Trust your students with open source

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In Zen Buddhism the concept of Shoshin, or "Beginner’s Mind," teaches us to approach learning with openness and a lack of preconceptions. Zen Monk and teacher, Shunryu Suzuki famously wrote: "In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few." When we cast aside that which we think we know, or that which we believe to be true, we can embrace new insights and ideas. As we climb to levels of expertise in our careers and work, we sometimes disconnect from the intense experiences of unknowing and the creative discovery inherent in being a novice.

Children wholly embody a beginner’s mind and naturally exhibit an inquisitiveness and passion to explore the world around them.

They are natural hackers, as evidenced by elementary students describing in glee how they manipulate and mod Minecraft, trick out games via cheat codes, and jailbreak iPods. Unimpeded by assumptions of what technology should do, or a fear of failure, children push forward into a realm of possibility, invention and exploration. As a technology and education leader in a public K-12 school district, my role is to design a learning environment where openness, creativity, and opportunity is offered to every child. I'm also fortunate to be part of a team who values the open source philosophy and embraces educational software freedom.

For over a decade, open source has permeated all areas of our district operations, infrastructure, and classrooms. We have introduced open source software and ideals to our students, parents, teachers, and community through a variety of projects and programs. Our school district has deployed the largest fleet of student Linux laptops in the state of Pennsylvania. As of January 2014, Penn Manor students regularly utilize nearly 3500 laptops and desktops exclusively running open source software. Open source is with them everyday, and an integral part of their learning.

The introduction of open source is natural; children have no preconceptions of what software should be used in school because a marketing team, teacher, or other expert tells them what to use. They simply take advantage of the available tools to solve problems, write meaningfully, and produce visible artifacts of learning. I believe that a student's curiosity and ability to explore should not be confined to a classroom or bound by a locked technology platform. As part of our high school 1:1 laptop program, all 1700 students in grades 9 through 12 are receiving Linux powered laptops loaded with a large menu of open source applications. The laptops are personally assigned to each student, used as part of their studies during the school day, and travel home with them during evenings and weekends.

Many school 1:1 programs restrict what students may do and learn with their devices. Installation or modification of software is typically restricted, often draconically, to IT personnel. This common practice cripples learning and dishonors students’ autonomy. In contrast, our program begins with a deep level of trust; student accounts are given sudo privileges and granted the liberty to install programs, spin configuration knobs, and freely experiment with the universe of open source software. Novice and accomplished students are welcomed and encouraged to learn the art of computing and pursue personal passions and interests. By starting the conversation with "We trust you," and providing an open platform for learning, we set in motion a train of student inquiry and discovery.

Everyday access to open source on the desktop helps our students experience the potency and flexibility of open source, and possibly help launch the careers of future coders, engineers, and free thinkers. Finally, education and outreach to fellow teachers, parents, and families is critical to helping novices understand the value of open source software and communities. My parent presentations and teacher professional development sessions typically begin with introductions to familiar software such as Firefox and Moodle. As I explain the merits of LibreOffice and Linux, parents commonly are intrigued by alternatives to expensive proprietary software such as Microsoft Office and Windows. Taxpayers typically react with glee when they learn that our use of Koha, Moodle, OwnCloud, WordPress, and other enterprise-class solutions provide high-quality free alternatives to costly proprietary systems and services.

Students embrace open source principles with incredible curiosity and fearlessness. Yet, I'm not exactly sure why open source software has not become wildly popular in schools. Relentless marketing by commercial vendors is certainly part of the equation. Perhaps at some point, many walk across the line of demarcation between beginner mind and expert mind. The march from open to closed plays out time and time again in educational software preference, licensing, and technology. Often, the inertia and comfort of one's expertise is difficult to overcome and can limit the desire to step forward into new territory.

As adults, as experts, how might we energize and kindle the spirit of open learning and creation? As suggested by another great teacher, we begin the thousand-mile journey with the first small step, place open options in front of our students, and watch the magic unfold.




See the full list of Youth in Open Source Week articles.

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Charlie is the CIO for Penn Manor School District in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and the author of The Open Schoolhouse.


I love your article and completely agree with you. I was a PK-12 technology director, teacher and staff developer for 26 years. Though I recently retired from public education I have continued to teach some courses in our public library and seek grant funding opportunities. I'm also a recent user and advocate of Raspberry Pi and Google's Chromebook. Nine years ago our district had a successful implementation of the K12 LTSP package that we ran with Centos 4. Our thin clients were re-purposed PC's that PXE booted to the terminal and provided students with a viable desktop alternative.

I love Linux and open source because it allows students to use their creativity to create new applications and of course its free and one can have a great conversation about copyright, copyleft and Creative Commons at the same time. I started following you on Twitter and I'm looking forward to hearing more from you. Thanks again for taking the time to share your passion with us.

I'm so glad the article resonated with you, Don. Thanks for the kind words; it sounds like you are doing great open source education work as well!

Hi Sir Charlie! I really love the first paragraph. It catches my heart. Thank you for sharing your ideas in open source education and the culture of open source. LONG LIVE OPEN SOURCE!

Thanks for sharing Don and Kriszzilla! Charlie has another fantastic article on how open source took root in one Pennsylvania school district here:

Thank you Ma'am Jen!

I totally agree to trust upon open source, but make the students aware of open source licenses and how to fit them into a governance model.

Dear Charlie,
Can we also deploy open source softwares like linux operating systems which is freely available in place of windows in higher educations and universities .
Is it possible to convert the complete labs from windows to any of the of the linux disrtibution.
I would love to see the change.

You absolutely can. I am the sysadmin of a small private school in Ohio and our library machines run only Linux mint. The student laptops run both Mint and Windows. Staff and administration are actually the reason why we aren't completely open source. The kids respond great to it!

Hi Shobha-

We converted several labs in our middle/high school to Linux (Ubuntu) a few years ago. The transition requires some professional development for faculty, but our students had no issues with the upgrade! :)

Hi! Jon
that's great to here. :)

What was your source for the laptops? What distribution did you use and why did you choose that? Your work has inspired me once again as I find myself helping a small public library use its scant resources to provide state of the art technology tools.


We deployed Acer TBM113 11.6" laptops for our high school 1:1 project. They run Ubuntu 13.10 currently; we plan to upgrade to 14.04 LTS this summer. A polished, modern UI was a key program goal, which is why we implemented the latest desktop release. My team has considerable experience with Ubuntu on both servers and desktops, which was also a factor in distribution choice.


The school district I work is located in the suburbs of Chicago. They deployed 1:1 technology in the 2012-2013 school year and it seems to be very successful. Note: I am not a teacher. I am merely a support staff personnel, but I am currently pursuing my CS degree and have been in education as special education teachers aide for 9 years. So technology in the classroom is near and dear to my heart. That being said, our district uses Google Chromebooks, Open Class, and Google docs. What suggestions do you have that I can bring to some of my teacher friends to help them expand their own and the students' knowledge into the world of open source?

Did you guys ever think about contacting one of the smaller companies focused on free software? It would probably be advisable next go around. Many of the major players don't understand free software and supporting the smaller companies would enable more free software development and better hardware support. As it stands many of the companies designing chipsets don't cater to the demands of the user base and it results in sub-par support. However with the code available that can change (and has), but there are still many devices for which there aren't any good options and we've even lost support for newer technologies in some cases. An example of why this matters is there was one company that was really focused on pushing for the release of code for a modern USB N wifi adapter chipset. This was ThinkPenguin, but that wasn't easy, and they don't have the resources to push for the release of code on nearly as many technologies as they would like to.

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