The Future of EdTech Is Free (Mostly)

Without knowing it, I spent the last nine years preparing my previous district for the future. It was all very much by accident. We decided to embrace thin clients early on. The driver was primarily cost and had no real connection to instruction. We just wanted more computers in more classrooms. As a result of running thin clients and quadrupling our student computer count district wide, we started down a path that would position us to move to 1:1 computing when the opportunity presented itself.

We moved from client/server applications to web based hosted solutions to improve performance. To provide students the opportunity to use tools we would not otherwise have been able to afford we moved them to open source apps like OpenOffice and the odd sounding but very good Adobe replacements; Scribus, Inkscape and The Gimp. Teachers resisted but students didn’t miss a beat. When we realized even free apps required installation, management and support, we pivoted to free cloud based solutions like Google Apps, Aviary and Animoto. On the server side, we traded paid services for free when we setup an open source Moodle Learning Management server and hosted our District web site on our own WordPress server. We used free virtualization tools from VMWare to consolidate Servers and reduce our expensive server hardware footprint.

When the rise of multimedia in the classroom clashed with thin client performance we pivoted again to netbooks running the open source Ubermix ( from Jim Klein at Saugus Union School District and desktop labs running the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP). We were able to seamlessly switch operating systems because we had embraced the cloud early on. Only the teachers really noticed, but again, the students kept right on moving forward with us.

We did struggle with teacher adoption of technology until we realized we were asking teachers to use outdated tools (Office 2003 anyone?) on old, slow computers running outdated Operating Systems (Windows XP). We experimented with teachers running Ubermix but ended up going a different route when the iPad appeared on the scene. We counted up our teachers, did the math and made the decision to lease everyone a new iPad and MacBook. We finally decided to build up to date teacher technology into the cost of educating 21st Century Students. Just like everyone else, we had no money but what money we did have we deliberately chose to start spending as close to the classroom as possible.

In doing so we made some non-traditional decisions along the way. We did not buy expensive web filtering software (Open Source software does meet CIPA compliance, didn’t you know?) or email filtering (Google Apps includes it for free). We didn’t buy enterprise class network hardware from the number one manufacturer. Instead we bought branch office grade from the number three and got free next day hardware replacement and software updates for life. We did not buy into the network security FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) being bantered about by the sales reps. We were a school district, not a bank. Instead of buying expensive annual support contracts for devices that were locked away in closets, we bought teachers the best hardware available to help make their jobs easier.

We installed mounted LCD projectors in every classroom to provide digital presentation capabilities for all teachers. We increased our bandwidth to the Internet significantly and paid the additional cost. After all, the web made free possible. Cloud Services, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), and 1:1 student computing all had significant bandwidth and wireless access requirements and we were ready for the opportunities when they arrived because we invested in bandwidth early. We replaced wireless networks three times, finally settling on a solution that was robust, inexpensive and so easy to manage a teacher could do it and did (much like Google Apps, our Open Source Web Filter and the Ubermix netbooks).

Once teachers were mobile, running on modern hardware, able to project the web to the class and had access to web 2.0 tools, instruction started to change and collaboration along with it. Teachers could take their technology with them to collaboration meetings. They could sit with their laptops working on data, reviewing student work and accessing subject area content in real time. We opened up access to tools like Dropbox for file storage, YouTube for hosting video and Google Apps for collaboration workflows. We sent staff to conferences and they started bringing back resources, experimenting with ideas and sharing with their colleagues in the district. Our teachers started to become active learners. In short, we invested dollars in empowering teachers with modern technology and they started driving the instructional revolution in their classrooms. All it took was a shift in how we looked at technology.

We shifted from a server room and computer lab paradigm to a mobile, classroom and student centered paradigm. We realized we could do a lot with free and open source but only if Teachers and Students had access to modern computers with reliable wireless network access and fast Internet. Most importantly, we locked in a hardware refresh cycle to ensure that teachers would always have a common and up-to-date platform from which to deliver instruction and collaborate with one another. And that is the first step to unlocking the future.

My previous district is two years into a three year plan to go 1:1 District wide. They deployed iPads to 9th through 11th graders this year. I’d like to say we had a crystal ball handy when we made the decisions that we did but the reality is we were just trying to provide the best services possible with (almost) no money. Web 2.0, free and open source software, cloud services and shifting the technology focus to opening up access to the web and empowering individual teachers and students is the future. It can be a mostly free future if you spend wisely and embrace it.

This is the way of Small School Big Tech.