Where to start: Upgrading your school system to open source

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One short article cannot hope to encapsulate the minutea for implementing open source in school districts and schools, however this primer sets the basis for the opportunities and strategies to achieve success.

When I speak about using open source I am not limiting it to replacing commercial office productivity suites with LibreOffice, as one example. This article speaks to the pervasive utilization of operating systems, productivity software, management software to all areas of the curriculum and business of a school district. It considers the relative ease for implementing open source in elementary schools as well as highly complex secondary schools under a diversity of programs and curricular requirements.

I recently wrote about the implementation of open source systems at the Saanich School District in southern Vancouver Island, BC here: Prepare students for a rapidly changing world by teaching with open source.

As a result I have received communication about the practicality for implementing this kind of technology and what was involved. At our school district, I would consider our implementation of open source to be a success. Is it a panacea? Would it satisfy everyones needs and perceived needs? Perhaps not but when offset against declining enrollment, budget constraints, staffing constraints, limited resources, energy conservation, and other factors, I believe it offers the greatest potential benefits while satisfying curricular and business needs.

The benefits of change

When we talk about sweeping change with this system, it considers the following. Replacing not only server operating systems with Linux but desktop operating systems through the use of distributions like RedHat, Ubuntu, and so forth. It also involves replacing the traditional fat clients, such as a Microsoft Windows computers or Macintosh computers, with Linux diskless clients that are energy efficient, cost effective, and sustainable.

It requires utilizing open source software applications wherever possible and enabling commercial applications only where necessary. It means moving to cloud-based systems as they evolve and satisfy Freedom of Information and Privacy laws. The advantages in doing these things are significant and include:

  • reduced Total Cost of Ownership (TCO)
    • reduced maintenance
    • reduced support
    • reduced operating costs
  • reduced capital costs
  • reduced licensing fees
  • reduced energy
  • reduced greenhouse gases (GHG) and CO2 emissions
  • standardization and consistency
  • increased manageability
  • increased ability to upgrade and react to trouble tickets
  • extended life of clients
  • ...and a number of other benefits and advantages

The challenges of change

With all of the improvements to open source software, the question today is not a technological one but a human and social one. For any school district planning to implement significant technological change, such as the use of Linux diskless clients and open source software, there are several important impediments and can include any and potentially all of the following:

  • lack of executive support
  • insufficient funding
  • poor communication
  • inadequate planning
  • lack of technical expertise
  • user resistance to change
  • IT staff resistance to change
  • insufficient training
  • inadequate ongoing support
  • failure to garner user feedback and advice

A comprehensive model for enabling change

In the case of the Saanich school district, the model had already been developed at my previous sister district. At Saanich we used this previous developed model as a foundation for establish and refine our own strategy. If I could quantify what has made our implementation a success I would record it as the following broad areas:

1. developing a comprehensive technology plan that involved not just pedagogical outcomes but clear objectives, budget requirements, project responsibilities, training requirements, and an implementation strategy

2. support for capital funding had to be achieved in order to implement the plan

3. communicating and convincing senior district administration and school administration with the efficacy of the plan

4. schools need to appreciate the vision of what the system could look like and the advantages it would bring to the teaching learning process

5. a commitment to hiring at least one staff person with the significant technical expertise to build, test, and refine the system

6. garner the support of the district technology coordinator who had the educational background and willingness to support the project

7. encourage existing district technology staff to become actively involved in the transition and training provided to facilitate their changing roles

8. start with a pilot school to refine the image and debug a strategy for implementing the rest of the district once the image is developed

9. during implementation district tech staff remain at the school until staff are comfortable enough for them to leave

10. we emphasized refining and growing support to quickly react to questions, change requests, and training

11. ongoing development and enhancement

Early on we determined that using Ubuntu Long Term Support (LTS) and the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP)  would form the foundation for our systems. They are mature systems which have stood the test of time and ensured that our use of LTS would provide stability and sustainability. It has also enabled us to integrate other technologies including directory services using openLDAP, trouble ticket software using Request Tracker, management of our other devices with Puppet, incorporating learning management through the use of Moodle, creating social networks with Elgg and a host of other applications.

We have learned a great deal in the past nearly six years. With Microsoft’s stated end-of-life for Windows XP in April 2014, we are now preparing to transition the majority of our remaining XP computers to largely Linux and open source systems. We have developed strategies for helping teachers who instruct digital media, industrial education, business education, and so forth to use software which will run on our Linux diskless client systems and support the curriculum. This is not without its challenges, however, as the same support structure developed for our first implementation we will see another approximately 500 workstations move to open source computing models. The aggregate total of our existing 2250 Linux diskless clients will swell to over 2700 systems across 16 sites.

The reality of change

Now all of this may seem incredibly difficult and non-mainstream that educators would be loath to support. We of course do hear many of the common objections to this type of system at schools but on the other hand we also hear from more who appreciate the stability and currency of our systems. Elementary schools no longer get secondary school hand-me-down computers. Secondary schools use all new technology rather than off-lease computers. Our applications have current versions and can be updated on a more frequent basis. We can update an entire school of hundreds of workstations with a new image, including operating system changes, application changes, security updates and menu changes, in under 2 hours. I would be interested to hear from any Windows-based school district who can claim that!

An open source endorsement

In our conversations, I am often asked to cite examples of organizations which are much larger and more diverse than ourselves who are utilizing this kind of technology. Take Google for instance. Google employs technology which is almost a mirror of the kind of desktop strategy we use at elementary, middle, and secondary schools. Google uses a variant of Ubuntu called Goobuntu which Tom Bushnell calls "a light skin over standard Ubuntu". This system is used to support all facets of Google’s operation including programming and business functions. At Saanich, I am often asked if our implementation of open source software relevant to today’s world? If you consider Google to be a technical leader and epitomize innovation, then yes our students are getting the greatest exposure to systems that Google has as a foundation to build and maintain arguably the most progressive systems in the world.

If that isn’t an endorsement for exposing our children to open source software, I am not sure what is.

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Gregg Ferrie is the Director of Information Technology for School District No. 63 (Saanich) in southern Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Gregg has a Master of Science degree in Information Systems and has been involved with open source software since the late 1990s.


Jobs in science, engineering and technology will nearly all require a working knowledge of Linux and the open source applications surrounding that OS. Teaching a standard desktop and office suite really has little value in the long term.

It is very likely that all but the most menial jobs will require some level of programming, and most of that will be on top of open source applications and platforms.

I have been involved in educational technology for a long time and my experience is those who are trained in commercial software operating systems and software often rely heavily on vendor provided support and services. As well they have little control or access to proprietary systems. Conversely administrators who manage Linux-based OS tend to rely on community support and become self-reliant. I do not think it is a stretch to say that Linux administrators are problem solvers, generally understand the inner workings of the operating system and have much greater control over their environment.

Teaching children to be problem solvers and becoming self-reliant would seem to be an advantage pedagogically than having them understand commercial software systems. Certainly teaching basic coding may even become part of literacy in the future.

Thank you for the comments.

This example is from Finland

"Opinsys Ltd has been working with school-IT since 2005. Our first deployments where custom made Linux -solutions and hardware sales. Along the years we have specialized more and more in providing a complete service for schools. Linux and open source programs are still at the core of our service.
Our staff numbers 15 at the moment. "


Opinsys service is used at around 150 schools and 45 000 students and teachers around Finland.

Timo Suanto, IT -pedagogical expert, City of Espoo:

“Opinsys service is remarkably more convenient than our former suppliers, which adds value for teaching.”

Riitta Rekiranta, headmaster, city of Kauniainen:

“We got ourselves more computers and a system, that supports learning and teaching.”

Kalevi Rissanen, director of education, Muurame:

“The deployment has gone smoothly. The co-operation with Opinsys has worked really well in general.”

Antti Turunen, IT -support, City of Kemi:

“Some have been really suprised by how fast the (reused) computers can work. It’s like working with brand new hardware.” Read more (in finnish)

I am familiar with the work that is going on at Opinsys Mats. It is an excellent prototype for the type of system which could certainly be replicated elsewhere. As the emphasis on desktop computing is replaced by mobility and distributing computing models more school districts may take advantage of what Linux and open source has to offer. Lots of excellent comments and quotes - kind regards.

Great article, Gregg. We also utilize open source in just about every corner of our school district, both operations and on our student laptops. It is so nice to read an article from a like-minded educator!

Loved reading this. I hope that more schools - especially in the US - will begin to follow a similar model.

Thank you for the kind words Joshua. There are definitely pockets of this technology in both the US, Canada and other countries but there is certainly more potential for schools and districts. I am very impressed by what is happening at Penn Manor School District in PA and the Opensys shared service in Finland. Great examples of innovation and strong leadership. Certainly we publish and make available our technology plans and are always happy to share what we have done.


Nice to hear about your setup and experiences. There has been quite a few school linux stories lately and that inspired me to write about our experiences at Opinsys.

We've been using netbooting LTSP thin/fat clients for quite some time and recently we have started using the same images also for laptops and we are also netbooting the terminal servers that serve the thin clients. This has made laptop management much easier for us than it was before. For schools this means much faster updates than previously. Hopefully I'll have soon more time to write about the actual technical solution and how to try it out.

The blog post about our experiences is here: http://labs.opinsys.com/blog/2014/01/21/managing-thousands-of-linux-destops-with-puavo/

This is not without its challenges, however, as the same support structure developed for our first implementation we will see another approximately 500 workstations move to open source computing models. <a href="http://www.vipessayservice.com/blog/controversial-essay-topics">http://www.vipessayservice.com/blog/controversial-essay-topics</a> This is the most progressive systems in the world.

This is not without its challenges, however, as the same support structure developed for our first implementation we will see another approximately 500 workstations move to open source computing models. <a href="http://www.vipessayservice.com/blog/controversial-essay-topics">http://www.vipessayservice.com/blog/controversial-essay-topics</a> This is the most progressive systems in the world.

Great article! We ran K12LTSP in an educational institution eight and nine years ago. Teaching students Linux and open source software in general gives them an advantage and fosters collaboration and creativity.

I am all happy with the use of open source, but when it comes to the school level, do you guys really think that school teachers would be able to handle the problems with any open source school management system?

School information systems that are open source would be no more difficult to support than proprietary systems as long as there was adequate tech support available. Open source systems could be superior because the code can be more easily/quickly modified. I had to support proprietary management systems and they can be very difficult and modifications only come when and if the vendor is willing.

Thanks a lot Don for your comment. I agree with you that if proper tech support is available, it will be great to use opensource school management software. But the real problem is that most of the opensource school erps are mainly the marketing strategy of the people who use them for their commercial profit.

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