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A truly networked school

By ANITA MATTHEWS


This month, we focus once again on a single school, SMJK Dindings, and how it will join the Smart School league although it is not among the 90 schools selected under the pilot project that will kick off next January.


SURROUNDED by coconut trees and kampung houses in the middle of a palm oil plantation is Sekolah Menengah Jenis Kebangsaan Dindings in Pundut, Lumut.

At first glance, the Grade B school which lies 95 kilometres from the city of Ipoh strikes one as a quaint sekolah papan, with a new building block located behind the array of wooden classrooms.

But it has become the envy of other schools in the Manjung district since secondary school principal Tiong Ting Ming managed to secure the support and funds to turn it into a ``cyberschool.''

Public perception of the school has changed as parents of kids studying at the primary school next door now prefer to send their children to SMJK Dindings than move them elsewhere.

Within the new building block at SMJK Dindings, a transformation of sorts of is taking place. The block -- which houses 21 classrooms including a library, staffroom, computer room and science labs -- is ``network ready.''

The floor trunking and conduit piping has been built with UTP Cat 5 (Untwisted Pair Category 5) cables and other networking equipment, making up a large part of the building's facade. Each room has a RJ-45 connector that gives it instant virtual access to the rest of the world.

The new block was designed, and its building process supervised, by Tiong (see sidebar). SMJK Dindings intends to act as a role model of the networked school of the future.

Net syllabus

The school's efforts are centered on creating a breed of students who are computer-savvy, using the Internet as a learning tool.

``Right now, we are training students and teachers about the Internet to teach them how to search for information, how to use it and how to communicate with others,'' says Tiong.

He readily admits he is biased towards the Net, arguing that the goal of education is to prepare students to become fully functioning participants in society.

``As IT becomes more pervasive, students need more than traditional skills to participate -- they must be technologically-literate,'' he says.

He adds that students need to be more independent in finding information, and that teachers should serve only as moderators to provide guidance.

Tiong has designed a ``network-centric'' syllabus that emphasises maximising the power and potential of a network. Students also learn how to troubleshoot a network, cabling construction work, basic network systems and the type of networks available.

``The network is important as it allows us to work collaboratively and share resources, as well as communicate with each other,'' Tiong says.

Building the base

With the help of a network-savvy former student, Tiong set out to link all the computers at the school and create different servers for different purposes. The Internet router is housed on a PowerPC connected to a PSTN (Public Switch Telephone Network) line and a 56K modem for external access.

The network systems run Ethernet using the basic Star topology, and AppleTalk on a bus topology hooked to PCs via network interface cards.

Other hardware comprise an 8.3GB Windows NT server (the school will be adding a 12GB hard disk soon) running off a 266MHz Pentium II PC with 128MB RAM; and a Linux Red Hat 5.1 server powered by a 166MHz Pentium MMX PC with 64MB RAM and 6.4GB hard disk space.

The Linux machine has been divided to house an UUCP mail server, Apache webserver, news, chat and proxy server. The Windows NT machine operates as file and print server.

Recently, the school successfully migrated its file and print server out of the Windows NT platform to the Linux server.

``This saves us a considerable amount of money in terms of software licensing,'' he says, adding that the school is using Samba Version 1.9 in Linux to provide the Session Message Block protocol to Windows95 clients.

The SMB protocol, also known as NetBIOS or LAN Manager protocol, is used by Microsoft Windows 3.11, NT and 95 to share disks and printers.

``We are using the Samba suite of tools so that the Linux server can share its disk and driver printers with Windows clients, since our workstations are Windows 95 compliant,'' Tiong says.

Now that the school has upgraded the IDE hard disk in its Linux server to an ultra-wide SCSI-2 hard disk capable of transferring up to 40MB per second, Tiong is well on his way with his plan to set up a Linux lab at the school.

``One of my ex-students has agreed to train some pupils on all there is to know about Linux,'' he adds.

The school's computer room is equipped with 20 units of 166MHz Pentium MMX PCs packed with 32MB RAM and 2.1GB hard disks; seven units of Apple Macintosh PowerPCs packed with 48MB RAM and 1.6GB hard disks; and six units of 68K Macintosh CPUs.

Other tools at the lab include stackable hubs, a Kodak digital camera, an LCD projector, an HP LaserJet 4000N network printer with RJ-45 and AppleTalk interface, an HP Deskjet 690C colour inkjet printer, a SCSI colour scanner, a Yamaha CD-RW recorder and loads of network interface cards.

Of course, PK Electronics UPS units are there to prevent damage in case of power glitches.

The school recently added an SSL secured server to provide secured web services, an HP tape SCSI backup drive to hold 4GB of data to back up students' and teachers' data, besides mirroring data to other hard disks; and a fax server to provide email-to-fax services.

With the rewritable CD-RW unit at hand, Tiong hopes that eventually all students will carry compact disks instead of diskettes.

He also believes in using original software, and has invested in Clarisworks 5.0, FileMaker Pro 4.0, Claris Home Page 3.0, Adobe PhotoShop 4.0, Eudora Pro 4.0, and the Windows 95 and Macintosh 8.1 operating systems.

The network, he adds, is maintained by five students led by Year One student Tiong Hsien Qing. Liew Kok Meng and Liew Toh Seng make up the trio of Unix administrators at SMJK Dindings.

Students have also been given an e-mail address each and allocated web space for design work. They are also able to log on to the Net from any machine.

``Red Hat's Linux allows us to assign individual e-mail accounts to students,'' says Tiong.

Net gain

Despite the limited number of PCs and Macintosh units, Tiong went ahead with his plans by training a core group of 40 students and teachers on the basics of using computers.

This group today forms the teaching, support and maintenance crew for SMJK Dindings' computer classes.

About 80% of the 660 students from Year 1 to Year 5 -- making up 19 classes -- undergo a 40-minute weekly session on IT. Held in the mornings, the lessons cover the basics of operating systems, PC hardware, software, the Internet and communications. All 36 teachers also undergo one and a half hours of computer instruction weekly.

Tiong is assisted by computer teacher Zazalee Ramli. According to Tiong, Zazalee, a graduate from Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris, is the only person in the school with formal training in computers.

Students pay RM10 a month for the classes. And they need to pay 50 sen per hour each time they surf after school.

Saturdays are reserved for computer club activities, with over 170 members.

Club members and school teachers have been divided into 11 groups and instructions are through web-based sessions. They spend about 1.5 hours a week learning more about networking systems, e-mail programs, Internet navigation tools, webpage design, manipulating pictures and how to handle hardware such as the scanner, CD-RW and digital camera, says Tiong.

He adds that some students have been roped in to learn how to install operating systems and applications.

Words to action

After spending a year building this foundation, Tiong expects students to begin utilising the tools they have mastered.

The enterprising headmaster also managed to get the public and some corporations to donate obsolete PCs and Apple computers for the students to use as classroom models.

``We take them apart so they can learn each part of a computer,'' he says.

Everyone learns the basics of e-mail, webpage design, file transfer protocol (FTP), Ethernet cabling as well as bread and butter applications.

``We also plan to introduce Tamil and Jawi desktop publishing (DTP) on the Windows platform, and Chinese DTP on the Mac platform,'' he says, adding that the lab is equipped with a range of computer books as reading material.

In addition, Tiong also hopes to increase the network speed by upgrading from 10BaseT to 100BaseT switching hubs next year, and add more CPU power to the PCs and Macs in place.

``We hope to install an ISDN line and establish links with schools abroad, as well as host our own website,'' he says.

Also in the pipeline are plans to introduce a video splitter as a tool to teach English using CD-ROMs.

``We also hope to migrate to Smart School status as soon as we're permitted,'' he quips.

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