Computer Setup at BNS

As some of you know, I help manage the computer labs at the Blacksburg New School. This year, the school has an addition and with it a new computer lab. The original lab has Windows XP but practially all the software used is open source (we don't have enough money to be paying for software/hardware). When the new space became available, we started looking on how to set things up. This describes our current setup, which honestly, is very sweet.


We purposedly did not want to have a hardware platform that its software gets updated every year. For one thing, the stuff kids do in K-8 is pretty stable and doesn't really change much. And most of the what they do is basic stuff, like word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, page layout, image editing, web surfing, and a little bit of programming. So, there is no need to have a high end hardware. What's more, we don't buy hardware, we get it donated from companies when they upgrade their equipment. So, the hardware is usually 2-3 years old. So we wanted something that would run in 2yr old equipment and run well.

The particular set of machines we had for this year came from a business so we needed to completely clear the hard drives. Erik, another parent at the school who helps with this effort, found DBAN to completely erase the HDs. So, all HDs of 9 Dell machines were completely cleaned first using DBAN.

Open Source

Last year we used OpenOffice, Scribus, Tux Typing, Tux Paint, Gimp, and a few other apps in our XP lab. So, we thought, if all of these are open source, why don't we go open source with the OS too. We settled with Ubuntu. After playing with it on my Mac (using Parallels) I realized that the file management part of it was very similar to Windows, so I did not expect the students to have any problems. I showed it to a few teachers and they all said "go for it."

Then I found Edubuntu and the whole process was that much simpler. Edubuntu already has installed all of the educational applications we used in the past. So, we were ready to go.


Erik then looked into the whole software installation/duplication/mastering process. And what he found was a life saver. We found Clonezilla. With this software, he was able to boot from a usb flash and have an image of Ubuntu on another flash drive. The complete setup of a computer with a completely clean drive, from boot to reboot was under 4 minute. Oh, and the image in the flashdrive already included all the user accounts, printer setups, etc. Once installed, the software was ready to use.

The kids at the school use a single account. The school doesn't want to mess with "I forgot my password", they also don't want students hiding materials (downloaded junk) in their accounts. More importantly, they want the kids to learn how to be respectful of others, so they have to learn to ignore each other's folders and respect each other's space. So, there is a single account and folders for each student inside of that account.

In the past we used a network drive. The thing was clunky, slow, and kept giving problems. Not having a network drive and having a single account, meant that we needed a way to move file from one computer to another.

Enter Dropbox. We installed Dropbox in all the computers on the lab. All now have a single Dropbox account that copies everything to all computers in the lab. The students individual folders are inside of the Dropbox folder. No matter where you sit, your files are there waiting for you.

Students still needed a flash drive to take work home. We removed the need for the flashdrive by simply having the parents register for Dropbox and us sharing with them the folder for their kids.

Recently one of the computers started giving problems. We took it out, got another one, booted with Clonezilla, installed Ubuntu from the our flash drive image. When the machine rebooted, all of the Dropbox contents copied down to the machine. Within 10 minutes we had completely replaced the hardware for one of the lab computers and put another one in place ready to go, with OS installation, and restored all of student files.

The Net Results

Kids can sit at any computer, their files are there. They can work on them without having to worry about copying them to a flash drive. They can go home and their folder is there. Work on assignments at home and have the material be copied back to school. The teachers can view all of the students work in their computer.

Because all files are duplicated to all computers and to the Dropbox website, there is an automatic backup of all of the students work. It takes no effort on the school part. It is free. It works on Macs, Windows, and Linux.

Cool, no? Now we can take any hardware donation. Got some? Send it to the school, we'll take it because Ubuntu and Dropbox rock.

Posted on 09/23/2009



Computing Parenting Productivity


Recent blogs