How's this for back-to-school fashion: More than 20,000 Indiana students are now Linux-enabled under a state grant program to roll out low-cost, easy-to-manage workstations, which are running various flavors of the open-source operating system.
Mike Huffman, special assistant for technology at the Indiana Department of Education, said schools in the state have added Linux workstations for 22,000 students over the past year under the Affordable Classroom Computers for Every Secondary Student (ACCESS) program. And that could expand quickly with several new updated Linux distributions, such as Novell SUSE, Red Hat and Ubuntu.
This year, Huffman expects Linux desktop deployments to grow from 24 high schools to 80 high schools, driven by lower costs, higher functionality and early successes.
"The use of [Novell] SLED 10, I think, will increase significantly this year in schools, and we have Red Hat participating. They are getting some penetration in the local schools," Huffman said, adding that one school district has been having "a good deal of success with Ubuntu."
"The amazing part of this is, with everything we're doing in the classroom, teachers don't bring up Linux," he said. "They don't bring up open source. They bring up curriculum. You don't want the focus to be on Linux or open source."
Local schools can choose which platform to use, according to Huffman. "Many will install Windows machines. What we're doing in our grant program is, when we put one-to-one computers in language arts classrooms, they are loaded with Linux.
"We have a million kids in the state of Indiana," he continued. "If we were to pay $100 for software on each machine, each year, that's $100 million for software. That's well beyond our ability. That's why open source is so attractive. We can cut those costs down to $5 [on each computer] per year."
Huffman said he's eager to get a read on student acceptance of Linux. In surveying one classroom last year, he asked a student what he thought of using a Linux desktop vs. a Windows desktop, and the student responded, "Who cares?"
Approved suppliers for the program include Dell and Hewlett-Packard, as well as several system builders. All are supplying Linux-based desktops. HP and Dell have traditionally been strong allies of Microsoft, and their desktops and notebooks to the broader market are virtually all based on Windows.
"It's a very good program," said John Levy, CEO of Wintergreen Systems, an Elkhart, Ind.-based system builder that's on the ACCESS state contract. "The schools that have received [the grant] have been successful in their deployment. And the schools that have not received the product yet are trying to figure out if they need more infrastructure."
Wintergreen provides a complete desktop system for not more than $250. The PC maker has designed student workstations with clear tops that keep monitors out of the way so that teachers can see each student and monitor their work while they're on the computer.
Levy also said he believes new Linux distributions, such as Linspire's recently announced Freespire free Linux OS, will help drive the program. The number of students using Linux desktops in Indiana "will skyrocket," he added.
"I think within five years, we'll see a huge market shift," Huffman said. "But the Linux community really has to come together. They do have to have a common API; they've got to have a common installer. If those things don't exist, it will not be a competitive market again. If they do exist, I think it will."