A few months back, Jamie and I were trying to get our girl Breanna's computer to work with an education website that her school mandates. Now, please note; mandates. In order for her to complete a good amount of her coursework, she had to use this site. Furthermore, parents can monitor their child's progress there as well. We had moved Breanna's big Toshiba laptop to Ubuntu 10.4 due to an infestation of colossal proportion and everything seemed to be working fine.
Except for that site.
It seems that it was having a hard time with Linux, even though we did meet the minimal browser requirements (Firefox 3.5). In fact, when the computer was running Windows Vista, the Firefox install refused to run the site properly as well. She had to use Internet Explorer 7. In all other aspects, this two year old laptop met the minimum requirements, yet it still had issues.
On a whim, I decided to try an install of Google Chrome for Ubuntu... and it worked, even though Chrome is not on the list of supported browsers.
This rather concerns me.
Being as this is a public school, my mind immediately latched onto the notion that this is, in effect, a sort of tax on the parents. It has been a given that in order for students to succeed today that there needs to be a computer in the house. Now, thanks to sites like this, not only do there need to be computers with these families but they need to be fairly up to date as well. At a minimum, this may incur a once every few years outlay of a few hundred dollars. For most families, this is not a big deal, but what lousy messages it sends -
1. That computers have to be replaced while they are still fairly new. In our mass consumption society, this is already a problem, and we really should be moving our future generations away from that model.
2. That you need to have major operating systems, namely Windows and Macintosh. I hold nothing against either of these, but it certainly determines the future of the computing in that household.
3. It locks the online site down for everybody but those who have the correct, usually demanding and always weighty, software.
4. Lower earning working class families are reduced to using other computers available to them. This usually means library computers, which typically can only be used for thirty minutes, and in today's economy, many libraries are being forced to close early due to budgetary concerns.
In short, this all boils down to a very small but loud message; if you don't have the means, you've got a problem.
I don't want to sound rhetorical, but this is extremely unfair. At a time when the US has fallen behind in many scholastic measures, we don't have the foresight to consider that a sizable chunk of the school-going population lacks the means to access necessary tools. While not quite the same as denying pencils and paper to these students, it is in fact not too far from it.
This is a bit of a tragedy.
What can school systems do to rectify this?
If they are already locked into this service, there really is very little.
However, there may be a different approach.
Imagine a CD. You boot from it, and it has its own OS (a Linux, say; to be honest, I'm biased, but for good reason). This OS has only the tools needed in order for the student to access the educational websites plus some light websurfing. In addition, it has a small office suite.
The student has to have either a floppy drive, USB thumb drive or SD card as well. This will store the configuration data (encrypted, of course). It also backs up a copy of the configuration data to the website. This removable data is also needed to copy documents such as reports; again, this will be mirrored on the web.
The OS and browser software needs to be stripped down to increase its performance, since chances are it is going to be used on machines that are not quite up to date, and in fact may be more than just a few years old.
There should exist a seamless integration between this software and the website. To be certain, on the existing sites, a fair amount of testing will be needed, but future sites should be written with this in mind.
For those of us with computers that are less than five years old this seems like much ado about nothing. Surely, this is tilting at windmills, right?
I have surfed the Web with a computer that has 16mb of RAM. I routinely use one with 96mb of RAM and a 166 MHz processor. It can be done.
And it has to, for those amongst us who have no choice.