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Opening a New Door

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With the potential for cost savings and a growingnumber of educational applications, open sourcesoftware is proving to be an effective alternativefor schools willing to make the switch.

Opening a New DoorTo Vista or not to Vista; that wasthe question looming large forChristel Powell, manager of informationsystems for SchoolDistrict 118 in Danville, IL.Microsoft's long-awaited operatingsystem upgrade was coming,and Powell had to advise the schoolboard about the district's computingplatform strategy going forward. If thedistrict stuck with Windows, the investmentin hardware upgrades needed tosupport Microsoft's new, graphicallyseductive, resource-gobbling OS wouldstretch an already taut budget. On theother hand, the latest version of a leadingLinux distribution would probablyrequire few or no hardware upgrades. Itwould be, essentially, free, with minoror no intellectual property restrictions,and the commercial distributor wouldprovide competitive support options.

It seemed like a no-brainer to Powell, whose business background made looking at the bottom line something of a reflex. But it still took years for the district to warm to the idea of shifting to an open source platform.

"In education, it's tough to get people to give up what they're used to and comfortable with," Powell says. "But cost is a huge factor. When there's no money to update and upgrade, you start looking for alternative solutions. Faced with the Vista decision and the prospect of upgrading to the next version of Microsoft Office, the board of education and superintendents finally said, ‘OK, open source makes sense.'"

Danville is one of a growing number of K-12 districts that are taking the open source plunge, both to cope with tight budgets and to escape proprietary vendor lock-in and expensive upgrade cycles.

"I think we've reached a tipping point, or we're very close to one," says Steve Hargadon, founder of K12 Computers and project leader of the K-12 Open Technologies Leadership Initiative at the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN). "The people who are managing technology at the schools have a tough job, and they're under enormous pressure to provide computing with very little money. There are some very compelling financial reasons to adopt open technologies, and the link between what's being done in open source and education is growing stronger every year."

Budget concerns figured prominently in Danville's open source strategy. District 118 is part of one of the largest school district units in the state, with 11 schools and more than 700 teachers and staff serving 6,500 students in East Central Illinois. The district is now implementing Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED) version 10 on 1,600 desktop machines, and Powell says the district plans to order 600 more. Some of the existing equipment is five years old and would not have met the horsepower requirements to run the new Windows OS.

But it wasn't the potential cost savings alone that sold the district on open source. District 118 didn't even initiate its adoption plan with an operating system rollout, but with an implementation of OpenOffice, an open source alternative to Microsoft's ubiquitous Office suite.

"Everybody said, we've got to have Word, we've got to have Word!" Powell recalls. "We decided not to try to change anybody's mind about that. We just pushed OpenOffice to every desktop in the district. We never said a word, and people just started using it. For us, that application was the toe in the door."

ARE MICROSOFT'S PATENTS A PROBLEM?

THE SLOW PACE OF K-12 adoption ofopen technologies can probably be attributedprimarily to concerns about how wellthey are supported. Another factormay be the unsettled natureof the software patent question. Microsoft,for example, has claimed thatthe Linux operatingsystem and related open source softwareinfringes on about 235 of itspatents. Although that claim has beenwidely rejected in the open source community,concerns about potential patentproblems down the road do find their wayinto the "cons" category when schoolsconsider adopting open source software.

Neil MacehiterRecently, Microsoft has begun signingcross-licensing agreements with someLinux vendors to provide so-called patentcovenants—essentially, agreements not tosue each other's customers over potentialpatent infringements. These agreementsare part of a broader interoperabilityproposition for Microsoft's customers,says industry analyst and longtimeMicrosoft watcher Neil Macehiter."Given the heterogeneity of most ITenvironments today," Macehiter says,"people are looking for greater interoperability,particularly with respect toopen source. Microsoft is sending amessage to customers that it understandsthe reality of their environmentsand is doing its best by them to reducetheir concerns about the risks of Linuxinfringing on Microsoft's intellectual propertyand being sued."

However, Bruce Perens, the primaryauthor of "The Open Source Definition,"which is considered the manifesto of theopen source movement, and co-founder ofthe Open Source Initiative, expects these deals tohave little impact on open source adoption."I don't see customers in a rush toget this kind of protection," he says. "I don'tbelieve they perceive much of a risk, and Ithink they're right about that."

Bruce PerensPerens points out that Microsoft has yet to make a single infringement claim. Why? He suspects that it's too late. He cites a legal doctrine known as "laches," under which a patent holder who becomes aware of an infringement cannot delay enforcement until the market is larger and would bring greater royalties. "I think Microsoft has simply waited too long," Perens says.

Coming of Age

As the Danville example illustrates, this accelerating adoption rate is also being fueled, at least in part, by the arrival of a growing list of solid open source desktop applications for K-12 education, Hargadon says. "OpenOffice has matured to the point where you can actually use it as a replacement for Microsoft Office," he says, "and you're not going to have to worry that people are getting trained in an unfamiliar program. You also have specialty programs that are providing schools with capabilities they would not otherwise be able to afford. Moodle has probably done more for open source software (OSS) than any other program out there for schools." (See "It's the Apps".)

"We care about the operating system, of course, but it's the applications that matter to our users," Powell says. "The only thing these kids care about is getting to the internet, and being able to play their music and write the papers their teachers want them to write. As long as they can log on, they don't care if they're using Windows, Linux, or a Mac. It took me two days to prove that; we just went into the classroom and made sure that everybody could log on to the internet, and we haven't heard from anyone since."

Although cost concerns are moving an increasing number of schools to consider open technologies, the force that may ultimately push K-12 to a tipping point in its slowly evolving relationship with open source software is, for lack of a better term, peer pressure. "The people making decisions for computing at a school are most likely to be influenced by what other schools are doing," says Hargadon. "Which you can understand; they're responsible for keeping the equipment working—sometimes thousands of computers with too few staff—so it makes sense for them to do what everybody else is doing. It doesn't pay for them to take a risk that might keep the kids from having access to the computers for three months. The schools need to feel safe making the decision to implement open technologies, and there's safety in numbers."

Indiana Program Raises the OSS Bar

One headline-grabbing example of a Linux deployment that is likely to provide K-12 IT managers with the solid footing they need to justify the open source move is the Indiana Affordable Classroom Computers for Every Secondary Student program, better known as InACCESS. Launched in 2003, InACCESS has been called the largest K-12 open source operating system rollout in history. The state is working with funds from a grant to distribute low-cost, easy-to-manage computers, placing more than 22,000 workstations in 24 Indiana high schools, all running various flavors of the Linux open source operating system. The program's ultimate goal is to provide ready access to computing resources for each of the state's 300,000 students.

A cornerstone of Indiana's program is choice, which Mike Huffman, special assistant on technology at the Indiana Department of Education, points out is also a core value of the open source movement. Each school in the program can choose whichever version of Linux it wants. There are more than a few varieties of this Unix-like OS in circulation these days (about 300, by one count), so the 24-plus Indiana schools already in the program have a lot to choose from. So far, they've implemented four commercially backed distributions: Novell's SUSE (as did Danville District 118), Red Hat, Linspire, and Ubuntu. (A distribution or "distro" is the operating system plus assorted software.)

It's the Apps

THE APPS BUNDLED with Edubuntu are just the tip ofthe iceberg of open source programs for education. The open source appsused by Indiana's Affordable Classroom Computers for Every SecondaryStudent program alone include:

Blender: (Also in Ubuntu.) A 3-D computer animation program. Supports modeling, animation, rendering, and playback.

Celestia: A simulation program that allows students and teachers to navigate a 3-D solar system.

Dia: A drawing program along the lines of Microsoft's venerable Visio, but geared to more informal diagrams.

FreeMind: So-called mind-mapping software designed to allow teachers and students to brainstorm with diagrams that represent words, ideas, and tasks.

GIMP: The GNU (a recursive acronym for "GNU's Not Unix") Image Manipulation Program, a photo editing program.

GIMPshop: A modification of GIMP, intended to replicate the feel of Adobe Photoshop.

iFolder: An online personal file backup program. Designed to update saved files on a network server automatically and deliver them to the user's other machines.

Inkscape: A vector graphics editor with capabilities similar to Adobe's Illustrator and FreeHand, CorelDraw, or Xara X.

Intelligent Teaching and Learning With Computers (iTALC): A tool for viewing and controlling other computers in a network, showing demos, sending text messages, and locking individual work stations.

Moodle: An extremely popular course organization tool/virtual learning environment. During a recent webcast sponsored by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), a spokesperson from Indiana's Department of Education said that Moodle has been what is driving teachers to use technology in their classrooms.

The OpenScience Project: Software developed and maintained by a group of scientists, mathematicians, and engineers to encourage a collaborative environment for exploration of the natural world.

Scribus: (Also in Ubuntu.) A popular desktop publishing program. Runs on Linux, Mac OS, OS/2, and Windows.

StarOffice: An enhanced version of OpenOffice from Sun Microsystems. Comes with word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing, and database capabilities.

Stellarium: A planetarium for the desktop. It shows a realistic sky in 3-D, and can be used with planetarium projectors.

Tux PaintTux Paint: A preK-6 drawing program. Combines an easy-to-use interface, sound effects, and an encouraging cartoon mascot.

"This program has changed the way we approach computing in our state, fundamentally," Huffman says. "But the teachers don't talk about Linux or open source; the subject never even comes up. I asked a student once what he thought of the Linux operating system. He said, ‘Who cares?' I think that attitude is a reflection of the fact that this program is not about technology, but curriculum."

Huffman says that several Indiana schools participating in the InACCESS program have been particularly successful with the Ubuntu desktop Linux distribution, which has become something of a darling of the open source crowd. The project is sponsored by Canonical, a company founded by South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth. The name is a Zulu word that translates roughly to mean "the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity." Ubuntu's tagline is "Linux for Human Beings."

The distro got a big marketing bump when Dell disclosed plans recently to provide selected desktops and laptops pre-installed with Ubuntu 7.04 (code-named "Feisty Fawn"). Company founder and Chief Executive Officer Michael Dell has even said that he is running Ubuntu on his personal laptop.

One version of the system, called Edubuntu, is aimed specifically at K-12 school environments. It comes bundled with an office suite, a web browser, 16 programs for K-12 learning, and about 20 games. The list of educational apps includes KStars, a desktop planetarium; Kalzium, for discovering and researching information about the periodic table and the elements; TuxMath, an educational arcade game starring Tux, the Linux mascot; the KEduca educational testing package for teachers; and GCompris, a suite of more than 80 educational games and activities for kids ages 4 through 10.

The force that mayultimately push K-12 to atipping point in its slowlyevolving relationship withopen source softwareis peer pressure.

Canonical maintains an application repository, accessible online for all Ubuntu users. "Mark's goal was to provide an Ubuntu distribution that a teacher could install quickly and easily, without much technical knowledge, and end up with a desktop ready for teaching," explains Richard Weideman, Canonical's education program manager. "Not just an operating system, but something that would be immediately useful in a classroom setting—something that would allow the teacher to spend more time teaching and less time managing the equipment."

The system is also highly portable; students can take an Edubuntu CD home and run exactly the same applications they use at school. Of course, this isn't a unique Ubuntu capability, but an inherent quality of open source applications. Students can take home copies of most open source desktop apps, then install them on their home machines at no cost and with no concerns about violating software copyrights. This quality was enormously appealing to the Indiana school system, Huffman says. "It's a big problem when you've got one thing at school and another thing at home," he says. "Because open source software is, well, open, teachers are able to send the programs home with the kids, extending the school day to the home, the library, or community centers."

Open source applications like these also encourage self-directed learning, observes Canonical's Weideman. They move the paradigm, he suggests, from teacher-centric to student-centric, in which the emphasis shifts from teaching to learning.

"There's still more to be done behind the scenes, but the students and teachers are reporting back to us that there is little or no training required to ramp up on these programs," Huffman says. "And that's an important advantage."

"Indiana is paving the way in the United States," says David Thornburg, author, futurist, and educational technology advocate, "and there is little question that the InACCESS project is a driving force for bringing meaningful access to computers to the hands of every student, for the first time in history."

Good as these programs are, the best is yet to come, says Thornburg. Writing in his forthcoming book, When the Best Is Free: An Educator's Perspective on Open Source Software, he predicts that the growing popularity of Linux on the student desktop will stimulate the development of more quality programs for this market segment. And quality, he advises, should remain a top priority among district decision makers contemplating a move to open source.

Thornburg writes: "While cost is important, it can't be the deciding factor: quality is essential. If a free alternative is not as good or better than a commercial product, quality must win out over price. We must never treat schoolchildren as second-class citizens. We who care about education must always put children first."

Taking the Plunge

Why has it taken K-12 so long to embrace open technologies? It may simply be the nature of the beast, says Mark Driver, research vice president at IT industry analyst firm Gartner. "The issue for a lot of organizations is that open source software is essentially unsupported software," Driver says. "People love the quality of the open source code, but for the manager of a mission-critical system, it's less about the technology and more about who is going to be there. Most of us aren't Google; we're not going to have people on staff who are capable of fixing Linux bugs. We rely on someone else to do that."

The solution, Driver says, is for IT organizations of moderate size to adopt OSS with a commercial backer—Red Hat, Novell, and Ubuntu, for example, provide plenty of support for their Linux distributions. But, he hastens to add, IT managers should also keep in mind that a sufficiently mature open source project is never unsupported, with or without commercial vendor backing. "The community of a large open source project is better than the knowledge base of any commercial vendor," he says, "including the world's largest vendors like Microsoft and IBM. Because of the number of people who work on these projects, the sheer power of the knowledge base is unrivaled."

It's also perfectly reasonable—and for some, advisable—to take baby steps toward open technologies, says K12 Computers' Hargadon. "Open source is great, and I'm all for it, but no one should feel like they have to dive into it whole hog," he says. "People who manage computing resources in school districts are facing very real workloads, and it's not reasonable to expect them to convert to open source overnight. You can use OpenOffice in a Windows environment, for example, and see how it goes. You can dip your toe into the open source pool, find something that's valuable to your school, and not feel as though you have to convert everything."

Whether schools are at a tipping point or still approaching it, once they tip, they're likely to roll fast down the other side, says Dave Gynn, director of enterprise tools and frameworks at Optaros, a Boston-based consulting and systems integration firm specializing in open source software. "People who go to open source very rarely say, 'Hey, let's throw this out and go back to paying license fees and being restricted,'" Gynn says. "Once you get over the fear, uncertainty, and doubt about how open source works and how you might support it, you just do more and more and more. Right now there's a good open source alternative for nearly everything."

:: web extra ::For more information on this topic, visitT.H.E. Journal and search by the termopen source.

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Palo Alto, CA.

This article originally appeared in the 08/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.

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