Another Interview with Andrew Dobbie


Andrew Dobbie is an elementary school teacher with the Peel District School Board.  Last year, at the annual Bring IT, Together Conference, he and a group of students took over one of the booth areas to talk about their passions.  I was quite impressed with the technical discussions that I was able to have with them. Read on to find what they are and how you might get involved for the good of your classroom, students, and the environment.

Doug:  Thanks for agreeing to this, Andrew.  Can you remember the first time that we met?

Andrew: I believe we first met at an ECOO conference in Toronto, years ago.  My first year as a presenter.  It’s been an almost annual event for us ever since👍

Doug:  We’ve followed each other on Twitter for a while now and you’re a regular on my #FollowFriday listing.  To make that list, you have to have been active on the previous Thursday.  What makes you so active on Twitter?

Andrew: As an educator, I’m always looking for new research, advances in technology, and current events that I can weave into our daily classroom work.  I’m also a strong advocate for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, so I like to share current global events related to our progress @TeachSDGs

Doug:  Let’s get this out in the open first.  Are you or would others consider you a computer geek to be avoided?

Andrew: Computer Geek? My wife says no….BUT she says when I start speaking about the coding required to create some of the special computers used for repurposing other, older computers, it sounds geeky🤣

Computers are a necessity turned hobby for me.  I rely heavily on them as a conduit to support learning in our classroom, therefore I believe my students and I need to know how to build and service them to ensure we can troubleshoot and repair them as needed throughout the day.

Practical.  Not geeky.

Doug:  At the Bring IT, Together Conference last fall, you offered to give any teacher who was interested their own reimaged computer to take back to their classroom.  How many expressed interest and took you up on the offer?  I noticed that you had a stack of Dell computers at your booth.

Andrew: Last year, we gave away about 30 free laptops/desktops to attendees.  Some were keen to repurpose more of their older computers at their schools, so we built them Linux server computers instead.  Our Linux servers are designed to repurpose older, connected computers MUCH more efficiently.  We continue to support all of those teachers throughout Ontario, as well as the more than 14 000 students using Linux computers in classrooms every day.

Unfortunately, Greentec showed interest in helping us by possibly donating laptop hard drives but they didn’t follow through at all.  Furthermore, there is resistance in all school boards related to students using free Linux computers at home and in classrooms.  The school board resistance is unfounded because the computers are running an up-to-date, secure @Xubuntu operating system with Google Chrome that auto-updates in the background daily.  School boards are putting barriers in place that DO NOT support learning, DO NOT save tax dollars and DO NOT divert e-waste because Ontario school boards continue to recycle FUNCTIONAL computers instead of repurposing them with Linux and keeping them in service.

Doug:  So, let’s get right to it.  At the Bring IT, Together Conference, you and your students were sharing your stories about Environmental Stewardship and your partnership with Renewed Computer Technology Canada.

What brought you into this relationship?

Andrew: RCTO (rcto.ca) is a not-for-profit organization that gives schools free desktop computers.  I needed computers for my classroom, so I asked them and they gave me enough free desktop computers to put between 4-12 computers per classroom throughout our school (to service more than 800 students), effectively saving us 10 years of board provided new technology budget.  They are amazing! I have been paying it forward by helping other schools apply for, transport, and set up their own free computers from RCTO as well.

Doug:  Your website (link below) talks about the success that your efforts have had and you estimate that you have saved your school district $1,431,000.  This is done by diverting computers that would normally have been sent to disposal and repurposing them.  Typically, these would be Windows computers and you end up installing a flavour of Linux on them.  How did you get interested in doing this?

Andrew:  To clarify, we have saved Peel District School Board alone about $500 000 tax dollars.  Our efforts globally have saved almost 1.5 million tax dollars.  Our support for students can be found as far as Iceland👍  

We developed an interest in Linux out of necessity to support student learning with computers, while having little to no board funding to support computers in classrooms.  We needed classroom computers, the school board had no funding to get them, we acquired older computers from RCTO that wouldn’t run our board image, so we repurposed them with Linux to make them functional, Chromebook-like learning support tools👍

With the guidance and support of Mike Diou, Neil Lyons, and Aaron Prisk (along with dozens of other teachers globally), we have developed a Linux solution to poor school board premature recycling that saves hundreds of thousands of tax dollars annually (could easily save millions per year if the Ontario ministry and school boards would implement updated Linux repurposing policies).

Doug:  Whoa!  Linux.  Isn’t that a geeky type of thing where you have to learn all kinds of command line statements in order to do something?

Andrew: When we repurpose an older computer to run with Linux, it operates almost exactly like a Chromebook.  We install and auto-update the current, stable version of Google Chrome on the Linux computers too.  Linux works faster than Windows (especially with slightly older computers), so it is a perfect repurposing option for any slower computer that is 10 years old or newer.

Doug:  There are all kinds of different distributions of Linux and you went with Xubuntu.  Why that distro?

Andrew: Xubuntu allowed us the ability to create operating system protocols for computers to be used in classrooms.  This prevented students from using root access (just another layer of security to help).  However, when we give away free, donated computers to students and their families, we provide them with a fully unlocked Xubuntu operating system and encourage them to explore it.  I tell them not to worry about wrecking the computer because we can just reimage it again to make it like new in minutes👍

Doug:  Now, in order for this to be successful, you have to hijack the machines from your district’s IT Department renewal process for your project.  How does that work?

Andrew: While we are working outside of our board’s IT pervu, we are not hijacking any board computers.  School board IT departments do not provide us with computers. I wish they would, so we could move them back into even more classrooms.  All schools have computers they have purchased with their school budgets.  Principals have the freedom to choose how and when to recycle those computers they have purchased with their school budget.  We work with responsible principals who choose to support their students, while saving budget and diverting e-waste.  Once in a while, we receive donations from companies or local individuals wanting to help provide families in need with a free computer.  Most of the computers we work with were donated by RCTO.  We would be able to help thousands of more students and their families if school board IT departments repurposed all functional computers with Linux instead of recycling them prematurely.

Doug:  That assumption is my error. I had thought you had previously indicated that computers to be retired by the IT Department were redirected to you.

The process of installing Linux isn’t that difficult these days but your students have become champions at doing that.  What skills do you figure that they’ve acquired in this process?

Andrew: Our students have learned Linux terminal coding techniques and are able to build their own Linux FOG Servers, student-tailored user interface, and deploy their own image onto any other computer.  Students learn at their own pace and find different ways to get involved to support the UN SDGs, either through software or hardware expertise.

Doug:  What’s the minimum specifications for the type of computer that you use for the project?

Andrew: Minimum computer specs for reliable, daily student use is a dual core processor with 4GB RAM.  However, Linux will run well with a minimum of 2GB as well (with fewer Google Chrome Tabs open).

Doug:  Do your graduates continue to do this once they leave Mr. Dobbie’s classroom?  

Andrew: Yes! Our Technology Stewards continue to help their families and friends by repurposing their computers.  Some of our grads are in high school now and actively working in clubs to support local families in need👍

Doug:  A real Linux purist will not use anything commercial unless they absolutely have to.  I’m assuming that you’re getting no access to school licensing of products so what are your students using for:

  • WordProcessing
  • Spreadsheets
  • Presentations
  • Graphics and Image editing
  • Video editing
  • Video conferencing

Andrew: Cloud-based LMS tools like Google Apps for Education or Office 365 provide students with online access to all of their apps/tools, regardless of the computer being used.  So, our Linux computers simply have the up-to-date, current, stable version of Chrome.  Chrome will run all web-based applications students need to support their learning.  Any other learning tools we need for simulations or A/V we find in open source products that are license free👍

Doug:  Truth be told, school districts currently have this obsession with Chromebooks.  Chromebooks actually run a version of Linux so why isn’t your procedure done in more places?  Ultimately, you end up in a browser and you’re on the internet, aren’t you?

Andrew:  Absolutely true! This isn’t rocket science. We transform older, slower computers into faster Linux computers in which students can explore the world via Google Chrome (FOR FREE👐)

Doug:  During the emergency teaching this spring, did your students have access at home?  Were they tech savvy enough to get through any issues?

Andrew: Throughout our spring session, many students had donated Linux computers at home as their only lifeline to their school learning environment.  I received some tech support emails but most were taken care of peer-2-peer👍

Doug:  You indicate that you are a SDG ambassador.  What does this mean to you and your students / school / district?

Andrew: As SDG Global Ambassadors, our efforts are recognized and supported by the global @teachSDGs community.  Through our SDG community we will be working to support communities in other countries as well.

Doug:  If people are interested in more about this concept, can they reach out to you?

Andrew: Anyone is welcome to reach out to me via email (dobbieandy@gmail.com) or on Twitter.

Doug:  Thank you for taking time for this interview, Andrew.  I hope that those that read it will have a new appreciation for what you’re doing and perhaps they’ll push for the same concept in their schools.

You can stay on top of Andrew’s latest adventures here.

Published by dougpete

The content of this blog is created by me at the keyboard or as a result of an aggregator of my daily reading under the title OTR Links. On Fridays, look for my signature post "This Week in Ontario Edublogs" where I try to share some great writing from Ontario Educators. The other regular post appears Sunday mornings as I try to start a conversation about things that have gone missing from our daily lives.

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