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April 29th, 2015

The Short History of OSWALD

It was not exactly a clandestine handoff, as you would see in a spy movie. Emily Dunham told me she’d bring it with her to LinuxFest Northwest and, when we met in the hallway at Bellingham Technical College, I asked her, “did you bring it?”

After exchanging pleasantries and quickly catching up, she handed it to me: an OSWALD.


The Oregon State Wireless Active Learning Device, or OSWALD, was provided to OSU computer science students for their studies.

And now, a short history lesson.

Once upon a time — and we’re talking the late aughts, when Red Hat’s Karsten Wade and I would trek up to Oregon State University on our way to LinuxFest Northwest to talk to students about Fedora — OSU had an ambitious project called the Oregon State Wireless Active Learning Device, or OSWALD for short.

The idea behind OSWALD was simple: Every computer science student got one, for around $80, and it became their portable device for their studies — they could bring it to class, connect it to a monitor and a keyboard and, with SD card firmly in place, do their assignments, take it back to the dorm and continue with homework. In short, this hand-held device was powerful — powered by a Texas Instrument OMAP3550 ARM processor — and incorporated some of the latest technology available at the time.

When I first encountered this during its rollout, I thought it was a fantastic idea, one that other schools should use when it comes to educating their computer science students. It was a natural — after all, here in this little package was everything they needed for their classes, freeing up their own hardware for other things, school- and non-school related.

All in one neat package.

The folks at OSU even gave me one to try out. I remember being so enamored with it that I used it often — often enough to actually blow it up, at which time I regretfully sent it back to OSU for a rebuild and to put back into circulation where it belonged.

Of course, with advances in small boards like Raspberry Pi and Beagleboard and other factors, the OSWALD became somewhat obsolete. But the idea behind it is something that should be remembered and, in educational circles, should be looked at as a blueprint for educating computer science students.

Now I have one again — this little piece of open source hardware history — and I’m going to give it another spin.

Larry Cafiero, a.k.a. Larry the Free Software Guy, is a journalist and a Free/Open Source Software advocate. He is involved in several FOSS projects and serves as the publicity chair for the Southern California Linux Expo. Follow him on Twitter: @lcafiero

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