Making the Switch to Open Source Software

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During the 2001-2002 school year I was struck with the reality that our computer lab would not meet the demands of our school for another year. The secondhand computers that were donated to us over the years had served us well, but they were beginning to fail regularly. Perhaps of greater concern was the inability of our computer lab to run modern software. Needless to say, it was time for a change.

Greater Houlton Christian Academy (www.ghca.com) is a private school in Maine, and thus d'es not have access to state or federal funding. This meant that financing a new computer lab would be an incredible challenge. As the system administrator, I not only had to consider the cost of upgrading our hardware, but the cost of upgrading our software as well. It soon became obvious that the price of new software was just as much as, if not more than, hardware products.

It was also during this time that I became aware of the software audits costing schools in Oregon many thousands of dollars for violations of their software licenses with Microsoft. This prompted me to research the details of the End-User License Agreement (EULA) that stipulates how proprietary software like Microsoft Windows can be used. I was amazed at the inflexibility of the typical EULA that accompanies today's software and frightened at the stiff penalties for even the simplest violations of these obscure licenses.

Realizing that we would not be able to afford upgrading our lab using traditional software offered by big vendors, I looked to open source, or "free" software, as an alternative. With open source, I could save our school thousands of dollars by purchasing bare-bones computer kits, then installing a free operating system and supporting applications on each computer myself. Open source software would allow me to build our computer lab for a fraction of what schools in our area typically pay. It would also give me the ability to upgrade our software in the future for free, ensuring that we would have the latest in software technology for years to come.

Of equal interest to me was the General Public License (GPL) used to license most open source software. I found it much more flexible and reasonable than the EULAs of proprietary counterparts, which gave me more freedom as the system administrator to customize our computer lab. With the GPL, I would never need to worry about software audits, surprise visits from the Business Software Alliance or unreasonable fines for misplacing my certificate of authenticity.

After much research and testing, our school committed to upgrading the computer lab using state-of-the-art computers running the open source Linux operating system and supporting applications. I will admit that it has taken me some time to personally make the switch from a Windows environment to the UNIX-like environment of Linux.

The 2002-2003 school year was the great test for our new computer lab running open source software - with our students being the ultimate testers. While I expected positive results, I was not prepared for the overwhelmingly promising feedback that I have received from our students, parents and the community. This has definitely been our most successful year for integrating technology in the classroom and teaching the necessary computer fundamental skills needed to succeed in the 21st century.

The Benefits of Open Source Software

There are a number of benefits to using open source software. I can't list them all here, but I will focus on some of the more prominent benefits I have experienced. Our initial interest in open source came from the almost unbelievable fact that open source software can be obtained at little or no cost. This is because those who donate their time to open source projects see themselves as part of a community. These programmers desire to have their software shared openly, not controlled or licensed.

The common misconception is to think that because open source software can be obtained for free it is cheap. On the contrary, Linux, for example, is known for its superior stability and quality of design compared to popular proprietary operating systems. This is because the program code is available for anyone to view and improve. Combine this with the ability for thousands of programmers from around the world to collaborate on an open source project using the Internet, and you can see why open source software can compete with and even surpass proprietary software.

As a system administrator, one of the greatest benefits of using open source software is freedom. Many people, even some system administrators, do not fully understand the typical EULA that accompanies today's proprietary software. As software companies continue to protect their intellectual property, software users find themselves bound by more and more restrictive software licenses.

In contrast, GPL gives the end user incredible freedom in the installation, distribution and even modification of open source software. The flexibility of the GPL saved me many hours of installing and configuring the software in our new computer lab. Also, I no longer have to worry about violating some obscure stipulation hidden away in an EULA.

A rather surprising benefit I have seen since switching our computer lab to Linux is the eagerness of children to learn something new and different. In past years, I would often hit a roadblock in my attempts to teach children computer skills using an operating system most had at home. Because it was something the students were familiar with, they saw it as an "old hat," and I had to work hard to foster enthusiasm. With Linux, students dive in with great fascination, almost immediately recognizing that they are learning something new that is cutting edge. This makes it easier to teach the fundamental principles in computer science, which can apply to any application running on any operating system.

Preparing Students for the Real World

This brings up an interesting argument that I have repeatedly heard: "Students are not being prepared for the real world by being taught Linux." This premise is based on the fact that Microsoft currently owns a vast majority of the market share of desktop operating systems and office applications. It was an argument that I once used when comparing our old lab to another computer lab of Apple Macintoshes. However, I was forced to re-evaluate this misconception when I began my lengthy investigation of open source software.

There are two assumptions behind this argument: The first is that the software students learn in school will be the software they use in the workplace. I was taught in school using products like MS-DOS, WordStar and Multiplan, which obviously are not the "killer apps" of today. Even different versions of the same program can change drastically over the years. This leads to the second assumption: We should teach a specific vendor's application rather than fundamental concepts. Knowing that the software our children use today may be obsolete tomorrow, is it wise to focus mainly on those specific features that are limited to a single vendor or application.

I like to think of it as learning to drive a car. We don't teach someone how to drive a specific make or model; we teach them the fundamental principles of driving. Therefore, I have found using open source software to be a benefit because it forces us to teach our students those fundamental principles. I know that they may not use Sun Microsystems' StarOffice Writer, or for that matter Microsoft Word, when they go to college. But, I am now able to offer them the latest in application software using a solid, modern operating system because cost is not an issue. We could not do this if our school had to pay a hefty price every time we wanted to upgrade our software.

Even as our school focuses on the fundamentals, I have seen an increased interest from community businesses in our computer science program because we are using Linux to teach computer skills. Linux is also steadily gaining market share in corporate America and governments worldwide. There are businesses looking specifically for individuals with experience using Linux and applications such as StarOffice. While I am highly confident that our students can easily use the more common Windows operating system, they definitely have an advantage over students in other school systems who have never been exposed to a UNIX-like operating system such as Linux.

Embracing Challenges

As much as I have grown to love open source software and what it has done for our school, there are challenges in making a switch from one operating system to another. The greatest challenge we have faced is compatibility. For those who have used both the Macintosh and Windows operating systems, you know that programs from one rarely work in the other. Exchanging files between different applications can also be a challenge.

This can be especially daunting if your school already has invested in a number of software titles for a non-UNIX operating system. Running "Reader Rabbit" in Linux is not as easy as popping in a CD-ROM and letting it install as you would in Windows or Mac OS. In fact, many applications not written for Linux will not run in Linux at all. This usually means finding equivalent software in open source.

This leads to another challenge: finding open source software. Most stores and catalogs do not carry open source titles. In fact, most open source programs currently need to be downloaded off the Internet; though, this is changing. Linux faces a "chicken vs. egg" problem right now. Until Linux has the same number of vendors supporting it as Microsoft d'es, not as many users will commit to using the operating system. However, until more people switch to Linux, vendors will not be overly eager to support its operating system.

Luckily, the open source community - those volunteers who work to bring software to the masses at no cost - are quickly filling the gap. Like many others, I have written educational software for our school that I will make available as open source later this year. In addition, there are a surprising number of open source educational applications available for the high school grade levels. Since many professionals (especially in math and science) are using Linux, the open source software available for the upper grades often matches or surpasses that which is available from a vendor.

When exchanging files, difficulty comes from software vendors using closed formats to store documents that lock their customers into using their products. While applications such as StarOffice do a good job of reading and writing files stored in these proprietary formats, the conversion, unfortunately, is not always perfect. Most affected are files that depend heavily on tables, graphics and other positioning techniques. Until vendors start using open standards, the sharing of files with colleagues that use proprietary software will at least sometimes offer a challenge.

One of the challenges I faced with great satisfaction was actually learning how to use Linux. I have seen Linux often described as a more difficult operating system to maintain and use. If you only know how to use Windows, this is true. However, once I learned how to use Linux, I found it was much simpler to maintain and configure. I have saved myself many hours this last year due to the stability of Linux and the ease with which I can manage our computers, servers and networks running the operating system. The biggest challenge was learning how to operate the system; yet, what an enjoyable challenge the learning process was.

Unfortunately, not all educators embrace this last challenge as I have, or share my passion for computer technology. While my students and I have enjoyed learning something new, there are those staff members who like things the way they are and would rather not change. I have seen this in every school I've helped switch to open source. Once someone is in the comfort zone of familiar software, it can be a real challenge to convince them that change is good. This is where high-quality staff training comes in, because if your staff knows they'll receive the support they need when they have questions, they will be more gracious with the switch.

While it has been a bumpy road, our switch to open source software has shown itself to be the perfect solution to a problem that more and more school systems find themselves facing. If your school is looking to offer more in the way of modern software, while reducing costs and gaining freedom and stability in its management, then I highly recommend open source software. It has certainly surpassed our expectations.


Advantages of Open Source Software

  1. Cost
  2. - Open source software can be obtained at little or no cost, and future upgrades are also obtainable free of charge.
  3. Freedom
  4. - Under the GPL, the end user is free to install, use, distribute and modify open source software with very few restrictions. This greatly reduces the burden of system administration and eliminates the risk of software audits.
  5. Quality
  6. - Because the source code is open to peer review, open source software is known for its superior quality and stability.
  7. Contribution
  8. - Anyone with programming experience, including educators and students, can contribute to the collection of available open source software.
  9. Platform Independence
  10. - The majority of open source software is available for a number of hardware platforms (not just the PC), which results in greater flexibility in hardware choices.
  11. Acceptance
  12. - Open source software is gaining acceptance worldwide on a daily basis, with many businesses, governments and organizations already using it.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.

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