Open Source Presents Benefits to Educators

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Cash-strapped educators may find some relief in their technology budgets if open source continues to make headway. More importantly, they may also find a new and improved way to teach.

Open source office applications, such as Sun Microsystems' StarOffice and its affiliated OpenOffice.org, offer just as much functionality as Microsoft Office, but at a fraction of the cost. OpenOffice.org can be downloaded for free, while Sun offers no-cost licensing. Qualifying institutions only buy one set of media, which runs about $75, and pay as little as $85 a month in support for U.S.-based institutions. In contrast, Microsoft, the market leader in office productivity applications, sells its XP office suite for about $479, but offers a discounted price of $149 for one license to eligible students and faculty.

StarOffice 6.0 includes word processing, spreadsheet and presentation applications; a drawing module; a data management tool; and clip art. In addition, it runs on multiple platforms, including Linux from Red Hat and Solaris from Sun, and supports XML file formats. OpenOffice.org is based on the StarOffice source code and offers the standard desktop applications expected from an office suite in more than 25 languages. It also runs on multiple platforms and supports XML file formats. Sun, a longtime advocate of open source, has a dedicated department and is currently involved in more than 25 open source projects.

The idea behind open source, as explained by OpenSource.org, is source code that can be read, redistributed and modified by programmers legally, in turn allowing the software to evolve. OpenSource.org says the open source movement has been building momentum for 20 years, and recent news reports indicate the movement is reaching a higher audience.

This summer, the governments of Taiwan and Germany announced plans to encourage the start of open source projects in their respective countries. In a recent ZDNet News story, Taiwanese government officials said they expect to save $59 million in royalty payments to Microsoft by investing in open source software. ZDNet also reported that the private sector could save as much as $259 million.

A Natural Fit

Governments are not the only ones looking to benefit. Glen Bull, a professor of education and co-director of the Center for Technology and Teacher Education at the University of Virginia, says the short-term economic benefits of open source software to educators is complex, depending on several factors. But in the long term, Bull says its use could translate to substantial economic benefits and lead to vastly improved student learning.

Open source would be a natural fit for the education community, which is rooted in collaboration, says Bull. In an upcoming article for Learning & Leading with Technology, published by the International Society for Technology in Education, Bull writes: "An open source approach would make it possible to rally the talents and experience of an extended number of teachers, students, and volunteer programmers in the development and exchange of educational software tools. Moreover, this educational software could function as learner-based tools - as the foundation for flexible, open-ended classroom activities that engage students in their own learning and are especially adapted for their own curriculum."

The Society for Informa-tion Technology and Teacher Education (SITE) has also determined that open source software has potential uses in education, and is sponsoring an initiative to explore those uses. The initiative plans to examine three key issues: the collaborative development of open source educational software in core content areas; involving students in the developmental process; and pilot studies in Bermuda, North Carolina and Virginia schools. SITE is also planning to hold an open source summit this fall to discuss strategic directions and policy.

For now, those involved in the SITE open source initiative plan to have several pilot programs underway this fall. Red Hat, whichprovides the open source operating system Linux, is also conducting pilot studies. As part of its open schools initiative, the company is currently assessing the economic and educational benefits of open source in schools in seven North Carolina counties.

-Anne H. Kim


Open Source Links

  • OpenOffice.org
    www.openoffice.org
  • Sun Microsystems' Open Source Program Office
    www.sunsource.net
  • Open Source Education Foundation
    www.osef.org

  • This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.

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