education side and I had a chance to interview him about it.

Recently, Andrew and a group of students had a display and were taking questions from teachers at the Bring IT, Together conference. I dropped by to say hi to Andrew and to chat with the students. I asked some questions and got some good answers. These students really get it.

Obviously, it helps when you have a teacher who knows his stuff and has connections like Andrew does with Renewed Computer Technology.

This program has been around for a while and has helped out various organisations. Essentially, they collect and recycle computers that organisations have declared redundant for use. Away goes the hardware and the Windows licenses in favour of something newer, more powerful, and with a new Windows license.

In the past, these boxes would be taken apart and components inside get reclaimed or torn apart. It’s a sad ending to a machine that had done so much when it was in place. But, technology moves on and IT departments like newer equipment where they can deposit a new image and business continues. Budgets have line items for the replacement of computers every 3-5 years whether it’s needed or not. And, schools most certainly fall into this scenario.

There was a time when upgrades were absolutely necessary. Software and operating systems put big demands on computers. I remember my time on the OSAPAC Committee where we analysed the Ontario Curriculum and specifically made recommendation for software to be used throughout the province. That was the way technology was used in the classroom. You need to do something; run a piece of software that was installed on your computer. We got the chance to recommend software titles for installation once a year.

As we all can appreciate, the ability of school districts to provide technology does have its limits. To cope, we see computer labs or carts of computers on wheels and classes are scheduled to use the technology based on availability. This post, featured here a couple of weeks ago, by Matthew Morris indicates that the solution isn’t perfect. Demand outdistances supply/access.

Things have got better, of that there’s no doubt. We now see 1:1 implementations and more technology available than ever with the purchase of Chromebooks. They’re considerably cheaper and much easier to maintain since they run most everything on the web in a browser. There are still some locally installed pieces of software that maintain the need for the purchase of traditional computers – we haven’t moved everything to the web yet.

So, back to Linux and Andrew Dobbie and RCTO and those older computers.

They have the logic and vision that, if all you need is a web browser to do your work, there may be alternatives. As it turns out, there are versions of Linux that can be installed in the place of that version of Windows that doesn’t cut it anymore. Andrew uses Xubuntu.

It installs as an operating system and you install one application – a web browser and away you go. When I talked with the students at their display, they showed me that they had access to both Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox. The real irony in all of this is that the repurposed computers are more powerful than many Chromebooks, have more memory (browsers like memory), run on the same network as every other computer, are really quick to boot, and just work. With a standard image that fans of the concept give away freely, it’s a matter of installing and going. Truly.

I wouldn’t write about the concept if I didn’t believe in it. Personally, I have a Sony Vaio that I purchased in 2010 running a version of Linux and a web browser that just works Truly.

It’s a heavy laptop (computers were generally heavier back then) but that’s life back then. At the time of purchase Sony would engrave your name onto it before shipping so I’m kind of hesitant to even consider getting rid of it. It’s a very powerful machine with an i7 processor and 4GB of RAM. Geeky me actually has a whole bunch of Linux software installed on it like LibreOffice, The GIMP, etc. but honestly I used my GSuite and Office 365 accounts for the bulk of things. They’re all online.

I can’t remember the last time that I dropped to a Terminal to do something. If there’s an update, the Synaptic Package Manager lets me know when I log in that I should upgrade. I could turn it off but hey…

Wait a sec – I do remember the last time I used Terminal – it was a bit of nostalgia for the old days when we’d draw Christmas trees using ASCII art. You’ll find all about it here. And, just to prove that Linux doesn’t have an exclusive on this – it works in a Terminal under Windows and MacOS. Wait – terminals are available in Windows and MacOS?

We talk so often about growth mindsets, inquiry, exploration, etc. in education. Is it time to explore this alternative to tradition thinking? Wouldn’t it be nice to have more technology available for student use at your school?


4 responses to “Is it time?”

  1. This sounds wonderful in many ways. The key though might be having enough people to support the installation and maintenance of the machines. I like to tinker, to a small degree, but installing and maintaining software is not my strength. Do we have enough people in school boards that can do this, who also have the knowledge of the different programs? If not, what might be the solution? You have me intrigued. Now I’m thinking more.



  2. The key to this is simply to have the image ready to go. School districts already have the processes in place to install images on technology once a year. The biggest time suck in that case is developing the image with all of the applications that they want installed. Chromebooks are like a breath of fresh air since it relies on the web and the functionality of the browser. In this case, a proven image is developed and available already by the real fans of this concept. And, like most things in the Linux world, it’s free to all.


  3. […] Is it time? – doug — off the record […]


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