ZDNet Article: Open Source In Education

Today, ZDNet UK featured a special article focused on open source in education. It’s a good read with some excellent points, and since this is a huge interest of mine (and the reason for my very infrequent blogging), I’ve provided some of the key points below along with some thoughts of my own.

1) Exposing school-aged children to open source software may make the difference in long-term adoption.

Or alternately, “For companies like Microsoft the school market is important because they’re leading innocent young minds to love Microsoft technologies.” And of course, then the old argument continues that schools shouldn’t use open source technologies because they are not used in “the real world”. Whose world are we preparing these children for? Ours, or theirs?

2) There is a perception that open source software is more difficult to use … at least for adults.

Yes, some open source software is more difficult to use than their proprietary counterparts, and I’ve seen this stated as a reason for resistance many times. However, there’s also some excellent software that’s easier to use and better than anything in the proprietary world (if you are reading this using Firefox, you know what I mean).

But if there are any differences in usability, I don’t think it’s intentional unlike one voice quoted in the article. “There is a prevailing sentiment among many in the free software community that technology shouldn’t be too easy and that people should invest the time to learn about it.” Hmmmm … I am not sure I buy that.

But the more important point is that when it comes to children using software, it may not matter. “John Osborne, a deputy headteacher at Orwell High School, which runs about 350 Linux-based thin-clients, says the pupils in the school found it relatively easy to learn how to use the open source desktops, although the staff struggled initially.” And I guess the idea that staff struggle with software use ties in well to point #1, and of course, Prensky’s Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants argument.

3) There are now many open source educational applications available for schools.

“There are a number of open source educational suites available, including the KDE Edutainment Suite, which includes tools such as the geography learning tool KGeography and the vocabulary trainer KVocTrain; the GCompris suite which includes algebra, science, geography and reading tools; and the Tux4Kids project, which has produced software such as TuxPaint and TuxTyping. Some Linux distributions. such as Edubuntu, come with bundled educational applications, including.” Obviously, you just have to know where to look.

4) Open source software adoption in schools is still slow due to a general ignorance of these tools furthered by strong marketing campaigns/approaches from software companies.

“The limited use of open source by schools can also be put down to lack of awareness or technical skills, and fear of the unknown.” And of course, it’s not just fear. It’s fear, uncertainty and doubt or FUD.

5) It is perceived that the technicians in many schools are not familiar enough with open source tools to provide sufficient support, or are reluctant to do so.

“..technical skills among school technicians is also a key factor. Paul Jenkins, the managing director of open source consultancy SimpleICT (formerly SchoolLINUX) says that few IT technicians know anything about Linux, so are unlikely to support a migration to such software. “The IT guy doesn’t know anything about Linux, so a way to protect himself and his job is to say it’s no good,” he claims.” While I am sure this is not true in all cases, I’ve witnessed this sentiment and the inaction it brings. Obviously the solution to this is to support the educational growth and professional development of technicians as you would with anyone else in the institution.

6) It’s not just about the cost.

Sure, open source adoption can lead to superior cost-savings. However, there are many other factors through adoption that can be as or more important.

“Linux thin clients are more resilient — at one school where SiriusIT has installed thin clients, there is no technician to support the technology, but due to the resilience of the technology this has not been an issue. With Linux, IT isn’t an issue any more — systems don’t crash. The thin client environment is quicker to boot and if someone pulls the plug it’s back up in a few seconds. Also, they don’t blue screen any more.”

While I certainly don’t buy the argument that “IT isn’t still an issue with Linux adoption”, I do agree that the open source process often produces software with greater quality and resilience. However, thats’ not the only other good reason for adoption.

7) The open source movement can be seen as a culture, an ideology and a better way for humans to work together on shared pursuits.

There is some philosophical argument regarding the moral superiority of open source software vs. proprietary software. Some of this sentiment comes from Richard Stallman and the related, but different, Free Software Movement. Whether you buy this argument or not, there is something to be said about developing software or content through open methods, and the philosophy inherent to the open movement is worth modelling to our students. And in the words of Sartre “Instead of secrecy, openness should reign, and I can very well imagine the day when two persons will no longer keep any secrets from one another because they will have no secrets from anyone, because the subjective life will be a fact, as totally open as the objective life.” And with this, I will continue to do my part to support the open movement in my corner of the world.

  • Great to read this, Alec. Although proprietary software might be a better strategy for end users in the short term, in the long term open source software has the greater advantage of a faster rate of improvement of the software, and some examples are given. We just need to be patient, and in the long run the universe will unfold as it should.

  • I agree, I have tried many times to be stubborn and go with proprietary software for our day to day applications. It never fails – soon enough the open source solution begins to out improve the proprietary counterpart. The real kicker is the open source product or service ends being free!

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