Beachhead - Get FOSSED

David Trask leverages the flexibility and power of FOSS to create a waste-not-want-not approach to educational computing.

This month, I step outside my normal persona to describe a small conference named FOSSED (www.fossed.net). I attended two sessions of FOSSED, one in June 2007 and one in July 2007, which finished just two days before I wrote this article.

David Trask, a friend of mine, initiated FOSSED five years ago. David is an elementary schoolteacher in Maine, and he is “student focused”. He often reminds people that his customers are the students, and in David's case, these are second- and third-grade students, eight to ten years old. David, like many teachers, always is asked to “do more with less”, and in the course of trying to do this, he discovered free and open-source software.

David started using FOSS in his own school. He became a fan of the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP, www.ltsp.org) and started re-deploying cast-off equipment to create more computing nodes for his students. David also is a student of human nature, and as he started to deploy more and more of these systems for his own students, and as they started doing more and more in his own classes, he offered some of these computers to other teachers. David also is adept in telling stories about his young charges and how easily they adapt to FOSS while older people complain how hard it is. After a while, David began sending out e-mail messages regarding his successes to a mailing list read by Maine educators involved with technology.

Eventually, David realized enough people were interested in this topic that he decided to have a few seminars and actually demonstrate the capabilities. After a few of these seminars, David started talking about the possibility of having a conference specifically about the use of FOSS in grade-school education. So, five years ago, David and another FOSS enthusiast held the first educational FOSS conference at Gould Academy (a residential high school in Maine) and called the conference NELS, for North East Linux Symposium. They later realized that Linux was a small (although important) part of FOSS educational software, so they renamed the conference FOSSED.

In June 2007, right after school let out, 70 elementary-, middle- and high-school teachers and technologists descended on Gould Academy. Out of the backs of cars and trucks came systems removed from school labs and homes, networking gear and personal laptops for taking notes. In addition, several sponsors supplied a dozen or more thin-client systems and a server, so people could use them during the event. [Note to sponsors of other events like this: the thin clients went on sale after the event at a “special price” to attendees.]

By this time, David had picked up several other helpers. Matt Oquist, the founder of Software Freedom Day (www.softwarefreedomday.org), who also is a consultant to various school systems in the use of free software, helps David in the planning and execution of logistics and teaches some classes. Bill Sconce, a consultant and scripting wizard, gives courses in scripting languages for more-advanced participants to show how to maintain many systems using a shell script, Python and other scripting languages. Bryant Patton, a longtime advocate of computers in education and the founder of the National Center for Open Source and Education in Vermont, also helps out. But, David Trask remains the driving force and cheerleader, and for the past two years, the University of New Hampshire (UNH) has held a second session of this conference with almost as many attendees as the sessions in Maine.

Five years after David started the conference, the amount of software that exists for educational use is very impressive. A couple seminars are centered around the use of Moodle to plan and present classroom material. One teacher volunteered to talk about Web 2.0 tools and show the other teachers how some of the Web's new features could be used to stimulate student creativity. At the same time, she discussed doing this in a safe way and getting around the advertising bombardment that sometimes accompanies gratis sites.

Although a core component of the conference is LTSP usage and administration, it also has branched out to discussions on LDAP for ease of administration, IP Cop (for setting up firewalls), creating software packages (think .deb and .rpm) and a variety of other system-administration topics. It was interesting to see how one moment the person sitting next to me was a student in a class on how to use VMware effectively, and the next moment that same person was teaching a course on some other aspect of free software—teachers teaching teachers.

Sometimes the thing most obvious to you may be the biggest revelation to another person. I had not used VMware since its early days when it was difficult to install and get working. At the conference, I “installed” VMware (actually it was a package already done for Ubuntu), entered the key, installed an Edubuntu server on it and booted a thin client running off the virtualized server on my notebook—all of this while I was still editing and sending e-mail through my notebook's wireless card. I am now quite a fan of VMware, and I am sorry I haven't spent more time with it over the years.

On the other hand, when the teachers mentioned that there was so much software on SourceForge that they didn't have time to evaluate it all, I suggested that they ask students to find, test and select software the class might want to use and present their results and reasoning to the class—the 21st-century version of the 19th-century book report. A stunned silence fell over the room.

At the UNH sessions, a group of high-school students and their advisers came up from the Arlington, Virginia, school system (an 11-hour ride by car in two vans) to demonstrate a project called CanDo that they had been creating. Then, after getting feedback from the teachers about new features and GUI changes, the students went into a two-day (and sometimes night) hacking session to implement those changes. It warmed my heart to see that the group of students was a diverse mixture of young men and women, different races and nationalities, and they all seemed to get along fine. This was the second year that they participated in the conference, and it was good to see some of the same faces return.

Finally, the teachers listened to and gave feedback to several of the vendors who had open-source products used at the event, and to one vendor who was struggling with whether the company should go open source and the consequences of doing that. Direct feedback from customers is usually a good thing to have.

Many things impressed me about this conference, but one of them was the goodwill and camaraderie that managed to come through all the time—people working with each other and having fun learning. The organizers try very hard to have a comfortable venue and a relaxed schedule, and although it's too late to participate in a FOSSED event this year, you can start thinking about participating in next year's event, or (better yet) start thinking about creating a similar event in your own region of the world.

You can see a lot of what was done last year at www.fossed.net and participate in the FOSSED blog at fossed.blogspot.com.

Jon “maddog” Hall is the Executive Director of Linux International (www.li.org), a nonprofit association of end users who wish to support and promote the Linux operating system. During his career in commercial computing, which started in 1969, Mr Hall has been a programmer, systems designer, systems administrator, product manager, technical marketing manager and educator. He has worked for such companies as Western Electric Corporation, Aetna Life and Casualty, Bell Laboratories, Digital Equipment Corporation, VA Linux Systems and SGI. He is now an independent consultant in Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) Business and Technical issues.

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