Newark Charter takes advantage of open source software for cheaper, more reliable computers
One aspect of charter schools is that they can be laboratories of innovation, developing new methods that can be replicated for the benefit of traditional public schools. Newark Charter School (NCS) has done just that in one area at least: stretching its computer dollars to make more computers available, with the bonus that they are also more reliable.
NCS runs a significant number of its computers with a system called the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP). With LTSP, the connected computers are thin clients. That means they don’t have an operating system of their own (like Windows, Mac, or anything else). Instead, each time you start up the computer it downloads an operating system from its central server (onsite at the school).
In fact, LTSP computers (terminals) don’t even need their own hard drives. The operating system it downloads is a version of Linux, complete with all the educational software needed, including a web browser, word processor and other business applications, and it runs DCAS and eSchoolPLUS. It even can run Windows applications, depending on your setup.
The advantage of LTSP is that you can use older computers that are too slow to run current versions of Windows. Your current aging computers will probably work just fine, or you can acquire plenty of appropriate computers for free or cheap. In addition, maintenance is drastically reduced, since all configuration is done on the central server, and you no longer have to go to each computer to configure it individually (a common problem with Windows computers). Viruses and spyware are virtually non-existent, although still possible.
Last month I called Jeff Donaldson, Technology Director at NCS, and he graciously agreed to talk to me about their LTSP system.
NCS has a mix of computers, including traditional Windows PCs, laptop carts, and even a Mac lab. The LTSP terminals are used to extend the number of computers and maximize availability. According to Donaldson, LTSP powers around 150 computers at NCS, including most of the teachers’ classroom computers. In addition, NCS has been able to populate three computer labs stocked with LTSP terminals, including the library. In addition to being general workstations for the labs and the library, terminals are all capable of running DCAS and provide plenty of seats for testing.
Support for Windows programs is supported at NCS by running another server, this one a Microsoft product called Windows Terminal Server. From your LTSP screen, you can start up a Windows program by clicking the program’s icon. Transparently to the user, the program just starts up normally, even though behind the scenes it is running from the Windows server. This setup will work for any Windows program you have installed on the server. For example, at NCS, teachers can start Microsoft Internet Explorer in order to use the electronic gradebook (eSchoolPLUS).
The terminals are older computers, mostly Dells with Pentium 4 processors, and up to 512MB memory. This configuration would be painfully slow running Windows, but is fine for LTSP. The computers themselves are obtained through Partech, a state agency that reconditions older computers and provides them without charge to Delaware public schools.
According to Donaldson, the NCS system is powered by two LTSP servers, which are much more robust computers with more memory. These are likely to be the largest expense of setting up the system (other than labor). The central servers run a version of LTSP called Edubuntu, which is an education-specific version of Ubuntu Linux (more geeky details here).
The NCS system was initially set up by a predecessor, but Donaldson has expanded the system and performs all maintenance himself. LTSP and Ubuntu are well supported by its online community, and it is a task that can be done by one administrator.
A computer lab with 25 LTSP terminals can be set up for less than $10,000 (my estimate), and perhaps as little as $5K. By contrast, one school’s PTA is holding a fundraiser to buy a new laptop cart (Windows) at $20,000. (Of course, the first one will take additional time depending on the experience of the administrator).
Newark Charter’s LTSP experience is a great example of a practice that could greatly benefit our traditional public schools. By acquiring the skill and experience to quickly deploy low-cost LTSP labs as needed, our schools can greatly reduce their shortage of computers for testing, and take some of the cost burden off the technology budget.