Penn Manor

In this LNP file photo from 2014, a Penn Manor High School student tests a laptop computer.

THE ISSUE

Some Lancaster County school districts are moving away from Apple devices that run only Apple operating systems, as LNP reported Monday. This follows a national trend: According to Futuresource Consulting, a research company, Apple’s MacBooks and iPads have lost ground in the education field, and have fallen to third behind more affordable Chromebooks and Windows-based devices. One district, Penn Manor, goes even further in its efforts to save taxpayer dollars.

Of the 17 school districts (including Octorara) serving Lancaster County, 11 have one-to-one initiatives that lend students in certain grades a laptop or electronic tablet to be used for educational purposes.

You can argue, as conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat did in Tuesday’s LNP, that children should be required to “learn from books for years before they’re asked to go online for research.”

But such arguments don’t really fly today. Schoolchildren are so-called “digital natives,” immersed in technology from an early age. This has some downsides, as any parent who’s ever tried to get the attention of a texting child knows.

But technology also allows students to talk to their counterparts in classrooms around the world; to not just look at photographs of, say, the White House, but to take a virtual tour of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The world is theirs, with just a few taps of a screen or keyboard.

And as they progress from elementary school to high school, computers become ever more essential. Homework assignments and research resources are online; term papers are written in Google Docs that both the student and teacher can edit.

It’s today’s reality, and there’s no turning back.

So 11 local school districts have decided it’s necessary to provide students with laptops or notebooks, to level the playing field between those who have the resources to buy such devices and those who don’t. It’s an academically justifiable decision, but it’s also a pricey one.

Which is why Penn Manor has sought ways to keep its costs down.

When launching its one-to-one laptop program in 2013, that district didn’t go with Apple computers; it chose reasonably priced laptops instead. And it spurned costly software packages and opted to use free, open-source software.

Instead of buying laptops with expensive Windows licenses and software packages, the district installed a free operating system called Linux on its laptops.

Penn Manor also chose to use LibreOffice, which is also free and offers programs that are equivalent to Microsoft’s PowerPoint, Word and Excel.

The district further cut costs by launching a student technology apprentice program: Students help to staff the 1:1 help desk and provide technical assistance to other students.

Other districts have student tech teams. But at Penn Manor, the apprentice program is an honors-level, independent study course. Given a lot of responsibility, apprentices gain valuable experience and self-confidence — and save the district $100,000 a year in technology support costs.

That’s in addition to the $1 million Penn Manor has saved since 2013 by using open-source software and Linux across the district.

A million dollars over four years might not seem like a lot of money in terms of school district budgets. But it adds up.

And we’re wondering why other school districts aren’t following suit.

Charlie Reisinger, Penn Manor’s technology director, notes that the district’s one-to-one program requires that trust be placed in students.

When you use an open-source operating system like Linux, students can download open-source software, which anyone — not just the software’s programmers — can "inspect, modify and enhance," as opensource.com explains.

That, Penn Manor officials decided, was just fine.

Students, in fact, are encouraged to “dig deep in the devices,” to become assured and knowledgeable users of technology. Reisinger said the guiding principle is to make students “full participants in their education.”

So the benefits have been much more than financial.

We understand that school districts are faced with an insanely complex set of choices on everything from food service supplies to gym equipment to technology programs. It’s probably much simpler to pay for prepackaged software and familiar, known-brand operating systems.

But Penn Manor has taken another route. Reisinger sees the district’s technology program as akin to a Lancaster County barn raising: “Using free and open-source software building blocks, it’s built from the ground up, and with the help of students. It is the essence of a learning community.”

Penn Manor’s way might not work for every district. But it’s innovative, it has cut costs, and it has improved students’ education in the process. Other districts ought to consider the possibilities.

What to Read Next