Affordable Option

Indiana finds open source software is key to making one-to-one student/computer initiative a reality.

by / November 4, 2005
For Mike Huffman, the Indiana Department of Education's special assistant for technology, creating a plan to provide a computer for every student in the state's 385 high schools required a delicate balancing act.

"We've had to take into account affordability, flexibility, sustainability and scalability," he said. "Each of those elements has been critical to making this work."

This fall, Huffman helped launch the Indiana Affordable Computers for Every Secondary Student (ACCESS) initiative, a partnership involving Novell, Intel, Dell and others. The plan is designed to eventually put a desktop computer in front of every high school student in the state, and the use of open source software plays a key role in making the plan work.

Although Indiana is not the first state to devise such a plan, it could be among the first to conduct such extensive research into executing the initiative in a fiscally responsible and future-minded manner. Indiana is so focused on the future of its technology initiative that when some companies offered free technology, the state turned them down.

"We've rejected one-time deals, or free-the-first-year deals, because that doesn't help with sustainability," Huffman said. "We don't want to get three years into this project and realize that's as far as the fiscal plan will take us."

Availability Versus Use
Indiana had a respectable student/computer ratio before the launch of Indiana ACCESS -- approximately 3.2 students per computer -- placing it among the top 10 states in the country. But upon closer inspection, education officials realized that didn't necessarily mean students were using technology. After observing students, officials found they didn't use computers often, despite the fact that some were available in classrooms. Rather, they discovered that students primarily used the computers for special projects or after finishing in-class assignments.

"If you followed the individual students, the actual time a student was using a computer averaged about 35 minutes a week," said Huffman.

The issue was that teachers were not integrating technology into the curriculum, and for understandable reasons. Although classrooms had a few computers, the majority of the machines were in labs.

If a class had 30 students and only 10 computers, it was difficult for teachers to split 10 students off to use the computers without having to repeat a lecture to the other 20 kids in the class.

In some cases, the lack of technology in the classrooms meant students were doing double-duty, especially when it came to writing assignments. "We noticed kids were writing essays by hand in the classrooms and then going to the labs to type them," said Laura Taylor, director of Indiana's Office of Learning Resources. "The students couldn't use their lab time to compose, there just wasn't enough time. Yet our end-of-course tests are online. They will have to compose online for those, and they'll have to compose online in the real world. Not giving them the opportunity to practice that skill was doing them a disservice."

Crunching the Numbers
When Huffman and his cohorts realized what was happening, they set out to improve access to technology in classrooms. They looked at a variety of options, including laptop models like those Maine and Michigan implemented. But the laptop approach immediately raised financial red flags.

"The laptops cost between $1,000 and $1,500 a seat -- and that was just for the hardware," said Huffman. "We have 300,000 high school students in the state of Indiana. So we were looking at $450 million. And laptops are only good for three or four years. So we were looking at a minimum of $100 million a year -- and we hadn't even factored in software or training yet."

Huffman and his team researched several alternatives. They eventually decided to purchase desktop computers directly from Wal-Mart's Web site for $199 per machine. They then added 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. "We have an English teacher who said that whatever she wrote on the board, the students would just copy. Now that students have computers, she doesn't write things down, and the students have to pay more attention and take their own notes. We have higher-order thinking and an increased level of student engagement."

Over the next year, Indiana education officials will evaluate test scores, student and teacher engagement and costs to judge the effectiveness of Indiana ACCESS. If results are promising, they plan to push ahead with deployment to all 385 secondary schools in the state.

"If the teachers don't see this producing value there's no reason to do it," said Taylor. "We are looking for this to enhance student learning, not change the way students are learning. But I think it may end up doing both very successfully."

Huffman said he sees Indiana ACCESS as a great opportunity for Indiana students and schools. "I think a year or two down the road we're going to have an astounding success story to tell."
Justine Brown Contributing Writer