Becta open source seminar

Jun 01, 2006

Miles Berry

I spent yesterday at Becta’s seminar on “commercial models and issues of sustainability for open source development in education”. Which, despite the title, was really more about using open source software as an alternative or addition to proprietary code, rather than developing per se. I feel that much of Becta still don’t really get open source – it was interesting that the guest list included representatives of companies promoting open source solutions within education, plus a few more folk from schools this year, but I don’t think we had any real, live open source developers there.

Stephen Lucey’s introduction gave an overview of the strategic picture, with talk of promoting appropriate products, services and resources, and encouraging appropriate local choice. Which is fine, but it all depends on who judges what’s appropriate and what’s not. Becta’s wish to maintain a culture of innovation and creativity is, to my mind at least, at odds with their wish that institutions should be focusing on using the technology and not the technology itself, that they should be “purchasing” services and solutions, not software and boxes. So much of the great code we’re using at St Ives has been developed within higher education, where there is admittedly more expertise, but also a culture of innovation and of peer review, and funding for development work of this type. In the UK, Becta’s rough equivalent for FE/HE, JISC have a well thought through policy on open source development and are happy providing the relatively small sums of money needed to sustain this work, whereas in the schools sector we see a highly commercial model of procurement, purchasing and framework agreements, with no funding trickling down to support open source development within the schools themselves. OK, I know that most schools perhaps don’t have the expertise to participate in this work, and with BSFand managed services there’ll perhaps be fewer and fewer that can, but some do and some are, and it would be good if this could be promoted and supported by the DfES, Becta and the local authorities, rather than ignored or dismissed as inappropriate or unsustainable.

The open source perspective, or at least some aspects of it, was presented articulately by Mark Taylor of the Open Source Consortium, Mike Banahan ofOpen Forum Europe and Cutter, and Ian Lynch of Schoolforge-UK andIngots.

Mark spoke well about the business model, that we’re getting to the point now where hardware is a commodity and relatively cheap (not so sure about this in terms of primary school budgets, but I understand what he’s getting at), and software essentially free, in marginal cost terms if not literally, so the business model is centred on services, such as advice and consultancy, deployment, support, training and hosting, which fits in well with Becta’s agenda, and applies just as much to open as proprietary code. Mark also flagged up emulation and virtualization as things which open source is good at, and which could be important for schools.

Mike places an emphasis on openness in a broader context, particularly about the wider benefits the flow from thinking in open source terms (seecomments on the Futurelab paper below) and spoke about notions such as open standards, the need to be open to free competition and avoidance of technological lock-in. He also tried to get across the idea that in open source the traditional procurement mindset of us and them doesn’t really work – that Becta and the DfES are part of the open source community too, but simply maintaining existing policies does little but endorse an established monopoly to the detriment of many elements of society as a whole. Mike’s post game analysis on the SF-UK list is well worth reading.

Ian had been working very hard in the run-up to the meeting to put together a discussion paper on “Open Source Software and Government Policy”, which was circulated at the meeting and is available in ODF format from the sf-uk site. The paper covers a lot of ground. but seemed well received, and Becta have asked for a four page idiot’s guide executive summary. Ian’s presentation gave a good overview of SF-UK’s present role and potential as a ‘third sector organization’, working somewhere in between the public and private sectors, as a recent NAO report (pdf) has discussed. Ian concluded by highlighting the fact that in the school’s sector we have large sums of money being spent on software (such as through the ring-fenced E-Learning Credits), but no seed capital being specifically targeted on R&D – which leads me back to the notion of finding funds to support open sourcedevelopment within schools.

The ensuing discussion was fairly free-flowing. I got rather incensed by the chap who claimed that there were good reasons (eg technical support, lack of local expertise) for primary schools not using open-source. Dougal Gill spoke about how relatively few primary schools had even heard of open source software, and of course there’s no way open source can match the marketing budgets of RM and MS, but it’s not helped when Becta and the DfES use purchasing as a synonym for choosing, and when a local authority dismisses open source from what one must charitably assume is a position of ignorance. For me, the most perceptive contribution to the debate was from Becta’s Niel McClean, who highlighted the fact that, for good or ill,those running education see things in terms of markets, and thus, by implication, the only way code developed through a community is going to be perceived as viable by those in power is through engaging in the market place – which provides some explanation for how Moodle’s not figured in DfES learning platform thinking, despite its strong position as many schools’ chosen VLE. Neil acknowledged that some of the less successful interventions had come when too much power has been handed to the supply side (I wonder what he had in mind…), but the challenge was to find ways of empowering the demand side – I can’t help thinking that BSF is unlikely to help much here, as all of the decision making on ICT infrastructure and software seems to be taken out of the school and handed to the service provider.

The afternoon discussion focused on what could be done to overcome the barriers to “using open source resources to support learning” (note the limited scope here), which Ian had given as:

  • A lack of leadership to make the change;
  • No national strategy for open source;
  • Lack of knowledge and understanding in the decision making;The inertia of legacy software applications;
  • Inconsistent applications of government policy; and a
  • Work force that has not been educated for technological change.

As you can imagine, there were a whole of host of possible strategies suggested, including (in no particular order):

  • Articulating the open source vision in educational terms such as addressing the digital divide, education for enterprise etc, and explaining how the four freedoms help.
  • Providing case studies and action research which address the popular misconceptions, and which could be developed within a community of practice around schools ICT that Becta should be seeking to promote.
  • As part of a school’s self review process, asking schools to consider how open their practices are.
  • Rather than looking to replace existing products, focusing on areas for innovation or where there are gaps in provision, such as home school links, and use public funding to develop open source solutions here, and indeed more could be done by Becta to promote Moodle’s contribution in this area.
  • Provision of a catalogue of open source software, to stand alongside those from the commercial distributors, SF-UK’s list could be a useful starting point.
  • Educational hardware vendors could be encouraged to pre-install a number of open source applications, at no cost to them.
  • Publicly funded projects should be platform agnostic, and more could be done to promote open standards, such as ODF.
  • Open source content and code development within schools could be encouraged through annual open source awards, eg at BETT.
  • There should be at least a level playing field, without bias against open source software, and with some mechanism for attaching an equivalent commercial value to the code for exercises such as SSAT sponsorship.
  • A publicity campaign promoting open source as a legitimate alternative, with sample disks of the OpenCD and/or Edubuntu distributed to schools so they can easily try it for themselves, and get started with some of the low hanging fruit like PDF Creatorthe GIMP and Firefox.
  • Establishing a culture of collaborative work within, and between schools, so that in the longer term, there would be a natural transition from working together on projects and resources to working together on open source software development.

Stephen had the unenviable task of summing up the day. Key points included the need for the open source community to focus on additionality and adding new value rather than mere replacing existing systems; the need to focus on real world problems and demonstrate to government what open source solutions to particular government policies would look like; moving open source into the mainstream by demonstrating its reliability to government and local authorities; and focusing on open standards within technical policy.