23,000 Linux PCs forge education revolution in Philippines
Providing high school students with PCs is seen as a first step to preparing them for a technology-literate future, but in the Philippines many schools cannot afford to provide computing facilities so after a successful deployment of 13,000 Fedora Linux systems from a government grant, plans are underway to roll out another 10,000 based on Ubuntu.
Visiting Australia to discuss Linux and open source software in education at this year's linux.conf.au in Melbourne, independent open source consultant Ricardo Gonzalez, said there were a number of factors that led to Linux being chosen over the venerable Microsoft Windows.
Gonzalez, based in Manila, told Computerworld Linux became popular in the Philippines soon after the 1997 Asian financial crisis when open source was investigated for its value proposition to organizations.
"Open source was a viable business alternative because no one was doing it commercially," Gonzalez said.
While Gonzalez was teaching the IT dealer network how to profit from open source, Microsoft launched its anti-piracy policy in the Philippines, so he told the government there was an alternative.
Also at the time, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Education launched the PCPS program, or PCs for Public Schools with the aim of providing one PC for each of the 10,000 public high schools in the country.
With funding from the Japanese government, the PCPS program started around the 2000 timeframe when the contractors installed Windows PCs, but five years later it was discovered a lot of the computers were not being used because nobody knew how to use them.
A company by the name of Advanced Solutions Inc (ASI) asked Gonzalez to come on board as a consultant as it was preparing to do bids for 1000 schools. However, this time it would not be only desktops, but one server, 10 desktops, and Internet connectivity in every school.
"We wanted to use Fedora 5 and it went all the way to office of [the Filipino] President and they kept passing it around saying 'why would they offer something for free, and how would they support and teach it'," Gonzalez said. "The project dragged on for four to five months to a point where Microsoft matched the price by offering Windows XP for $US20 a copy and throwing in Office for $US30, but we still came out cheaper. Microsoft was also providing free training to high school teachers."
After "jumping through all the hoops", including having the Department of Science and Technology evaluate the Linux solution for its usefulness, ASI got the contract and all 10,000 computers were delivered at the end of December, 2007.
"Because we saved so much we gave the government 3000 additional units, so now another 300 schools have Linux networks," Gonzalez said.
However, the Philippines' Linux education story is just beginning and the "reward" for the successful initial deployment was before Gonzalez left for linux.conf.au, the company got the contract to do another 1000 high schools over the next 12 months.
"The flavour this time is Kubuntu and Edubuntu," he said, adding the old questions about Linux's suitability aren't being asked any more. "They have also asked us to install the Joomla! and Drupal content systems on the server so students can create content," he added.
ASI had initially requested the then IBM, now Lenovo, to factory-install the Linux images, but Gonzalez said since IBM had no experience with Linux deployments, and there were too many errors, some 60 percent of the operating system images had to be deployed after the PCs arrived.
"We were only three people, but during the next contract they put in more people to make sure it gets out the door faster - they doubled it to six people," he said. "There will be a phase four, five and six -- it just depends on funding."
With 7000 islands in the Philippines, the task at hand is no mean feat as the team had to install the systems, test them, do integration work, ship the computers out, ensure it was installed correctly, and provide training to the schools' principal and head of IT.
"If you look at it from a third-world perspective I'm very pleased," Gonzalez said. "For us it's one of the biggest Linux installations in the Philippines. The question is if it's free does it work, but with Linux it does work and it's free."
Gonzalez believes the project has helped begin a mindset revolution for accepting the power of free software.
"People in the government now understand Linux can do so much for so little outlay," he said. "In a brand new computer 50 percent goes to the operating system and office suite, so how many people can afford that?"
When asked why the popular One Laptop Per Child, which ships with Linux, was not used instead, Gonzalez said at the time it was not feasible due to the sheer number of units that needed to be purchased all at once.
To analyze the results of the program, Gonzalez is conducting a survey and he intends to study the flow-on effects to people's home computers, which may take some time to eventuate.
"There are 80 million Filipinos who are sending 20 million text messages so I'm thinking how to get SMS into the education market and tie it down with open source," he said. "I'm looking for the guy who has already done that."
Regarding the country's universities, Gonzalez said they are very much "tied down" to Microsoft, and course material is still tailored for the proprietary world.
"If Linux and open source wants to take hold in the education market it must deliver course material for high schools and elementary schools."