Why schools should use open source software

Originally published on BBC Open Lab.

Awareness of open source software amongst teachers, technical staff and students is certainly far greater now than even a few years ago, thanks to projects like Moodle, Firefox and Audacity leading their respective fields. For schools, the appeal of open source is that it’s free. But ‘free’ is about freedom at least as much as it’s about price: Liberté rather than gratuite as the French would have it. The free software movement have identified the four freedoms underpinning open source software, and these offer compelling reasons for educators to look seriously at this software.

0: The freedom to run the program, for any purpose
From the perspective of most schools, the big advantage of open source software is that no-one is demanding payment for licence fees, either outright or as annual subscription. That’s not to say that it’s without any costs, but training, support, maintenance and, for web-based applications, hosting, are costs which apply to all software, whether open source or proprietary. Back in 2005, a small scale study by Becta identified significant savings in the total cost of ownership for open source schools, not only for licences but also for hardware, training and support.

1: The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs
Whist there are going to be relatively few teachers or students who will have the technical expertise or the inclination to read through the source code, the fact that the opportunity’s there might well be important for a few sixth form computing students, and perhaps the members of a programming club lower down the school. Being able to get to the source code potentially gives students a far better understanding of how software works and of how it gets written: something which my own Year 6 pupils got quite excited about. More importantly, access to the source code allows school techies to tailor the software to the specific needs of the school; it’s this adaptability of open source software which is its unique, er, selling point. For me, this is at the core of why open source software matters for schools.

2: The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbour
This is a real benefit for schools. Being able to give students CD-ROMs or memory sticks with copies of all the software used in schools is tremendously liberating – no longer does a teacher need to worry about home computers not having particular programs, having the wrong version, or having pirated copies. Whilst not a complete solution, this also goes a long way to addressing the digital divide. The link between children’s informal use of technology at home and formal use inside the school curriculum also becomes a closer, stronger one.

3. The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits.
Open source software is often developed though a community working together on a project, and it’s great when schools that are using open source start participating in that community. A lot of open source programs now have a modular structure, so it’s relatively easy for programmers to slot in additional functionality. Sharing these with the other users of a program provides just one way of working in partnership with a worldwide community; other ways of contributing to a project include helping with documentation, spotting or fixing bugs, helping with interface design or suggesting features.

As well as the many open source projects which school staff and students can get involved with, there’s now a Becta supported community of people interested in sharing experiences of or finding out about open source software at opensourceschools.org.uk. At the moment, we’re focussing on supporting users of existing open source programs, but we’re keen that, as our community grows, we’ll also be able to put teachers, students and developers in touch with one another, so they can work together on educationally focussed projects. Do come along and join in.