Flossie 06 – Day 1

Jul 22, 2006

Miles Berry

I’ve spent the last couple of days up in Bolton for Schoolforge-UK‘s FLOSSIE(free, linux and open source software in education) conference. The venue is Bolton’s Technical Innovation Centre – which I think is unique in the UK as a facility for making very high tech resources like CAD workstations and CAM devices, including an amazing 3D colour ‘printer’, available to schools and community groups from the local area, with the intention of stimulating innovation and entrepreneurship. Ian Lynch had put together a variedprogramme for the two days, which suited well the varied audience, made up of the usual techies, plus a good number of teachers, an encouraging scattering of heads, folk from the open source business community, and a few with interests in the wider policy agenda, including someone from the Green party, and folk from Becta and Price Waterhouse Coopers.

Mark Ellse, pricipal of Chase Academy, and still something of a techie himself, although he assured us that he wasn’t a geek, spoke about their move schoolwide over to OpenOffice. They’ve found this an almost entirely positive experience, with particular system-wide benefits being OOo’s reliability, the ease with which it installs and can be updated compared to the leading commercial competitor, being able to give copies to all the pupils to use at home, as well, of course, as the significant cost savings. He admitted that there were still sometings for which Office had the advantage, particularly for ‘power users’ such as Mark himself, the bursar and the secretaries, who’ve retained at least Outlook for content management and email, although they’re using Google Calendar for the diary stuff (this was new to me, and looks pretty impressive, although I like the way 30 Boxes brings RSS feeds into the arena, and SchoolTool’s calendar/timetable support is very impressive). More interesting though was the way he’d led the change management process, first by winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the SMT by having them evaluate OOo against existing provision, there conclusion being that it did everything that they needed, and then by managing the transition and training himself, although he did warn that folk seem more willing to blame problems on OOo than on MS-Office when things do go wrong, even if this is far less often. He also showed off a U3 USB key, which has enough free software and space for documents and settings for you to be able to turn any (I think windows) PC into your personal workstation by just putting it in the appropriate slot. It’s interesting that, even with all of the web based applications that there now are, accessible from anywhere on the net, there’s still this perceived need to have equivalent desktop applications and files, even if this user desktop becomes something you can move from one workstation to another.

Former maths and computing professor Leslie Fletcher, now of the UK Unix Users Group, then spoke about political lobbying to promote FLOSS. He’s trying to get an all party open source parliamentary group set up, which can then do something to hold govt departments to account about there use of FLOSS and adherance to governement policy for a level playing field in software procurement exercises. He cited the work of the existing All Party Internet Group as a model on which we could draw, and there appears to be interest from a number of Tory and Lib Dem MPs, as well as quite a few peers from all parties. theyworkforyou.com and faxyourmp.com were recommended as useful tools for concerned citizens. This led to a brief discussion about BSF, and our perception that by rolling in the ICT systems to the building contracts under a managed service approach, this would make it harder for schools to innovate, and harder still for open source to find its way into schools, given that the SMEs supporting open source are unlikely to feature on the radar of the building firms that will win most BSF contracts. Also, understandable concern from the technician community as to what would happen to their jobs when all the schools’ IT is provided through managed services. As I’ve commented below, there is concern in parliament about some aspects of the BSF programme, and I hear that thenational audit office might also be taking an interest.

Schoolforge-UK president Richard Rothwell spoke about Open Source and inclusion. Inspired by Stephen Crowne’s speech at theInnovation Workshop about how schools would become accountable for the outcomes for all the young people in their area, and the threat of a reduced level of funding for IT stuff, Richard advocatedPuppy Linux as a way of getting cheap computing into everyone’s homes. He also urged the development of a far more collaborative, open culture for sharing teacher produced resources between schools, applying something of the open-source philosophy of collaborative peer development to learning resources as well as software. As most teachers are public employees, he made a strong case for their work being shared for a wider public benefit under some creative commons scheme (he suggested the attribution licence), so that other teachers could learn from their work and then, crucially, edit it to make it more appropriate for their learners, building on the concept of peer-review that was implicit in the Web right at the start. He sees a role for Becta in encouraging and rewarding this, and there are perhaps ways to leverage existing schemes, such as theteacher resource exchange and the e-learning awards for this.

Excellent presentation from Stuart Johnson on his continuing work developing ClaSS, an open source information management system, designed to meet first and foremost the needs of teachers themselves. Stuart was until a year ago a full time Physics teacher at Kings College Madrid, but Kings Group have taken him off timetable now so that he can work full time on developing ClaSS for their other schools and then marketing it as a hosted service to other schools – visionary stuff from his head, exactly the way that technical innovation can be encouraged from inside schools, and even more impressive that he’s being allowed to develop this as open source code. Stuart made an important and interesting distinction between Management Information Systems and Information Management Systems – it’s fairly welldocumented that MISs in most schools do little to improve the quality of learning and teaching, quite possibly because they do little to meet the data/information/knowledge needs of the teachers (or indeed the pupils…) themselves. By starting from the classroom up, and targeting functionality such as markbooks and reports, Stuart’s system looks far more likely to address these issues than most of the top down systems we’re used to in this area, and thus once teachers start seeing the benefit for themselves of entering data into the system, it becomes far more usable by those further up the information food chain. Stuart’s also got Elgg integrated into ClaSS, and apparently the staff at Kings Madrid see lots of potential for using Elgg, some having been inspired by my fairly basic write-up of our work with it! We also heard from Robert Jones about his FreeMIS project, which also seems to be taking off thanks to his choice of Ruby on Rails as a development framework. Jonsieboy also spoke about the opportunities which SIF presents if Becta decide to go down the hub integration route for MIS specs, and he and Stuart are watching Tom Hoffman‘s TinyZIS work with interest.

I always feel quite humbled on these occasions when I meet other open source folk, particularly those who’ve implemented whole school, desktop deployments. Alistair Crust of Skegness Grammar Schoolwas quite inspirational. When they came to look at overhauling their desktop systems, they compared the 101K they were quoted for Windows with 29K for a Linux system, and understandably went with the latter. The first computer room came in at £6000 for a 34 station thin client network, including a couple of beefy servers (and the chairs!). They’ve since managed to get hold of Wyse winterms for £3.70 each (yes that’s a decimal point), although these are appartently non-trivial to get working as LTSP clients, and are now rolling out free LTSP networks to their feeder primaries using the legacy kit. They’re finding that they can delvier/support the whole of the curriculum on Linux, with better software and support, using tools like OpenOfficeFirefoxInkscape (which I’m becoming increasingly fond of as a whiteboard notebook replacement on my Tablet with it’s italic pen, although the simplicity of (free but not open)InkyBoard has much to recommend it too) and blender, with LyXXMLMind,ZOPE and Postgres up at AS/A2 level, and kdissertkjotsnvu and wink for their DiDA programme; interestingly most of these apps also have free Windows versions now. They’ve coded up their own webbased MIS,Scholarpack, which staff can get to from anywhere on site using wireless PDAs. Of course, to lead the way like this they’ve needed lots of technical expertise on site, but can you imagine the savings nationwide if every school went this route!

After the Schoolforge AGM, in which the association was wound up to make way for a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee, we made our way to a local curry house, where the conversations continued until late on – lots and lots of buzz about Elgg, inculding hearing it described as ‘the next Moodle’.