Indiana's Open-Source Experiment

These days, one-to-one computing programs are as predictable as the tides. Every student gets a computer. All the computers are the same. For most districts, big decisions about these programs include which Windows or Apple notebooks to buy. In the state of Indiana, however, educators recently turned this notion on its head, launching an entire one-to-one program based entirely on Linux desktops. The program, dubbed Indiana Affordable Classroom Computer for Every Secondary Student (InACCESS), launched in 2003 as an alternative way to put computers in the hands of every student. So far, after two years of pilots and one full year of classroom testing, reaction to the program has been very positive. “This program has changed the entire way we approach computing in our state,†says Mike Huffman, special assistant for technology at the Indiana State Department of Education in Indianapolis. “I don’t think any of us expected things to work this well.†According to Huffman, the impetus for the program was a statewide desire to utilize computer resources more effectively. Back in 2001, a Department of Education study revealed that while most state districts had an ample supply of computers, labs were overbooked, and many teachers never even had a chance to get in and use them. Officials knew the only way to overcome this problem was to invest in computers for each and every one of the state’s 300,000 students, but had no clue how to fund such a Herculean endeavor. Then, one day in 2003, it hit them: Why not use Linux? The rest is history. As Huffman describes it, the state used small grants to purchase Linux desktop computers for $199 apiece and monitors for $99 apiece. Part of the overall plan to keep costs low was to implement open-source programs such as StarOffice 8.3 and Moodle, CMAP, and a host of other open-source software to reinvent the curriculum and make learning more effective. Because open-source software is free to implement and cheap to maintain, Huffman was confident the plan would work. He was right—costs are down, and use is up. While the state hasn’t rolled out all 300,000 machines yet, it has set up about 18,000 in 24 high schools. By the end of this year, more than 100 high schools will have open-source computers. “We’re expanding things quickly,†says Huffman. “At this point, it’s an aggressive rollout.†Teachers have embraced the new system as a welcome change. Carla Beard, the English department chair at Connersville High School, says that the new computers have piqued the interest of previously disengaged students. She notes that she recently caught a student looking up a word in an online dictionary during class. The effort has also had a positive impact on behavioral issues. Dan Ice, technology director at Alexandria Community Schools, says the year before the Linux program, his district logged 62 discipline referrals. This year, he says, that number dropped to nine. “We attribute much of the difference to the computers,†he says. “The students are much more engaged.†Perhaps the most impressive impact of the new system has been cost savings. Previously, the state of Indiana was spending $100 per year per machine to license software from vendors such as Microsoft or Apple. Today, the school is paying no more than $10 per year. With 18,000 computers, this is a savings of more than $16,000 per year. And when amortized over 300,000 computers, this annual savings jumps to $27 million. The district is experiencing a similar savings with hardware, reducing total cost of ownership per machine from $1,000 to about $290. Still, InACCESS hasn’t been a walk in the park. For one thing, state technologists have experienced some trouble making these authentication systems work with Microsoft’s Active Directory. Another issue, of course, is support: while open source is free, the programming is so sophisticated that frequently users need programmers on site, an expensive proposition. Finally, the keyboards the school received with the original machines were inadequate, so the district must pay an additional $5 per unit for better keyboards. Looking forward, Huffman says he plans to stick to his five-year plan for the program, focusing on some basic rules: affordability, sustainability, repeatability, openness, compatibility, commonality, and scalability. Huffman cites these tenets when explaining why Indiana chose desktops over laptops. “At some point, when laptops meet the affordability and sustainability guidelines, inACCESS may become a laptop model,†he says. “Who knows? Our sense is that we need to move ahead and get these tools in the hands of students and teachers.†Matt Villano is contributing editor of School CIO.