The other approach consists of equipping desktops with Linux and teaching students and teachers to use the OS. Since most open-source software is freely available on the Internet, this represents increased savings.
"Two years ago, we decided it was time to provide a desktop solution," Nelson said. His group, Linux for Schools, started developing their own distribution. "Our goal was to create something that could be installed in 20 minutes and used by someone who knows nothing about Linux at all."
According to Nelson, StarOffice and Mozilla meet 90 percent of the basic educational needs –- word processing, Web browsing and e-mail. Other useful applications include GIMP, typing tutors, function plotters and the periodic table of the elements.
"It’s only natural that after establishing itself as a reliable system for school servers, Linux would move out of the server closet and into the classroom," he said.
Today, there are many development projects for educational and administrative software out there. Tux4Kids has already released a typing tutor for children, starring Tux the penguin. Sites like K-12 Linux and Simple End User Linux contain links to dozens of math, chemistry, word processing and administrative applications that can be downloaded for free -– and they promote the worldwide adoption of Linux in schools.
Many people think that Linux is difficult to use. But Rheinlander disagrees. "Thirty percent of our teachers were Windows literate, 30 percent were Mac literate, but the rest were not computer literate at all," he said. "It didn’t matter what system we put in place."
Linux has graphic interfaces that can be learned quickly. "We have kindergartners using it on a daily basis without any problems," says Harry McGregor, CEO of the Open Source Education Foundation.
The next step is to go beyond homework, word processing and school administration into the nature of open source itself -- by enabling students and teachers to do their own development.
At the Beacon School, an alternative public high school in New York City, students get their own shell account, and are offered a class in programming languages Java, PHP and SQL.
"All of our introductory programming classes start out with an introduction to Linux," says Chris Lehmann, Beacon's technology coordinator. "Linux is decidedly not that interesting or difficult. It's learning to program that's interesting," he said.
The school’s development efforts have resulted in some pretty useful tools: discussion boards, a poetry collaborative, a scheduling system, an online newspaper, a program that allows teachers to post homework on the Web and a system to keep track of students’ records.
According to Lehmann, Linux's open-ended approach to programming makes this task easier. "The students can create software and see the immediate application work," he said.