On saving money…

Jul 08, 2010

Miles Berry

Oringinally posted at MerlinJohnOnline, but comments welcome below…

So far, things have not gone particularly well for ICT in schools under the new government. We’ve seen Becta’s funding withdrawn, the Rose curriculum thrown away, £100 Million removed from the ‘low priority’ Harnessing Technology grants and now BSF ‘frozen’. Mike Baker’s piece for the BBC on Saturday provided a good summary of the story so far. The worst, I fear, is yet to come with 25% cuts overall in public sector spending. The need to save money wherever possible suggests that open source may be the solution that had been waiting for this particular problem. I’ve remarked elsewhere on the fit between open source principles and coalition policy/rhetoric, but I suspect it’s the massive cost savings which open source could offer that will perhaps lead many to start exploring open source even if it doesn’t fit perfectly with their vision.

Becta’s 2005 survey of the total cost of ownership savings from open source is well worth another look, claiming savings of 24%-44%, but I think, with a little imagination and perhaps a little more courage, significantly greater savings would be possible. I offer below a few thoughts on how to do this, in part inspired by Ray Fleming’s list of ten money saving tips on his Microsoft UK Schools Blog, which include good, platform independent ideas like using virtualisation, switching on power management, and stopping photocopying and printing, although I don’t think Ray goes nearly far enough in terms of how much schools can save by doing things for free and for themselves. As with Ray’s list, some of the following aren’t specific to particular software solutions, but I think the freedom, community and empowerment that are at the heart of the open source movement characterise those suggestions which aren’t directly about open source software.

1. Don’t buy any software. No, seriously, just stop buying software licences. If you’d like to carry on using your Windows machines, check out the Open Education Disc, with a comprehensive suite of absolutely free applications providing tools for (almost) every area of learning within and beyond the curriculum, including OpenOffice.org, Inkscape and the GIMP, to replace Office, Illustrator and Photoshop for starters. Furthermore, you’re allowed, indeed encouraged, to duplicate this so your pupils have access to the same software, legally and for free, at home too. Better still, put the temptation to buy more software firmly out of your grasp by switching to Linux desktops, such as the undeniably excellent Ubuntu. This comes as standard with a great suite of applications, with at the last count 30,046 packages (such as Tablix, a genetic algorithm based timetabler) you can install (for free) over the net as and when you need them: think app store for a desktop, but all free and (generally) of very good quality. If you’re worried that your pupils won’t cope with an unfamiliar interface, don’t be, they’ll quickly adjust and will be far more discerning users of computers as a result; if you’re worried that this won’t prepare them for the world of Windows, don’t be, just have a glance at Ofsted’s comments about alternative operating systems.

2. Make use of web-based applications. There is much to be said for making use of all the great, free Web 2.0 apps out there in the cloud, and I’d personally have Google Apps Education Edition high up my must have list, even if it’s not open source. That said, I think the single, best thing you could do for a school’s ICT provision would be to set up your own webserver. Get a box. Get Linux. Get Apache. Get MySQL. Get PHP. Open up port 80 on your firewall (if you’re not allowed to do that, consider becoming an academy, or at least threaten to). From there, any number of things become possible for free – Moodle as a VLE, MediaWiki for your own collaborative knowledge base, Elgg for social networking, WordPress for blogging, Drupal for your school website, Mahara for an e-portfolio, Zimbra for e-mail, calendars and the like, Koha for your library catalogue, MRBS for booking meeting rooms, OTRS for managing support tickets, even SchoolTool for a management information system (although this works a bit differently from the others…). That’s quite a list, and most of these are far, far easier to put in place and maintain than commercial service providers would have you believe.

3. Don’t bother replacing your computers. Don’t feel obliged to keep upgrading your hardware to the latest spec. (Almost) any old machines will have a long, productive life ahead of them as thin clients running off a fast Ubuntu LTSP server. This is also a great way of cutting maintenance costs, and makes updating software or installing new packages a dream, as you only need to do this once on the server for the changes to apply automatically to all the clients. Have a look at the Open Source Schools case study from my old school.

4. Allow the pupils to use their own devices. Many of your pupils might already have laptops of their own that they’d love to use at school. Many more will have smart phones or other devices that can access the web, particularly when their parents upgrade to the latest handset. With decent wifi, a transparent proxy server and all the above web-based, internally hosted services wouldn’t it make sense to let them use their own devices inside the school, educating them how to use these responsibly and effectively.

5. Take control of your Internet connection. Compare the cost of your LA/RBC provided service and that of commercial providers, and check you really do need any additional benefits that you may be paying for- how often do you need access to the NEN? This seems to be what’s hinted at in the DfE’s description of the second Hanressing Technology grant cut as giving schools time to plan to ‘reconfigure their broadband’. I think it interesting that hardly any independent schools opt-in to RBC services. Use Squid as a proxyserver to speed up multiple access to the same pages. Explore some of the filtering options for Squid, such as the kind-of-open-source DansGuardian, which is based on Squid. Think carefully about your filtering policy, bearing in mind that children have a right to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child’s choice.”

6. Don’t buy or subscribe to any digital resources. Again, the web is the place to go to get these for free, but best to look for resources which you can adapt to make your own, something rarely possible with commercially published materials. Just as software has its open source movement, so content has creative commons, open content and open educational resources. Wikipedia in all its flavours is great for use in schools because it teaches you to weigh its authors claims and to engage critically with what’s said, as well as providing the tools for teachers and pupils to edit what’s there already or add new content. Whilst en.wikipedia.org is fairly demanding, simple.wikipedia.org is accessible for most in KS2 up, and the foreign language versions (including Latin) could have application in MFL (or classics) work. For Open Education Resources, check out wikibooks, curriki and the National Digital Resource Bank (OK, the latter does require a subscription, but this is pretty cheap). Best of all, return to the tradition of creating your own resources: shared, collaborative texts in a wiki, educational games in Scratch or support materials and interactive or social learning activities in Moodle.

7. Don’t pay for CPD. You and your colleagues will learn far more through sharing ideas, experiences and insights with one another than from trainers delivering ring-binders full of notes at training days. The web again makes this easier than ever, with many general and more specialist communities of practice using online tools to facilitate networking and the development of shared expertise, such as our own Open Source Schools community. These are much better than the communities set up for training programmes – for a start their members are there through choice, and are choosing to participate. Twitter is a great way of keeping up to date with the developments in your own field, through your own, bespoke ‘Personal Learning Network’. The TeachMeet unconference movement takes these principles of loose networks and peer to peer learning and moves these off line back into real space. If you’ve not been to one, go. If you’ve not presented at one, do. For software support, the open source project communities are great at helping you solve problems for yourself. As play, experiment, discovery, discussion and creativity lie at the heart of learning for children, perhaps they should for grown-ups too?

8. Empower your people. This one is probably the most important of all, and the way that you’ll make the biggest cost savings for your school. When folk come and ask to do something, say yes. Better still, establish a culture in which they don’t need to ask. Think how much more rewarding your network manager’s job, or your e-learning director/computing HoD/ICT Coordinator’s job would be if they were empowered to innovate, to research solutions and to take charge of development in their areas of responsibility. Open source makes this easy, as not only is there no need for budgetary approval, you’ve also got access to the source code to adapt the software to fit your own context or solve your particular problem.

9. Use volunteer support. So empowering your network manager is great if you’ve got a network manager, but what if not? Perhaps a skills audit of your pupils’ parents might be helpful? There’s more to parental engagement than hearing readers, going on trips or running fete stalls: it’s likely that in all but the smallest schools there will be parents who work in IT, many of whom may have skill levels in excess of those that schools could afford to employ and who would be only to pleased to support the school in a way that improved its educational provision and used their own expertise. Parents helping with website content? Parents sorting out networking? E-learning governors? Why not?

10. Share your expertise and creativity. No cost saving for your school here, but massive cost savings for the system if this works: don’t keep things to yourself anymore: as the PM puts it, ‘We’re all in this together’. Wherever possible, join with others and work together, rather than having lots of independent projects all doing the same thing. If you find a great solution, share it with other people so they don’t have to spend the time solving the same problem themselves. If your staff develop a great Moodle course, let others download it. If your class have developed a great wiki, open it up to those at another school. The peer to peer approach to CPD that point 7 is about is dependent on give as well as facilitating take. If you do find bugs in open source code, let the developers know, especially if you manage to fix these. If you do adapt open source code to suit you better, do this properly and contribute your patches and modules back to the project community.

I’ll acknowledge that the above perhaps involves taking on elements of risk that we’ve tended to prefer to outsource in schools, but so do long term commitments to managed services and vendor lock-in. Furthermore, taking responsibility for these things yourself gives you more control over your software, your data, your connectivity, the development of your team, and ultimately the educational provision of your school. As Mark Taylor of open source experts Sirius puts it in his rather Orwellian strap-line, ‘control through freedom’.

Anyone up for doing some financial calculations to work out how much the above would save for a school? For the education system? What about other ways to save money from the ed-tech budget? What have I missed out from the list above?