In a sunny Bay Area classroom, twenty sixth graders are working at computers. They are making websites—”MySpace” pages for figures from American History. One student is researching Frederick Douglass’s five greatest accomplishments. Another is showing a classmate how to search for pictures of Susan B. Anthony. They’re all learning how to use Google Sites, helping each other along the way. Earlier this week, this class learned how to add numbers in a spreadsheet. Last week, they learned how to make music on a simple synthesizer. People often assume that getting technology into classrooms is expensive, but this lab cost absolutely nothing.
The problem? An underfunded school needed computers for the classroom. Budget? $0. Staff involved? Just one: Robert Litt, a sixth-grade teacher.
Robert teaches at ASCEND, a small arts K-8 school in the Alameda County School District. He’s a fan of technology and believes that it’s an important part of K-12 education. Yet ASCEND had no computer lab and no computers in classrooms. So in 2007, Robert acquired 18 donated computers. But these computers were less help than he’d anticipated. The operating systems were slow. Some computers had viruses or malware. Students became frustrated.
Most of the computers’ problems could be fixed by wiping the disks and reinstalling the operating system—but buying new software for every donated computer would be prohibitively expensive. So Robert began to research more affordable options. An acquaintance at the Alameda County Computer Recyclers suggested he use a free operating system, such as Linux. Having never ventured into the world of open-source software, Robert scoured the internet for help. He came upon a local Linux user’s group, a friendly group of people dedicated to helping new Linux users get started.
With the help of his local LUG, he got Linux up and running on his 18 donated machines. Suddenly, they were fast. They were clean. They worked well in the classroom. Robert was invigorated, as were his students. His principal saw how excited they all were, and decided to give Robert four hours of teaching leave per week to give him time to find more computers for a full lab for ASCEND. And so Robert became a “teacher on special assignment,” as he puts it.
Read more about this teacher’s great accomplishments here.