How open source allows schools to do more with less

Mar 04, 2011

Miles Berry

A ‘think piece’ written for a ‘hot seat’ discussion on the National College’s website.

So what happens to ICT when the money runs out? Given the reduction in funding across the public sector, and the DfE’s less than entirely enthusiastic approach to ICT these days (no more Becta, no more Harnessing Technology grants, cancelling BSF, no guarantee for ICT’s place in the compulsory core of the National Curriculum, etc), it’s not difficult to imagine school leaders attaching a low priority to buying new or replacement computers, to funding new software or for paying for updates to existing packages. Whilst such a response to budgetary pressure and a perceived change in policy priorities would be understandable, there are many who would see it as a shame for our students to loose out on the opportunities for enhancing, extending, enriching and supporting their learning across and beyond the curriculum which the effective of use of ICT offers, or indeed on the chance to develop a deep understanding of how digital technology works, something on which their engagement in modern society and job prospects, as well as the national economy, might well depend.

Fortunately, there’s an alternative to spending large amounts of money on ICT which still lets a school do some really quite exciting things with technology, and that’s open source software.

With most proprietary software what you pay for is a licence simply to run the program under certain specific conditions: you typically don’t have permission to change how it works or to give it away to other people. With open source software, things are very different: you have access to the program without restrictions, so you can run it for whatever purpose or in whatever circumstance you wish, you can give it (or sometimes sell it) to other people and, crucially, you (or someone who works for you) can modify the program itself, to fix problems or adapt it to fit in with your way of working. Better still, open source software is free, ie you don’t have to pay developers or distributors for any of this.

There’s a huge variety of open source tools available, covering almost every aspect of a student’s, teacher’s or school’s requirements and ambitions. At the simplest level there are open source programs which work on Windows or Apple computers, covering the same sort of functionality that we’re familiar with from packaged proprietary software: examples include Firefox as a web browser, the GIMP for image editing, Audacity for audio editing, Scratch for learning to program and countless other great, robust bits of software. Running your own webserver is well inside the technical capabilities of many schools, and the open source ‘LAMP’ (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) stack makes it possible to deploy some great web-based systems yourself: Moodle as a VLE, Drupal or Joomla for the school website, Elgg for safe social networking, WordPress for student or teacher blogs, Koha for your library catalogue, etc. Linux also provides stability and easy maintenance as a server operating system, with Samba allowing integration with a Windows network. Moving away from Windows, Ubuntu Linux is now a mature, user-friendly desktop operating system with thousands of free software packages available to install directly over the web, in something like a free ‘App Store’.

In what follows, I want to look first at some of the ways in which a switch to using open source, or more typically the introduction of open source software alongside proprietary programs, can save a school money, before going on to consider some ways in which open source can be one part of moving a school from a position of technological dependency to one of genuine innovation.

The most obvious way to save money on software is not to pay for it, and with open source there are no licence fees. Whilst this is great from a school’s perspective, in that new software and updates aren’t going to be a drain on school budgets, it’s even better for teachers and students, who can have copies of the same software on their home computers for free – indeed a school can burn CDs or make USB sticks of all this software to distribute to students, teachers and parents, providing ample opportunity for work to be begun in school and continued at home, or vice versa.

Whilst direct comparisons are hard to come by, Becta’s study of total cost of ownership back in 2005, and much of the anecdotal evidence form schools that have started using open source, suggests that there are significant savings in support costs too. Particularly for server based software – email, web, internet, files and the like, Linux has always attached a high priority to robust, fault free running and doing much to make the system administrator’s job as easy as possible. Linux computers, and the software they run, generally just keep on going, day-in, day-out with little need for attention. For Ubuntu desktops, deploying software is easy too: back when I was teaching ICT in a Ubuntu based suite, I could deploy new software across the network in the 5 minutes before the start of the lesson, without any need to have technicians build images and the like which Windows deployment seems to involve. In part thanks to its security model, there’s no worry about viruses or other malware on Linux either.

Linux as an operating system allows you to make do with old hardware too. Rather than facing pressure to keep computer hardware up to the latest spec so you can run the latest version of proprietary operating systems and applications, Linux has relatively modest hardware requirements, with a typical desktop from ten years ago being capable of running the latest version of Ubuntu. Thin client solutions are well supported too, with a room full of old computers acting as graphical terminals to a server capable of handling 18 or more users at the same time. Continuing use of a school’s existing hardware isn’t just about saving money, it also provides a significant reduction in a school’s total environmental impact too. It’s not surprising that Linux also powers netbooks, slates and smartphones.

One of the often heard arguments against deploying open source is that the savings in licence costs are outweighed by increases in training, support or other costs. This is not necessarily the case. It’s fair to say that for technicians, Linux will be different from Windows, but in many ways it’s actually a much easier system to maintain, monitor and upgrade thanks to the tool set developed in old school Unix based systems whose functionality is replicated in Linux. Open source applications, whether for Windows, OS X or Linux often have vibrant user and developer communities, and so support queries posted into the user or developer forums often get answered very quickly, no matter what hour of the day it is, and the involvement of the software developers in these communities means that any bugs in the software, or requests for new features, can be sorted in hours or days rather than months or years. For many users, getting up to speed on new software, or even a new operating system, is about having chance to explore and experiment rather than being trained, and the community based nature of open source makes this easy.

In the end, support, maintenance and training costs, of one form or another are going to be there for both open source and proprietary code: with open source, there aren’t licence fees, upgrade fees, tech support phone charges or service contract fees to pay, so it really should be working out cheaper. That said, there are some great local and national businesses who will happily offer support contracts for open source software, if a school feels it needs to have something like this in place.

Open source software provides the opportunity for a school to do more, as well as spend less. Because there’s no licencing to pay for, it’s easy for a school to add more functionality to its ICT platform. There’s no need to immediately replace expensive proprietary software, but adding extra applications for students to use, both on the desktop and the webserver is easy, ranging from desktop tools for photo, image and audio editing and programming to new web based applications for blogging, video editing and safe social networking. Broadening students’ horizons to more ways in which they can use and learn about ICT for no cost seems a pretty clear case for making some use of open source.

Beyond the cost savings, the open source development model offers much to appeal to a school, allowing technically literate staff to adapt the software deployed to fit more closely to the school’s own vision for learning and teaching, rather than the other way round. Nowhere is this more evident that with web-based applications, where the gentle learning curve of PHP, free access to the scripts and modular architecture of most web-based applications makes it easy for teachers and technicians to make changes. Providing an opportunity for technical staff to get involved in software development has clear benefits for them and their school. There’s nothing to stop students getting involved in the software development process too: suggesting features, spotting bugs or contributing documentation. This way, their understanding of software moves on from that of mere end-user to something of the co-developer.

The community based, often volunteer led, approach that the open source movement applies to software has wider applications: seeing a school’s curriculum as something constructed by a community of co-developers rather than provided off the shelf by a supplier is an appealing idea to many educators, and this sense of users as co-producers rather than just consumers seems to be capturing the imagination of many, from Wikipedia and other creative commons content, to the Slow Food movement and the Big Society itself.