monitors and loaded the machines with Linux and StarOffice. "The total cost of each system at that point was $300," said Huffman. "That brought the total for all students to $90 million, and because they were desktops, we figured we could probably extend their use to four or five years. That got us down to $20 million a year, which was much more doable."

The state's unusual Wal-Mart effort garnered attention in education and technology circles. Shortly after, Huffman was approached by Intel, Dell and Novell with a plan to partner on an affordable and sustainable plan called Indiana ACCESS.

"Affordability is the key tenet in this. Curriculum is driving it -- the need to get students access to resources and to applications -- but affordability is the sustaining factor. If we can't afford it broadly for students across the state, it does us no good."

This fall, Indiana and Novell began deploying new student desks with built-in Intel-based Dell desktop computers at 24 high schools around the state. The machines use Novell Linux Desktop software, which is built on the SUSE Linux platform. The total cost, including the desks, is $560 per unit, according to Huffman.

Although the purchase price is slightly higher than the Wal-Mart units, the Novell partnership gives the schools the added benefit of the specially configured desktops, as well as the security of knowing they can expect the same deal for the next several years under the agreement. In addition, when the machines need to be refreshed in four to five years, the estimated costs are just $150 to $200 per unit.

Open Source Is Key

Open source software is critical to the plan's success. "The concept of putting open systems desktops in classrooms is not as foreign as you might think," said Huffman. "It works."

If fact, the use of open source software appears to be a budding trend. Research recently conducted by the British Educational Communications and Technology Association concluded that schools could cut computer costs by "nearly half" if they switched to open source, which often lowers support, hardware and software costs.

"The affordability of open source is tremendous," said Taylor. "Licensing fees for software can be high, and when you have to pay per machine, the costs shoot way up. And that's a recurring cost, which calls sustainability into the question."

Huffman said the use of open source has not created incompatibility issues for Indiana. CrossOver Office -- a program that allows users to run Microsoft Office applications including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook 97 and Outlook 2000 on Linux computers -- is being utilized in many instances. In cases where applications are either Web-based or written in different programming languages, they can be reconfigured to run on Linux machines.

"Compatibility and training have not been concerns," said Huffman. "A lot of total cost of ownership models out there factor those things in, but we have not seen that at all. It takes the kids 5 minutes and they are up and running."

Huffman was quick to point out that Indiana ACCESS is not an anti-Microsoft campaign, but simply an effort to make resources available in K-12 education.

"The cost model we're working with leaves $10 to $15 for software and application support costs per machine," he said. "The most common Microsoft applications cost significantly more than that. The scalability factor really isn't there. If we can offer the same thing and use open source software, then why not?"

Encouraging Results

Huffman and Taylor already have noticed a difference among students who received computers under the first wave of Indiana ACCESS deployment this fall. "All of a sudden, kids are writing more and they seem more involved in the classroom," said Huffman.

Taylor said some teachers are even teaching differently. "

Justine Brown  |  Contributing Writer