A level playing field for open source software

Feb 26, 2009

Miles Berry

The government’s support for open source software, as outlined yesterday at http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/media/123372/090224opensource.pdf, is to be welcomed. Given that most UK education takes place in the public sector, it is to be hoped that this support from central government will be reflected in greater confidence at school and local authority level to adopt, specify and develop open source solutions, making possible the re-use and sharing of software, and perhaps ultimately content, amongst schools and LAs.

The document’s introduction by Tom Watson MP, the Minister for Digital Engagement, identifies open source as “one of the most significant cultural developments in IT and beyond over the last two decades”, demonstrating how “individuals, working together… can create products that rival and sometimes beat those of giant corporations”. The collaborative approach to project development is something that sits closely with the pedagogy that many in schools hold dear. The Minister is determined that the public sector has the best possible solutions for the best value for money. The report cites examples of government use of open source solutions, such as Apache{.glossary-term} and core Linux{.glossary-term} infrastructure, although not, alas, Moodle{.glossary-term}‘s dominance of VLE{.glossary-term} provision in much of the education sector, most notably FE.

The document makes clear that there now needs to be a programme of positive action to ensure there is “an effective ‘level playing field’ between open source and proprietary software and to realise the potential contribution open source software can make to wider aims of re-use and open standards{.glossary-term}“. There’s a commitment to ensure that “open source solutions are considered properly and, where they deliver best value for money (taking into account other advantages, such as re-use and flexibility) are selected for Government business solutions”, and, in those cases where there’s no cost difference, the default position should be open source, because of the greater flexibility it affords.

I fear it would be too optimistic to hope that statements such as ‘Where appropriate, general purpose software developed for government will be released on an open source basis’ will apply to the large numbers of educational and administrative programs developed for government funded schools, but perhaps this is something which might be built in to future procurement technical specifications? Indeed, Action Point 9 indicates that a standard clause should be inserted into OJEU invitations to tender that ‘solutions are purchased on the basis that they may be re-used elsewhere in the public sector’, and that the government has the right to release bespoke code on an open source basis.

For BSF, Action Point 5 may be relevant:

“Government Departments will challenge their suppliers to demonstrate that they have capability in open source and that open source products have been actively considered in whole or as part of the business solution which they are proposing… Particular scrutiny will be directed where mature open source products exist and have already been used elsewhere in government. Suppliers putting forward non-open source products will be asked to provide evidence that they have carefully considered open source alternatives and to explain why they have been rejected.”

There’s much discussion in the report too about open standards, including ODF{.glossary-term}, as used by OpenOffice.org{.glossary-term}, and thus we can probably be even more optimistic about seeing open, standard protocols in the school MIS/MLE/VLE arena, perhaps along the lines of SIF(UK), as well perhaps as open standard support for curriculum mapping.

There’s also an acknowledgement that open source approaches can apply to content too, and provide another approach to addressing intellectual property. The desire to ‘share and re-use what the taxpayer has already purchased across the public sector’ could, in theory at least, apply to the schemes of work, lesson plans and, for example, Moodle courses developed by so many teachers and departments in maintained schools. Wouldn’t it be great if the vision for sharing and re-use that this document holds up for software generated a similar vision in the schools sector for sharing and re-using educational resources.

The wider applications of open source techniques receive a degree of recognition, which for schools might be reflected in the increasing attention paid to learner voice, and indeed the understanding of learners as co-designers of their curriculum. Perhaps part of this comitment is the use of the tag #ukgovOSS and a netvibes page at http://www.netvibes.com/cabinetoffice#Open_Source to keep track of the, generally very positive, reaction to this over the Web. Your own thoughts below, or via http://www.writetoreply.org/ukgovoss/ .

(from http://opensourceschools.org.uk/level-playing-field-open-source-software.html)