A few weeks before Penn Manor High School gave Linux laptops to every student, stacks of the unboxed machines filled a cafeteria. There the Lancaster, Pa. district's IT staff, high school apprentices and volunteers spent winter break configuring and testing all 1,725 laptops in assembly-line fashion, in preparation for the start of the second semester.
When they were done, every student, grades 9-12, came away with an Acer TravelMate laptop pre-loaded with Ubuntu 13.10. Then after a roughly 5-minute orientation, students were let loose  with sudo access and a mission to tinker, study, and create to their hearts' delight.
“We encourage our students to install software and lift the hood of the system to better understand what makes it tick,” said Charlie Reisinger, the district's technology director. “I hope our students run local webservers, toy with Python or simply explore graphics programs such as GIMP. Linux offers so many opportunities to explore computing, programming, and the arts.”
Switching to Open Source
Linux has been the backbone of the Penn Manor School District's IT infrastructure for a decade – powering servers and providing the platform for its websites, storage, and learning management systems. So when the district set out to give every student a laptop, installing Linux was a natural choice for the IT staff.
Reisinger also did some personal soul-searching on the role of technology in the classroom, he says, and realized that many of the “fad” devices embraced by other schools didn't align with his educational goals for computing. (See his full rationale in his recent blog post on OpenSource.com.)
“It concerns me that we tend to chase the new silver tech bullet without thinking philosophically about what we want our students doing, or the freedom we want to give them with the device,” he said. “My fear is we're losing the art of computing. Then we lose a generation of engineers.”
Linux allows a level of exploration and control that other closed devices don't, he said. The cost savings in switching to all open source software is an added benefit. Reisinger estimates the district will save at least $360,000 in licensing fees on the high school's 1:1 laptop program alone.
Three years ago, the district set out to replace all of its classroom Windows and Mac machines with Linux and open source software. Elementary and middle school computer labs and classroom computers were the first to run Linux. And this month marked the end of the transition with the launch of the high school's 1:1 laptop program.
Getting Students Involved
Beyond giving out new laptops, the program set out to teach open source principles and introduce a culture shift. IT staff led evening “tech camps” for parents in the district and training sessions for teachers to help them become more familiar with the installed applications as well as the concept of open source software.
“Many parents think open source is some nefarious plot; they misunderstand that free in principle isn't a sub plot to take over their computer,” said Andrew Lobos, one of four seniors at Penn Manor High who has spent the last several summers interning with the IT team. “We see that with parents and students, there's a lot of misunderstanding about what free and open source software is.”
The group of seniors was brought in as help desk apprentices to do web design, hardware testing, and deployment. They also helped facilitate the laptop training sessions and runs an IT support desk for other students during the school day.
To help automate the Linux installation, Lobos developed his own software toolkit (on Git Hub ) out of open source components including BusyBox and Udpcast. Ben Thomas built the ticketing system for the student help desk (also on Git Hub ). And Nick Joniec and Collin Enders have been doing hardware support.
All four seniors said they plan to go on to careers in system administration or engineering. But for now they're happy to see more of their peers using open source software.
“Even if they're not really aware it's using Linux hopefully they gain a little more computer or tech knowledge from using it,” said Lobos, who first used Linux in the fifth grade to build a web server on a Pentium III he found in his basement. “And in the classroom I think it will be a great learning tool. My greatest hope is it will inspire someone to start coding.”
Visit the Penn Manor Technology Blog for more information on the school's open source education programs.
For more photos of the roll out see the slideshow, below.