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Playground Politics in the World of Software

This article appeared in Education Business Magazine, edition 10.5, summer 2005.

Written by Malcolm Macsween, Managing Director, The Linux Centre and EMC UK

Last month’s BECTA report on the use of Open Source Software1 (OSS) in education highlighted massive potential savings, with tests in the primary sector suggesting possible 50% reduction in IT costs.

Although there was no direct mention of Microsoft in the report, with such a clear endorsement of Open Source technology from the UK government, it was predictable that the king of proprietary software vendors should respond instantly with a counter attack.

But whilst this playground dispute has been the focus of most press coverage in the IT press, the report offered a far more thorough look at the practicalities of Open Source computing in education, as well as some very valuable frameworks for evaluating its potential in different environments.

The BECTA report follows several recent reports from the Office for Government Commerce, which have advocated a more widespread use of Open Source software across the public sector. BECTA set out to take a more focused look at the effectiveness of OSS in the delivery of the curriculum and school administration, and in providing adequate functionality to the educational user.

The report rightly acknowledges that in almost all computing environments there is a role for both Open Source and proprietary software. It looks over the confusing technical arguments, to explain where the practical strengths of both sides lie. It recommends that organisations should examine the relative merits of both types of technology on a case-by-case basis. It also creates several useful frameworks or taxonomies for analysing how and where the different technologies can be used within schools.

Firstly, it divides OSS use into three categories: OSS on infrastructure and servers, OSS as the operating system on classroom and administrative machines (as an alternative to Microsoft Windows) and thirdly, OSS applications within classrooms.
The Linux Centre

Within the infrastructure category the report says:

Malcolm Macsween sitting in front of the Linux Centre

The use of OSS for servers was generally seen as having a high level of relative advantage, with lower costs, more reliability and a similar or greater ease of use than non-OSS systems.

The most common uses of OSS for servers and infrastructure are as web servers, email servers and file servers. In almost all cases it is virtually invisible to the end user, regardless of their operating system. Whilst this does mean that end-user may not be aware of the benefits, it also makes the zero software cost,and the lower ongoing support costs more compelling.

The report drew attention to the potential cost and complexity of migrating to the new technology. However, outside services can be brought in for this, and can easily be afforded out of the broader savings which OSS provides. It should also be noted that proprietary server software also requires regular upgrades that can be equally as complex.

In highlighting server infrastructure as the current ‘sweet spot’ for OSS, however, the report did not make clear that Open Source server software runs effectively on far older servers. This not only reduces the need for costly hardware upgrades, but it can allow schools to use second hand commercial equipment (such equipment is increasingly freely available from businesses due to tightening regulations on disposal of computing equipment).

The use of OSS operating systems on classroom and administrative machines (as with the above category, usually Linux as an alternative to Windows) was the least favoured of the three areas. It represented a route change and dictated a wholly OSS path: dropping the use of MS Office and all programmes designed to run on Windows. This meant that there was no element of trialability and, although some schools did use so called ‘dual boot’ machines running both OSS and non-OSS operating systems to allow more choice, this lost them most of the cost advantage of using OSS.

This section of the report did highlight the fact that OSS can be run on older desktop machines. As a result, whilst some teachers found the changeover awkward and felt there was a greater variety of software available for non-OSS machines, the relative advantages of having a greater number of better performing OSS machines won them over in most cases. Also, specific departments such as music and graphic design were often keener to use OSS because they could achieve more with their budgets, and could build complex, powerful systems that would not have been feasible using proprietary software.

The final category within the first framework, was the use of OSS for classroom and administrative applications (essentially free applications which can run on either OSS or non-OSS operating systems). Here, trialability was far better than in the other two categories, but reactions were mixed between administrative staff and teachers. However, these arguments were made far more clearly within the reports second framework, which divided OSS use into: Curriculum delivery, administration and technical infrastructure.

Looking again at the technical infrastructure, unsurprisingly, the report drew the same conclusion as before, namely that OSS offered a relative advantage. Administrative staff where generally indifferent or opposed to OSS, often criticising its lack of compatibility with other administrative packages. There was also a fear that training on Microsoft Office products would not be transferable. However, the report stopped short of validating these opinions.

Finally, within the curriculum delivery category, the report concludes that OSS is an adequate and viable alternative. On a cost basis OSS wins outright, with even initially sceptical teachers persuaded by how much more the department could achieve with its budget. Feedback also suggested that the use of OSS Office products in place of Microsoft was popular, with many pupils suggesting that they found the OSS products easier to use.

With content specific software (designed for a specific curriculum), there was a general feeling that there was less available, however the report quite rightly highlights that this may have been because schools were unaware of its availability. (BECTA recommend Bruggink 2003, and Vuorikari 2003 as good sources of possible software. The writers of this article strongly recommend SCHOOLFORGE)

If handled properly, OSS can offer 50% savings in ICT budgets, but schools need to consider carefully where and how OSS can be used most effectively. The BECTA report offers a very useful insight into how schools can make these decisions.

The one area that the report fails to highlight fully is the powerful potential for school computing of combining OSS and the Internet. Increasingly, much of the subject specific content and applications needed for classroom computing can be found online in websites and interactive online applications. OSS machines provide an unbeatably cost effective way to access this material.

As a follow-on to the report, BECTA should perhaps look in more detail at the potential for promoting further development of Internet based learning materials based on open technology standards. This would free up schools to use any mixture of OSS and proprietary technology, and remove any remaining ties to non-OSS technology (specifically Windows) in order to run subject specific software.

More centralised Internet provision of teaching materials also offers massive efficiency savings at an LEA level. Using Open technology, where teachers can freely share materials ideas and innovations, without being beholden to a ‘middleman’ software vendor, would not only save money, it would promote a sharing of knowledge and best practice which can only benefit education standards in the long run.

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