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Ubuntu in education: A K-12 IT Director’s experience

Aaron Prisk

on 17 August 2023

Hi folks, I’m Aaron, Community Engineer at Canonical! Prior to joining the Community Team, I spent a decade working as an IT Director and Systems Administrator at two school districts in the United States. The first was  a rural school in central Pennsylvania that enrolls around 1,000 students and has a little over 150 staff members. I was part of a small IT department in charge of strategic planning, deployment and management of all district technology.

A technology dilemma 

We faced an all-too-common problem encountered by many rural and unprivileged school districts: how do we provide access to high quality technology on a limited budget while navigating the complex web of laws and regulations necessary to protect our students? This fundamental dilemma was made worse by a large and looming fleet of legacy devices that were more a burden than a helpful tool in the classroom.

To help tackle these problems, we formed a technology committee of fellow administrators, teachers, students and various other stakeholders within the district. After hearing from each of our interested parties we discovered the platform was at the heart of our problems. Our Microsoft dependent environment was costly, inelastic and limiting. It needed to be replaced.

With that conclusion in mind, we began exploring other platforms. Along with the latest version of Windows at that time we evaluated macOS, ChromeOS and Ubuntu. We considered numerous factors such as: Total deployment cost, hardware compatibility, software availability and fleet manageability. In the end, the committee selected Ubuntu. The decision was unanimous. Ubuntu would allow us to bridge the gap between new and legacy hardware while giving us the freedom to tailor the deployment to our unique needs.

Ubuntu everywhere

During the following summer months, we moved the majority of our district devices to Ubuntu. Our team opted to use Long Term Support versions as they provided a reliable and secure base for multiple years. We settled on building two custom images that were to be deployed to student devices. Using a continuous image building system consisting of KVM, partclone, FOG and Jenkins we were able to create multiple images that had the latest security updates and all the necessary software.

For our fleet of legacy and learning lab computers, we built a lightweight image that used the XFCE desktop and contained a large collection of education software and some custom self-cleaning and kiosk utilities that ensured the device remained streamlined. Ubuntu being an open platform made this process extremely easy as we could modify the operating system down to the lowest levels to maximize the potential of our devices. The impact was noticeable in both raw performance and in the extension of battery life that was realized from the migration.

A new delivery of laptops, ready for the classroom

Newer devices or those that had more capable hardware were loaded with a more standard GNOME-powered Ubuntu desktop complete with a host of custom preloaded education software, some school district theming and the necessary state testing and web filtering software. Our team recruited the help of our student IT technicians to help with the device imaging and preparation stage. This gave them an excellent chance to learn the ins-and-outs of Linux systems administration.

A fleet of Ubuntu powered laptops being provisioned

We felt so confident in our Ubuntu in education initiative that we decided to roll it out as a high school wide 1:1 program where each student would be given an Ubuntu-powered device on the first day of school that would follow them throughout the entirety of the school year. We were one of the first schools in that region to pursue such an endeavor and the first to opt for a Linux powered environment. 

Students were not only allowed but actively encouraged to install software from the Ubuntu Software store. We fully believed that students would thrive when given the ability to explore, tinker and become a more active participant in their education.  In one memorable instance, a middle school student came into our office with a small board hooked up to a banana and they proceeded to show us how they were using it as a controller for Super Mario World. When we asked their teacher about their lesson in practice, they informed us that it was indeed the student that taught them.

A sticky, but functional game controller.

After the first year, we saw a massive decline in user reported issues and overall ticket counts for our department. Many transient or lingering issues that were plaguing the department were eliminated by the migration. Problematic student devices could be easily assessed, re-imaged and returned to the student within minutes allowing us to surpass our own SLA expectations. As a result of forgoing expensive software licensing, we realized  significant savings that we were able to cycle back into the district to purchase new devices.

Overcoming obstacles

Moving an entire school district to a new platform is not without its challenges. 

There are still a number of prominent software vendors who do not support Linux as a platform for their products. We were able to shift our curriculum to adapt to these limitations, integrating free and open source software like LibreOffice, GIMP, Scratch and even introductory Python into our syllabus. This may not always be an option for schools pursuing a change of platform, however there are alternative options available. As a byproduct of Chromebooks’ growing popularity in the education world, software is also becoming more web centric and more OS agnostic making it easier for those looking to migrate.

Another significant challenge we encountered early on was that of fleet management. There are a number of powerful configuration management and automation tools in the open source world that all boast their own respective strengths and weaknesses. In testing the most prominent solutions, none of them entirely fit the scope of our needs so we opted to build our own in-house management tool using all open source components. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it suited our needs and was simple enough for a student technician or teacher to use. This was only possible due to the nature of open source and the freedom it provides- if there isn’t a tool out there, make your own!

Complex problems create innovative solutions

Over the next 5 years the district was operating on almost entirely open source software; student devices, servers, networking hardware, storage appliances and a host of kiosks and single function devices. Year over year we were able to provide powerful educational tools, improve internal processes, and save tens of thousands of dollars –  all while building a foundation for the future. Ubuntu not only allowed us to catch up with other districts’ technology offerings, but to leap past them and become the new trendsetters for the region. 

Ubuntu as a first choice

Anyone that has spent time managing technology in education knows the unique challenges that it presents: fluctuating budgetary constraints, shifting stakeholder needs, evolving academic standards, complex government regulations, mixed with often understaffed technology departments. These challenges are regularly amplified in underserved and rural areas. 

In my decade-long tenure as a Technology Director and Systems Administrator in US public schools, I gained firsthand experience navigating this complex landscape while balancing these competing interests in an effort to provide the best technology for students, staff, and community. A fundamental choice that every learning institution wrestles with at some point, both large and small, is what operating system they choose to build around. In many cases, that choice was Ubuntu.

Find out more about Ubuntu in education

To learn more about Aaron’s experiences alongside a broader perspective on the role of Ubuntu in education, academia and research, register for our upcoming webinar, Back to school: Ubuntu Desktop in education, on September 19th.

To support those using Ubuntu in schools, research and academia, Canonical is pleased to offer a discount programme on Ubuntu Pro for approved institutions.

In addition, Canonical provides day zero support for Ubuntu Desktop deployment, compliance and custom configuration.

If you’re interested in taking advantage of this programme, or want to learn more about the benefits of Ubuntu in education, please get in touch.

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