Interview with Christian Einfeldt from the Digital Tipping Point

We are doing a series of interviews with people who have experience setting up computer labs for kids. Our first interviewee is Christian Einfeldt.

Christian Einfeldt is an attorney in private civil practice in San Francisco, and a civil rights Free Software advocate in his community, providing level one GNU-Linux sys admin support as a volunteer to a local public middle school.  He is also producing a documentary film project called the Digital Tipping Point using all FOSS tools and a distributed production and distribution method similar to the way that FOSS is built.

Can you tell us about the school you picked?

Since June 2004, I have supported an impoverished inner-city school in the Western Addition neighborhood of San Francisco with a 30-seat GNU-Linux lab and a few stand-alone clients.

There are 320 students. The school is a mixed race school comprised of 45% African American students, 45% Latino Students, 6% Asian, and 4% Caucasian. Eighty-five percent of the students come from households eligible for free or reduced price lunches.

On their arrival to the school as 5th graders, these students typically read 2 grades below level, and do math 3 grades below level. At the end of the year, this school has tested number 1 on standardized testing out of all San Francisco public middle schools.

I chose this school because I was walking to work one day and I noticed an A-frame sandwich board on the sidewalk of Geary street announcing the opening of the school. I knew that this school would need computers, as it was just opening, and California notoriously underfunds its schools as a result of a law limiting income taxes.

How did the students react to the project?

The students love to go onto the Internet. The students don’t know or care that their machines run Free Software, although they are becoming aware that they use Firefox, OpenOffice.org, and other Free Software applications like the GIMP. Many of the students now use these applications at home.

I was surprised that the kids did not complain at all about not being able to use certain proprietary software. The kids just explore and make use of what they have.

How did the teachers react to the project?

They use the Xubuntu lab mainly for teaching Internet research, typing skills, and composition. Some of the teachers understand the abstract notion of Free Software as a civil right, but all of them are pragmatically focused on preparing the students for high school and college, and so they talk almost not at all about the civil rights nature of Free Software. The teachers like the fact that they can bring a full classroom of 30 kids into the lab and get them all onto the Internet.

There are a few teachers who make use of GNU-Linux computers in their classrooms. But these teachers would all love to have access to the equivalent of what they refer to as their mobile Mac lab. A donation of a mobile charging station was given to the school 3 years ago. Fifteen white shiny Mac notebooks charge over night in that mobile charging station, and a few of the teachers use that resource occasionally to teach multimedia skills and Internet skills.

What type of hardware did you use?

The lab has grown from an LTSP server lab in June 2004 with 24 seats to 30 seats now running Xubuntu on P4 LDAP clients each with 512 MB of RAM on Pentium 4 chips.

We also have about 10 other Linux machines with various flavors of GNU-Linux in other classrooms.

Our hardware comes largely from the Alameda County Computer Resource Center, which can be found at ACCRC.org. James Burgett, Ilma Willard, James Howard, and Leif Ryge are just a few of the dedicated staff of the ACCRC who have made it possible for us to obtain such decent P4 machines with 512 MB of RAM. We simply could not have done this without them.

What software did you decide on?

The architects of the software for the lab are Drew Hess and James Howard. The machines came to us from ACCRC.org with Ubuntu pre-installed, but Drew Hess led the decision to standardize on Xubuntu. Drew created some custom package management software to network the machines, and James Howard created a mass network installer that allows us to quickly and easily intall Drew’s configuration over the network. Literally 70 or more people have contributed to the hardware and software solutions for this lab, by coming to installfests, etc., but Drew and James are certainly the masterminds behind the grand architecture of the lab.

My role has been mostly that of a salesperson and level one tech support. I am the person who receives complaints from the teachers, trouble shoots the lab with support from the local GNU-Linux community, and maintains the machines.

The most heavily-used piece of software in the lab is Firefox, which is used to access Google Docs & Spreadsheets (GDS). I introduced GDS last year as a wedge to weaken the school’s dependence on Microsoft Word and Microsoft Outlook, and it has performed wonderfully in that regard. Two of the teachers have set up their own home pages within GDS for the kids to access in downloading and completing their homework.

Perhaps most important, the 7th grade science teacher has pioneered the use of GDS for collaborative homework completion. The kids know that they can invite one another to collaborate on their work, and the 7th grade science teacher requires his students to invite him as a collaborator on each assignment, which he can and does check in the evenings.  The teacher requires his students to do presentations on biology or astronomy, which they create in GDS. As a result, the students are no longer dependent on Microsoft software for their computing needs, which I view as a huge success, although relying on Google’s proprietary cloud services obviously poses its own problems.

I have taught the kids how to use the GIMP. In fact, I have found that the kids now routinely download OpenOffice.org and the GIMP and Audacity to do their work. Free Open Source Software has irrevocably embedded itself into the life of this school. I was helping the 8th grade social studies teacher during class last week, and I was amused to see that one girl was working in her free time on her astronomy presentation for science. She used the GIMP to do an illustration. I had not trained this student on the GIMP. I asked her where she had learned to use the GIMP. She said that her brother had taught her how to do it. Her brother had never attended this school! There have been numerous other situations in which other students have talked about their use of OOo or the GIMP. It is simply a part of their lives. Microsoft has lost its exclusive grip on this school.

How many volunteers have been involved in the project?

There have been about 4 key volunteers including myself, but there have been a total of easily 70 people who have had their hands on the lab over the course of its life. I can’t exaggerate the importance of the contributions of these volunteers. We literally could not have done it without them.

In addition to those two, Cathy Malmrose and Earl Malmrose and their family have been integral vendors and volunteers in this lab. Their story with regard to this lab appeared on Slashdot.

Did the project have side effects or consequences that you weren’t expecting?

It was much more work than I expected!

How did you handle ongoing support and maintenance of the hardware/software?

Long hours and lots of support from Drew Hess, James Howard, Holden Aust, Earl Malmrose, Daniel Gimpelevich, Daniel Mizyrycki, Jim Stockford, Asheesh Laroia, and the great support of the SF-LUG.com mailing list. We have an excellent, competent, and passionate Free Software community in the San Francisco Bay Area.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d want to make sure others doing similar things hear?

Spend time communicating with the org you are supporting. This is perhaps the most important part of your job. Speak to them in plain English (or Spanish, Portuguese, German, French, etc). Don’t speak to your end users in tech talk.

Cultivate a community among sys admins in your community. You will need them for tips and logistical support! Community, community, community! Also, your community will give you a technical edge that will knock your socks off. The competence of our support team has been simply astounding.

Get the fastest machines you can. Ignore everything less than a Pentium 4 or its AMD equivalent. Ignore everything less than 512 MB of RAM.

Cultivate an advocate at the school or other institution who will pitch for you in meetings and let you know about problems.

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