Students with complete control over their laptops? For one district, it hasn't been a disaster.

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One-to-one laptop programs for K-12 districts generally are built around the notion of control, with tight limits on what kind of software students can load and run. One district in Pennsylvania, however, is finding success by taking a different approach.

The one-to-one initiative at Penn Manor School District looks like similar ones nationwide: Students in grades 5-12 receive personalized laptops with pre-installed operating systems to use both in school and at home, effectively placing everyone on a level playing field in terms of hardware access.

But the mid-sized district of 5,300 students in Lancaster County takes the concept of freedom and access a step further: Every Penn Manor student has root access to their school-issued laptop. They have the license to operate, as Technology Director Charlie Reisinger tells EdScoop, “as their own local administrator” on their device.

The reason is simple: “This is about giving them ownership over computing — not just a free-for-all,” Reisinger said. “Education is tough, because nobody wants to be the first one to try something new.”

So far, there haven’t been disrupted networks, piles of fried hard drives or waves of inappropriate content. The key, Reisinger said, is to foster a philosophy of open learning.

Getting on board with one-to-one

Reisinger and Penn Manor educators have seen their students embrace the freedom — and have even gotten parents on board, too — since they started the one-to-one initiative ahead of the 2013-14 school year. At first, they equipped every high school student with a laptop. One year later, the program expanded into 7th and 8th grades across the district. They’re currently piloting the one-to-one program for 5th and 6th grade classes, and Reisinger is optimistic that students will continue to benefit from unlocking their own devices.

“Some of the parents were a little startled at first, to say the least,” Reisinger said, but they’ve since come around.

The pedagogical heart of the decision is to put students more in touch with computing, because “the trend [in commercial devices] is to remove us from having the ability to go in and tinker to understand,” Reisinger said.

Of all the common computer operating systems, the Linux family is probably best suited to such a move. Free and open source, Linux gives users an abundance of freedoms that Windows or Mac operating systems simply do not. Users can download for free and view the source code for any Linux OS — the Ubuntu “distribution,” in Penn Manor’s case — and modify it as they see fit. Ubuntu is the name of the specific Linux OS that Penn Manor students run on, and has many default programs and security measures — such as a “sudo” account with temporarily increased privileges for students to use when performing administrative tasks that could otherwise corrupt their system — that make it a perfect fit for students to explore computing on.

Students thus have total freedom over critical aspects of the laptop — the extent of the source code, what applications to install, what programs to run, and what desktop environments to utilize, among the other customizable options also available on more common Mac and Windows operating systems.

Linux also has none of the licensing restrictions that Microsoft or Apple have for their users, meaning that a system administrator can download a specific Linux OS and apply it to as many devices as they want for free — saving Reisinger and Penn Manor $360,000 in the first year of their one-to-one initiative alone. Microsoft and Apple users, on the other hand, can only legally install an OS on the number of machines they have purchased licenses for.

Penn Manor looked at using Chromebooks, a popular choice for one-to-one initiatives that runs on the open source ChromeOS, but decided against it due to the browser limitations of the device. When Chromebooks were first released, Reisinger explained, users could only use Google Chrome to access the internet — creating the same kind of limitations that Penn Manor was trying to avoid in Windows and Mac operating systems.

For a parent, or even a teacher unfamiliar with Linux, it’s easy to see the concept of student-enabled root access as a potential gateway to disaster. Reisinger and the district worked hard to dispel that myth, and use much of the same precautions as any Microsoft or Apple school district.

While students can choose how to customize their devices with root access, they are still bound by school policy. Most importantly, the district still has full control over what students can see and do on the internet while at school.

“We didn’t write a policy that says ‘Hey, students can do whatever they want,'” Reisinger said. “We filter content, we filter all of the stuff that is violent and horrible for kids. That’s part of our filtered network. Our policy is written from the perspective of responsible use — having empathy for other students, being civil, not breaking into systems — all of the ethics pieces are still there.”

Another bonus, beyond the flexibility and the cost savings: Linux is generally considered one of the most secure operating system families available, because the open source nature of the OS allows a massive user base to constantly be on the lookout for vulnerabilities.

Realizing potential

Molly Miller, an AP computer science teacher at Penn Manor, had apprehensions prior to the 2013-2014 academic year.

“I started out pretty nervous about it,” Miller said. “I didn’t know as much about open source as I did about other operating systems, and I knew that the students would be the same way.”

With that in mind, the school began offering a yearly orientation that introduces elementary concepts of computing like coding, programming and basic computer care. Students are expected to perform basic maintenance, like software updates, as a responsibility of owning their device, and these concepts are all reinforced in the classroom as well, Reisinger said, complementing the more traditional safety and privacy policies the district has in place.

The teachers also have an orientation program. They personally can choose whether they want to run a Windows, Mac or Linux operating system on their own computers, but they nonetheless are shown how Ubuntu operates on the student machines.

While Miller has seen some students take full advantage of their freedom, such as the savvier students on Penn Manor’s student help desk, she told EdScoop the biggest problem she’s encountered has been some students not realizing the potential they have at their fingertips.

“They have full root access on their machines. And I don’t think many of the students realize what that means or how much freedom that gives them,” she said. “So instead, they’re using them much like they would any other laptop — I don’t think they’ve taken full advantage of just how little restriction they have on their laptops right now.”

In the classroom, though, Miller says the laptops have been a boon. AP Computer Science is a notoriously concept-heavy course, and she believes that the open source nature of her students’ devices allows her to explore lessons deeper than with traditional operating systems.

“At another district it might look like trying to get the IT team or staff into the classroom, but a lot of that stuff we can do … because every single student can do it on their laptop already.”

Penn Manor as a ‘pirate island’

The concept of giving students root access on school-issued devices isn’t unique to Penn Manor, but Reisinger estimates that it’s one of the only districts in the U.S. or worldwide that uses Linux in a one-to-one environment.

“I sometimes like to jokingly describe us as our own little pirate island in this sea of standard Windows and Mac devices,” Reisinger said, “and all of the typical enterprise applications that you would see in most mid-to-large school districts.”

Although the district is making a mark now, Reisinger said Penn Manor was not an especially early adopter of the one-to-one concept. Just before the 2013-14 school year, the district began having conversations about how to best implement the program, and they all came back to one philosophical tenet: student empowerment.

“We decided from the beginning that we were going to trust our kids and give them root level access — making them essentially local administrators on their own devices — and we believed in that philosophy,” Reisinger said, “because we wanted to offer ownership of that technology to truly unlock it as a learning tool.”

A district committee of teachers and administrators settled on the open source software solution, Reisinger said, because they realized that incoming students had little to no concept of how the technology they currently used in school and at home actually functioned, or how much power they actually possessed to control its function.

Reisinger cites one other layer of learning that arises: The collaborative nature of open source technology — students walking down the hall, seeing a cool new program on their peer’s computer and discovering and installing it for themselves — also facilitates teamwork and group learning.

Students are encouraged to share their successes with their classmates and teachers, Reisinger said, fostering an organic learning environment inside the classroom. For example, he said, soon after he found one student had downloaded KDE, a customizable desktop environment for Linux, he saw it popping up around the school on student laptops. Shared and “incidental” learning experiences similar to that are much easier to find with open source technology, he said.

“For a ton of them, it was the first time they’d ever even made the connection that they can begin to manipulate their technology. When given the access like that, kids are inquisitive,” Reisinger said.

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