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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, September 16, 2004

Old computers good as new in Linux labs

By Treena Shapiro
Advertiser Education Writer

As pressure mounts to meet state-mandated educational technology standards, some Hawai'i schools with limited budgets are getting updated computer labs at a fraction of the typical costs.

Don Mangiarelli of Strategic Technology, with his son Daunte, tests one of the recycled computers at Enchanted Lake Elementary School's new computer lab. The old computers work as well as new ones because they work off of open-source servers.

Andrew Shimabuku • The Honolulu Advertiser

With help from the nonprofit Hawai'i Open Source Education Foundation, a dozen schools and organizations have opened PC labs using recycled computers loaded with free software for about $3,000, much less than what a lab using off-the-shelf computers and commercially-available software could cost — up to $30,000.

Using free software and recycled computers is "very cost-effective," said Pua'ala McElhaney, principal at Enchanted Lake Elementary School, where HOSEF recently installed a lab paid for by the school's PTA.

Importantly, the computers will help her students achieve technology education standards set by the state, she said. By sixth grade, students must be able to use word-processing, spreadsheet, database and multimedia software, and post information about group projects on the Web.

While the school has a lab with Macintosh computers that the students have used to win national Web design contests, there weren't enough computers for all grades to have access year-round. With no budget for new computers, a HOSEF lab was the only way to immediately meet the students' needs, McElhaney said.

For HOSEF, putting the labs into schools helps the group demonstrate the usefulness of the free software, which is based on the Linux operating system. The group hopes the software will gain in popularity.

Belford, HOSEF director, arranges cables at Enchanted Lake Elementary School's new Linux-based computer lab.

Andrew Shimabuku • The Honolulu Advertiser

The Linux-based operating server performs the computer's basic tasks such keeping track of files, executing other software such as word processors and controlling any devices — printers, scanners — that are hooked up to the computer.

Since HOSEF was created two years ago, its volunteers have also installed labs at Kuhio Elementary, Campbell High School, Liholiho Elementary, Mid-Pac Institute, The New Academy (a Waldorf school on the Big Island), St. John's Elementary, Kailua Redemption Academy, the McKinley School for Adults, the Makiki Community Library and the Boys and Girls Club of Hawai'i.

A volunteer organization made up of about 100 members, HOSEF has taken in most of its computers from Hickam Air Force Base. To install them in schools, the volunteers first pull out the obsolete computer hard-drives, then connect the computers to a server loaded with what's called "open source" software — programs that can be freely used, redistributed and improved upon.

In HOSEF labs, computers run Fedora, a GNU/Linux-based operating system. In addition, the students use Open Office for their word processing, spread sheet and presentation needs. And they use Mozilla to browse the Web.

With the addition of free typing and graphics programs — and the availability of thousands of other free open-source programs — the labs meet most students' needs, although they might have problems opening documents or Web pages created specifically for other operating systems.


The Hawai'i Open Source Education Foundation helps schools that need computer labs. Principals interested in seeing how the labs work can attend showcases at:

• Liholiho Elementary, Sept. 20

• Kuhio Elementary, Sept. 21

• Campbell High School, Sept. 22

• McKinley High School, Sept. 23

• Enchanted Lake Elementary School, Sept. 24.

Times are still being determined. Contact R. Scott Belford at scott@hosef.org for times or more information.

Schools and businesses interested in learning more about Linux and open source software in Hawai'i can visit www.hosef.org.


Students interested in learning about Linux may attend beginner courses offered by the Department of Education next month.

The six-week course runs Tuesdays from 4 to 6 p.m., starting Oct. 19. It is open to all grades.

Classes will be held at the DOE Office of Curriculum, Instruction and Student Support Annex in Kaimuki.

For more information, call Brett Tanaka at 733-4780, Ext. 115.

When HOSEF members pitch the concept of open-source labs to prospective schools, they do not suggest that Linux is a complete solution.

"We do not promote the ... idea that Linux and open source software labs like ours can do anything," said R. Scott Belford, director of HOSEF. But by demonstrating what can be achieved through open-source software, the group hopes these labs will be included among the options for meeting technology needs, not just for schools, but also for businesses and government agencies.

HOSEF's ultimate goal is to see Hawai'i aligned with a growing Asian open-source software marketplace. Open-source software is used by computer companies, local businesses, the University of Hawai'i and some state agencies. The Department of Agriculture's computer scanner at the airport is Linux-based, Belford said.

While HOSEF is not the only group collecting old computers, it is the only group focused on turning them into Linux machines and installing them in the schools. The group said school labs are a priority because they have the potential to graduate a Linux-trained work force. Also, the labs could serve as evidence that Linux is not too difficult for businesses to use.

Peter Nakashima, the computer teacher at Liholiho Elementary, became a volunteer after HOSEF installed a lab at his school.

Nakashima said the open-source lab was the only chance Liholiho had of replacing its aging computers. "Basically the (Department of Education) has cut our budget to zero," he said. "I don't think we've had a technology budget from the state for three to four years."

Because the school is not in an affluent district, asking parents to raise money for new computers wasn't an option. Since turning to the open-source lab, Nakashima said, "We've been very happy."

He said that these labs increase the life of a computer by a few years, because 8-year-old computers can run software just as quickly as newer ones using the open source servers. "Things don't get old as fast," he said.

Another advantage to running off servers is that the students' computers have no moving parts and can handle rougher treatment than other computers, he said.

Rodney Moriyama, assistant superintendent of the DOE's Office of Information Technology Services, thinks HOSEF is doing a terrific service and he supports the use of open-source machines in schools that need labs. "I think it's a great way of doing things," he said.

However, the DOE is unlikely to convert to open-source machines itself, because the schools get big discounts on service for proprietary software.

Although the open-source programs are free, technical support is not, Moriyama pointed out, so the DOE would have to pay if there were problems with the software. "There's actually no incentive for us to do it," he said.

In addition, the Linux machines do not run all the DOE's software, including the new student information system that will be used in each school.

However, Moriyama does see open-source machines as a possible way to put more computers in public libraries or other group settings where computers could be run without proprietary software, such as for Web access.

Reach Treena Shapiro at tshapiro@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8014.