Scott Alan Miller

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Foray into Technology Education

Over the course of the last few weeks, I have been working with a local perocial school helping them implement a technology curriculum. When I first starting talking to the school about the project late last year, the school had only a single computer available for student use, a Celeron 333 machine running Windows ME without Internet access located in their consolidated "high school" room. One old Pentium class computer was available for use by one school administrator and one 68000 based Macintosh was being used as the main school computer storing student records and providing for printing needs. The school principle had a single Pentium based Compaq Presario with dial-up Internet access via Juno, the only Internet access in the school. The school handles 55 students in grades K-12 and, as you can see, was in desperate need of a complete computer education system from a hardware and a curricular aspect.

We wanted to get something moving as quickly a possible so that we would be able to catch the seniors who are about to graduate and get them in front of computers before they left the school and we wanted to be sure to get the kindergarten students on the right track as quickly as possible. So, we worked out a plan with the school to begin a program during the last half of this school year. A relatively unused hallway was adapted into a make-shift computer lab, two long desks and two computer desks were placed into the hallway - enough space to accomodate 7-8 desktop computers and a printer or two. Contruction is planned over the summer that is expected to result in the creation of a real computer lab space for next year (the fall semester 2005.) For now, we have to work with the space that we have.

Fortunately, the school managed to find an electrical resource who was able and willing to install much of the needed CAT5 wiring around the school so that we could begin networking the computers together. "The computers" remaining to be defined. Wiring was run to the "computer lab", the "high school" room, the principle's office, the wiring closet, the kindergarten classroom and another closet space. Time Warner Cable gratefully stepped in and voluntarily is providing Road Runner Internet access for us.

We have managed to come up with a total, so far, of thirteen computers that we have either been able to donate to the school or to loan to the school pending our own potential to need them internally - which we don't expect. The computers that we have range from a low end of a Pentium II 233 and a Celeron 333 up to a Pentium III 933. The lowest memory available is 128MB ranging to a high of 512MB with most of the machines in the 192MB to 288MB range. We have installed one desktop in each of the kindergarten classroom, the high school room and the principle's office. Seven computers have been installed into the computer lab space. We are currently short on monitors, keyboards and ethernet wiring necessary to put any additional computers in place. But we expect these resouces to become available soon. At the moment, we are using a simple Netgear RT311 router to separate the internal network from the Internet and an older Netgear 10/100 hub in the wiring closet as the main cabling aggregator which we hope to update soon. Internet access is only available in the principle's office. A desktop Linksys 10/100 switch is in the computer lab connecting the seven computers there to the network.

In the additional closet space, we have a Compaq Proliant 3000 server with dual Pentium II 333 processors, a Compaq SmartArray RAID controller attached to six 4.3GB SCSI 7200RPM hot swappable hard drives configured in RAID 5 for 21.5GB of usable storage, a 12/24 DAT tape device and 1.125GB of RAM. The storage is our current greatest concern, the rest of the specs, we expect, will be adequate for some time with a network this small.

Since we are operating on such an incredibly limited budget (effectively no budget at all) we decided to use an entirely free set of software for everything on the network. For the desktops and the server, we have decided to use Novell's SUSE Linux 9.2 Professional. Having the same operating system across the entire network will make it simpler for us to manage. Students will use both and KOffice productivity suites for learning office basics. The K Desktop Environment (KDE) is installed on all of the desktops to give the students a rich desktop experience similar to what is available from Windows or Macintosh. In time, additional software will be selected to be installed for the students. We are trying to keep as many games as possible off of the machines - we don't want the introduction of computers into the school to turn into a distraction. This is a real possibility since the students have never had computers available to them previously. We will be installing TuxType to help younger students learn to type which is one of our major focusses early on.

The network is setup using NFS to remotely mount the /home partition. Each student has an account on the server and their personal directory is located there. Considering the size of the school, the network traffic should be minimal even with all of the students' files mounted remotely. We will need to push towards an entirely switched network as quickly as possible, however. To manage accounts throughout the school we chose NIS because of its simplicity. Using NIS and NFS together is incredibly simple even if it is not ideal. This is a nice combination since the students get identical desktop experiences at any computer in the entire school. All of their files and all of their settings are available to them anywhere that they may go. Students are able to use any available computer at any time - a significant advantage over many other system designs.

We still have many obstacles to overcome and a lot of technology features that I would like to see added to the network. But we are getting the students started, at this point, and we see a lot of exciting things happening. The most important thing is bringing the infrastructure to this small, rural school so that technology education can begin. My wife has already begun teaching on Fridays to help get the students started down the path to technological comfort. The students are really excited to have these options now and we are trying hard to keep the system improving. We hope that centralized printing will be right around the corner as well as a number of available computers in the "lunch" area so that students will be able to work on computers even when there is a class in the lab.

This coming Friday will be the fourth day of computer classes for the school. All of the students in the 3-12 grade levels has been given an "introduction to the network" class except for the sophomores whom we are going to try to get right away this Friday. The kindergarten students have already done a little bit with the computers in their own class (they are using their own usernames and passwords as well) and we hope to get the first and second grade students started soon - using their regular class teacher instead of sending them to a "computer class" with my wife.


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