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Thanks for answering the roll call. And now, a question.




OK, so that's a tidy handful of smart and knowledgeable people. Thanks for answering the call. :)

I wanted to talk about my recent experiences in education-land. This is a fairly lengthy email, so apologies in advance -- but I think that the people here are the perfect folks to read it.

The question, for those who want to skip to the end:

What should Red Hat be doing in the education space?

===

Last month, I went to visit Mike Huffman in Indianapolis. He's in charge of technology in schools for the state of Indiana. He said he was going to take me out to show me how Linux worked in his schools.

I'd seen a bunch of cool Linux labs elsewhere. Good example: I visited Jeff Elkner at Yorktown High School (Arlington, VA) a few years ago and toured his K12LTSP lab. It was essentially a lab for teaching computer skills, in the wealthiest high school in a wealthy school district, with a highly motivated teacher. Impressive stuff, but not what I would call a broadly replicable success.

So on my visit with Mike, he took me to a school in Greensburg, Indiana. This was not a wealthy school; in fact, it was in an economically depressed area. A lot of parents lost their jobs in the past few years when the local plant shut down. Fairly typical story nowadays, it seems.

As we drove out to Greensburg, Mike told me the story of how he came to believe that open source in general was *the* solution to the "computers in education" problems in his state. He told me about how Microsoft was squeezing him at every turn, and yet how the computers he had were sorely underutilized. He really explained to me, for the first time, the ideas around one-to-one computing -- and why open source is ideally positioned to make one-to-one a reality in his state.

===

I was expecting Mike to take me to a computer lab. Instead, he took me to an English class.

The kids filtered in, chitchatting like kids do. When the bell rang, the teacher directed their attention to the URL she'd written on the board. The kids turned on the monitors mounted underneath their plexiglass-covered desks, fired up their web browsers, and got to work.

The URL was a Moodle quiz. Something about "The Red Badge of Courage" or something, I don't remember. (As so often in my school days, I wasn't paying attention to that bit.) But the kids were done with the quiz in, oh, five minutes. When they were all done, the teacher started to teach her class. The kids would occasionally Google something. The teacher had a supernatural instinct about which kids were working on class-related stuff and which kids were fooling around, and kept the class pretty well in line.

I talked to her after class. "Moodle and Criterion have saved my life," she said. "I used to spend hours grading papers and quizzes. Now, Moodle takes care of the quizzes, and Criterion grades the papers for spelling and grammar so I can focus on the content. This software saves me 10 hours a week -- which I spend building the actual curriculum."

When I asked her about how she created the content, she said "oh, I get help from the other English teachers; we build the lesson plans together." Whereupon Mike Huffman broke in and told me that this was one of the first lessons he'd learned: the absolute necessity of collaboration. When Mike put *one* lab into a school, that lab failed. The teacher was intimidated by the technology, wouldn't ask for help, and the computers would sit unused. But when he put *three* labs into a school, the labs prospered; the teachers compared notes, learned from each other, and ultimately took fierce ownership of these fantastic new tools they'd been given.

The next day, I went to the symposium for the teachers in the state of Indiana, and heard similarly breathless stories. I heard from a teacher of *twenty-five years* who said that her one-to-one lab changed her mind about taking early retirement. "I can focus on actual teaching now," she said.

The common wisdom that old teachers can't adopt technology is clearly wrong. If you give smart teachers the tools to do their jobs, they will use those tools. In fact, the veteran teachers will be *more* effective than the younger teachers, because they've got the classroom management skills to make it work. I've seen the proof.

===

All of this tells me that a lot of folks have been selling the whole "computers in schools" concept completely wrong. In Indiana, they are not, not, *not teaching computers*. They are teaching *kids*, and they are *using* computers to do it. It seems like an arbitrary distinction, but it is in fact a *fundamental* distinction -- and it's a distinction that so many people seem to miss. Until very recently, myself included. Sometimes you have to see these things firsthand to understand the impact.

So why don't teachers embrace technology? The common "wisdom" goes something like this:

"How can you expect a teacher to learn all this computer stuff when they've got all this other work to do, like grading papers?"

When the success stories go more like this:

"How can you expect a teacher *not* to learn all this computer stuff so they stop wasting their time on grunt work, like grading papers?"

===

So now that I've been converted, I ask myself: "what role should Red Hat play here?"

This is the hard question. Lately, it's the question that has been keeping me up nights.

I know that Red Hat has one hell of a commitment to education, because I've seen it. I've seen it in the late-night IRC logs of the OLPC developers who work crazy hours on a project that, two years ago, was widely regarded to be complete crackrock.

But OLPC isn't enough. For one thing, it's designed to solve problems that kids in the developed world don't have, and thus may be regarded by many in the developed world as an expensive toy -- especially when a desktop system can be had for $300 or less. (This is true even in some of OLPC's target markets; you wouldn't believe the resentment I heard from some Brazilians at being considered "too poor for real computers".) For another, it may not work in the classroom nearly as well as we think; if even one or two kids leave their laptops at home, suddenly you don't have a one-to-one classroom anymore. Most of all, though, it's just unwise to put all of your eggs in one basket -- and that is precisely what Red Hat has been doing in the worldwide K12 space with OLPC.

Meanwhile, there's this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity unfolding before our very eyes. Microsoft is leaving the door wide open by delivering a product that people don't want to buy. One-to-one computing is picking up steam. Open source applications like Moodle are changing the classroom workflow -- really, changing what is *possible* in the classroom.

Where is Red Hat?  And where *should* we be?

===

We are very fortunate here at Red Hat. We have the best support brand in the open source business -- in fact, one of the best brands in the whole software business. The old saying used to go, "nobody ever got fired for buying IBM." In the new world of open source, it's becoming increasingly true that "nobody ever got fired for buying Red Hat."

The Shadowman logo opens doors for us -- and for open source -- in whatever market we choose to enter.

That's why it is so deeply frustrating to me that, for years now, Red Hat has watched from the sidelines as the K12 open source community has labored. Not to say we haven't made some efforts, because we have. We've hosted a mailing list here, an RHN channel there. We put together an open lab for North Carolina schools, with mixed success. One time, we printed up some *awesome* T-shirts. We helped Eric Harrison package up K12LTSP way back in the day -- what has it been, Eric, six years now? -- but instead of capitalizing on our relationship with him and taking the opportunity to build something more meaningful, we sat back and watched. And watched. And watched.

And still we watch.

===

So let me throw this question out to you all.

What *should* Red Hat be doing in the educational space? Something that makes us *just enough* money to justify a business case, but helps Linux advocates make a *real* difference in schools -- the kind that Mike Huffman is making in Indiana? Because I'm tired of us doing nothing, and I'm looking for any good advice that I can get.

Thanks for reading this far.

--g

--
Greg DeKoenigsberg
Community Development Manager
Red Hat, Inc. :: 1-919-754-4255
"To whomsoever much hath been given...
...from him much shall be asked"

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