Approximately 9 months ago, the Penn Manor IT Team began researching a laptop solution for everyday student computing. Our intention was to provide a sufficient number of devices to meaningfully increase technology access for all district elementary classrooms. Given the backdrop of ongoing fiscal constraints, a critical goal was the identification of a an affordable device which could be sustained both financially and operationally. However, the primary objective continued to be the installation of a dynamic, reliable and open device to support classroom instruction, district curriculum and student learning.
We required our new laptop fleet to satisfy a broad range of student and teacher needs. However, the majority of our everyday student computing involves web tools and cloud-based services. For example, GoogleDocs is largely replacing Micosoft Office. Interactive learning sites such as Starfall eliminates the need for local installations of educational software. Remediation and study tools including ALEKS and StudyIsland require little more than a fast Internet connection and a current web-browser. In our modern classrooms, web resources play a massive role in student learning.
After an extensive of review of hardware and software options, we chose Lenovo x120e laptops running Ubuntu Linux. (Read more about our evaluation of Ubuntu and reasons for the choice.) The Ubuntu-powered laptops were configured and customized with the lightweight XFCE desktop package. Pairing XFCE with Ubuntu, our team custom designed an easy-to-use desktop layout which resembles an intuitive hybrid of the Mac and Windows operating systems familiar to most staff and students.
Teachers received a mini-training on the new laptops in late August. While the name Ubuntu was unfamiliar to most, our staff were rapidly off and running as they discovered the dozens of applications pre-loaded on the systems. Training was not really about how the laptop worked; our time was spent exploring the possibilities of the new software and tools.
Four months into the school year, we can now begin to evaluate the impact of our open source project. Elementary teachers have quickly assimilated the laptops into day-to-day learning activities. Middle school students utilize the laptops in conjunction with the AMP reading program. PM High School students are using the laptops as part of a Social Studies department pilot program to drastically reduce paper. What is most remarkable is that these new devices help students and teachers leverage technology for learning without extensive training or technical problems.
The Ubuntu-powered laptops boot fast, typically in about 50 seconds, and shut down nearly instantaneously. The machines are lightweight, yet sturdy and rugged. Battery life has exceeded our expectation; our classrooms are typically able to make it through a full day without a recharge. Students have access to Java apps, multiple web browsers and a host of other free software such as Google Earth, LibreOffice, Gimp, Audacity, Scratch, gCompris and Skype. Plus, online apps and tools like GoogleDocs and Flash-enabled sites work well.
Penn Manor currently employs 620 Lenovo x120e ThinkPads running Ubuntu Linux and open source software. At a minimum, our open source program has saved over $70,000 versus an implementation of iPads or similar tablet technology. If we compare the cost of Ubuntu-powered ThinkPad netbooks against the price of a standard $900 MacBook, our savings are well over a quarter of a million dollars. Simply put, the combination of high-quality, low-cost hardware and free open source software allows us to provide engaging technology tools for students and teachers at all grade levels. The pairing of affordable, reliable hardware with free software opens the door for a sustainable technology learning solution for years to come.