Friday, September 28, 2007

Open Source in Education - Opening Doors

Those who know me well enough to know about the software that I use are aware that I am not only an advocate of free and open source software, I'm also a big user. So I'm always on the lookout for news and stories about open source successes. In a similar vein, I try to keep up with education issues, especially early childhood education and K12 education. Combining those two interests led me to get a subscription to T.H.E. Journal which is a niche publication focusing on the use of technology in education, especially K12. A couple issues ago (yes, that tells you how far behind on some stuff I am) they ran an article titled Opening A New Door about the possibility of schools switching to open source software.

The opening of the story is quite telling as it starts with the question, "To Vista or not to Vista". The question was one faced by a school district in Illinois - going forward, would they stick to the Microsoft platform or look at a Linux platform. I raised the same issue with one of my clients a few months - although no action is needed at the present time, eventually they will be forced to upgrade to Vista or try an alternative. Many other people I work with continue to struggle to get PC's with XP loaded instead of Vista - seems you pretty much have to order them on-line as retail stores don't have anything with XP loaded (I'm guessing they are prevented for contractual reasons even if they did want to sell something customers want).

For the clients I work with, and I have to imagine most school systems are similarly situated, funds are always an issue. And therein lies the problem with Vista. As the story notes, sticking with Windows and the Vista path requires an "investment in hardware upgrades needed to support Microsoft's new, graphically seductive, resource-gobbling OS". Words like "hardware upgrades" probably strike fear in the heart of anyone responsible for spending public or charitable dollars on computers. And moving to an OS that can be described as "resource-gobbling" when you normally deal with very limited resources can't give you a good feeling.

The school district in Illinois is currently implementing SuSE Linux Enterprise Desktop and according to the story they are deploying it to 1,600 desktops and another 600 are planned. In their case, they are still using equipment that is 5 years old. I had a similar experience recently in helping a client redeploy some old computers. In fact, the computers I was working with dated all the way back to 1999 and I doubt they could even handle Windows XP, much less Vista. Fortunately, loading PCLinuxOS (which I liked so much I loaded on one of my laptops) on them was not an issue and has enabled them to make machines useful again (they had actually been relegated to the proverbial dustbin as they would no longer boot to Windows and no one had any idea how to fix them).

Of course all of that was very exciting to me in that the Illinois school district managed to find the will to make a change in platforms to Linux. Their move to OSS started even earlier according the article when they decided to deploy OpenOffice.org. I found it rather amusing that despite the calls for MS Word, they just pushed out OpenOffice.org and people just started using it. Pretty good testament to the lack of training needed to make that switch. Of course, some of you reading know I'm a big advocate of OpenOffice.org, participating in the marketing project and even managed to get interviewed in CFO Magazine about it.

The story noted another application, Moodle, which is a web-based, open source "course management system". As the story indicated, the people from Illinois thought Moodle had "done more for open source software (OSS) than any other program out there for schools".

A few other interesting points, to me at least. One of the points was that kids in school only want to "get[ting] to the internet, and be[ing] able to play their music and write the papers their teachers want them to write." In my opinion, using Vista for those purposes is overkill. The other interesting bit in there was that "as long as they can log on, they don't care if they're using Windows, Linux, or a Mac." As noted later in the article regarding a project in Indiana, when a student was asked what they thought about Linux, the response was, "Who cares?" Another dynamic at play per the article is peer pressure - if school systems see others being successful at making this switch, they will feel more comfortable making it themselves. So I would expect migrations like the Illinois example will have a snowball effect.

Another success story covered in the article is a project in Indiana to deploy around 22,000 Linux desktops. Thus far as part of that project, they have deployed computers running SuSE, Red Hat, Linspire, and Ubuntu. For those unfamiliar with Linux, one of the benefits of deploying Linux is that they usually come with tons of other programs already installed (e.g. most Linux distributions come with a variety of mail clients, OpenOffice.org and other office suites). Ubuntu has a version called Edubuntu which is designed specifically for the education sector and comes with applications for use in school settings. As noted in the article, this means teachers can get up to speed and teaching much faster.

Another benefit noted in the article is that Linux distributions and open source applications can be sent home with students. Try doing that with a copy of MS Office. I run into similar problems in dealing with governments and government agencies. When they put MS Office documents out on the web, they assume everyone out there has a copy of MS Office to be able to open that document. If push came to shove, I could afford a copy of MS Office - but I shouldn't have to pay all that money just to be able to get a copy of my son's football schedule or to apply for a job or submit a required report to the State. And that says nothing about all the people out there who are not in a position to afford MS Office.

I hope we will continue to see school systems making the switch to open source software. Besides the cost benefits and the ability to avoid junking significant infrastructure investments, there are other benefits - most notably the improved and greater access to computers that open source can afford.

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