Prepare for Impact
For years industry experts have been predicting the widespread adoption of open source tools by K-12 school districts. They’re about to be proved right.
- By John K. Waters
Open source software is poised to make a profound impact on K-12 education. We’ve been hearing that for two or three years now, and it looks as if the Great Recession might finally take us from “poised” to “impact” as bare-bones budgets force school districts to give serious consideration to the advantages of software systems and applications they can use for free.
But it’s also true that open source has been making its way into K-12 environments for more than a decade. The impact may not yet have been profound, but it’s fair to say that some open source systems and non-proprietary applications have laid a real foundation in K-12 for what many expect to be widespread adoption down the road.
“We’re not seeing huge market penetration right now, but just about every school district is running at least a little bit of open source software,” says Randy Orwin, a former district technology director who now runs an education technology consultancy in the Greater Seattle area. “It may be as simple as switching from Internet Explorer to Firefox, but they’re using it in one way or another.”
Orwin shares a firsthand example of open source’s payoff. He says that he and his staff at Bainbridge Island School District, a short ferry ride from Seattle, saved the district hundreds of thousands of dollars by installing and implementing a number of open source software applications—including OpenOffice, the open source alternative to Microsoft Office. “We didn’t have any money to train teachers,” Orwin says. “So we switched to OpenOffice, and that alone freed up $2,000 per year, which we put right into our professional development account.”
He expects budget cuts to compel other school districts to take similar steps. “We’re already seeing districts taking a more strategic approach to open source. The big decision-makers—the superintendents and school boards—are thinking about how much money they’re going to save.”
One of the most commonly used pieces of open source software in K-12 today is one that might not leap to mind: the Apache web server. A web server is a software program that delivers—or “serves”—web pages to your browser. And Apache serves up a lot of them—most of them, in fact. According to The Apache Software Foundation, which hosts the open source Apache project and all of its related projects, it delivers nearly two-thirds of the world’s websites. Apache was launched in 1996, in the internet’s formative years, and by the end of 2009 it was serving up more than 100 million websites.
But school districts aren’t exactly choosing this open source solution over competing vendor offerings. Apache is in K-12 because Apache is everywhere. It’s even integrated into many market-leading commercial products. Apache is part of the Oracle Database, for example, and IBM’s WebSphere application server. It’s also the most-used web server in the various versions of the Linux operating system.
The impact of this kind of open source software is bound to be subtle, because it does its thing in the background. “It’s common for a district to be running Apache on the back end, and, except for the IT guys, nobody knows it’s open source,” says Orwin. “They just know they have a web page.”
Moodle, on the other hand, is an open source system that seems to be on everybody’s radar. It’s the leading non-proprietary alternative to the popular Blackboard course management system, and it has become something of an archetype of open source educational software. According to the Moodle.org stats page, in February the number of registered users of the software had reached nearly 34 million in 208 countries, and new registrations were coming in at the rate of 1,700 per month.
“Until the recent financial crisis, you didn’t see a lot of school districts actively looking to put open source in their schools,” Orwin says. “But starting in 2005-2006 we did see a lot of schools looking at Moodle. And clearly, they did more than look.”
But there’s a paradox here, Orwin notes. One of the reasons Moodle is having such a great impact on K-12 is that the software isn’t disruptive. Integrating it doesn’t cause any upheaval to established processes.
“We’ve seen it being implemented not so much as a replacement for Blackboard, but by districts that couldn’t afford Blackboard in the first place,” Orwin says. “They could add it to an existing environment, it functioned well, had some great instructional features, and they didn’t have to toss out something else in the process.”
Orwin believes that Moodle may have paved the way for other open source applications in K-12. “As people started using Moodle. They began to say, ‘Wow, hard to believe this is free.’ And they started experimenting with other apps. They started asking, ‘What other open source things can we use that won’t impact anything we’re currently using?’”
It’s this growing assurance with their use that is helping open source solutions finally gain wider adoption across K-12, according to Benoit St-André, educational services director for the open source support provider Revolution Linux. He acknowledges that tight budgets are the primary driver behind districts’ movement toward open source solutions, but also believes that they’re more willing to consider open technologies today because they’ve gotten used to the idea.
“People who don’t know open source have always been a bit suspicious of it,” says St-André, a former teacher. “‘What do you mean it’s free? How does that work? What do I do if something breaks?’ But the environment is changing because people are more familiar with it. Commercial versions of open source software are common today. And there are some popular educational desktop applications that are open source. So it’s not such a strange concept.”
Now we see K-12 users starting to gravitate toward such open source applications as GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program), a photo-editing app popular among schools that can’t afford pricey proprietary tools such as Adobe Photoshop. GIMP can be used as a simple paint program, a photo-retouching program, an image composition and authoring tool, and a format converter. Students use it for resizing, editing, and cropping photos; combining multiple images; and even a little animation.
Another open source tool that has secured a place in the K-12 tech toolbox is Audacity, a free audio recorder and editor. Downloads of the program from SourceForge, a leading open source hosting site, reached 63 million in January, making it the site’s sixth most popular download. Audacity runs on Windows, Mac, Linux, and other operating systems, and supports a range of file types. Students use it to record podcasts and student speeches, promote language learning, add sounds to presentations, and create sound tracks for animations.
“Most people don’t even know that Audacity is an open source application,” says Steve Hargadon, director of the Consortium for School Networking’s (CoSN) K-12 Open Technologies Leadership Initiative and founder of the Classroom 2.0 social network.
Hargadon adds other apps to the list of nondisruptive (he calls them “non-displacing”) open source applications that are most likely to find a home in K-12, including such niche educational software as GeoGebra and Stellarium, the iTalc classroom computer manager, the FreeMind mind-mapping application, and the Zimbra e-mail and calendar server.
“We see open source solutions getting adopted most often in environments where there is no existing solution to compete with them,” Hargadon says. “Programs like Audacity and GIMP don’t usually present many changes to resist. I guess you could say that they have a greater impact when they don’t have much of an impact.”
You could also say that its disruptiveness is the key challenge facing OpenOffice, one of the most-talked-about open source alternatives for K-12 and the one that could make the greatest mark, given how much time teachers, administrators, and students spend with the applications typically assembled in this type of productivity suite (e-mail, word processing, spreadsheets, publishing, slide shows, etc.). Although OpenOffice is free to download, use, and distribute, it competes for the hearts and minds of administrators and educators with the sovereign king of this application category: Microsoft Office.
If Moodle is the poster child for non-disruptive open source software, OpenOffice has become the prime example of a viable open source alternative that would supplant a deeply entrenched proprietary application.
“There’s a reason they call it ‘vendor lock-in,’” says Mike Huffman, managing partner at consulting firm Schools4Tomorrow and former IT director for the Indiana Department of Education. “You’re locked in because you’ve spent all this money on licenses, and you’re locked in because you’re used to the platform.”
According to OpenOffice, plenty of users have been able to shake free. The company’s website notes 300 million downloads of its software worldwide. “A lot of smart people are saving a whole lot of money by not having to pay licensing fees to Microsoft,” Huffman says.
When Huffman worked for the Indiana Department of Education, he led one of the largest K-12 open source operating-system rollouts in history. The Indiana Affordable Classroom Computer for Every Secondary Student program (InACCESS) was launched in 2003, and by 2006 more than 20,000 Indiana high school students were working on computers running one of the versions of the open source Linux OS. Huffman says that when he left the department about a year ago, 200,000 out of 300,000 Indiana high school students were using Linux on a daily basis.
Michigan City Area Schools in Michigan City, IN, was part of that InACCESS initiative. Last year the district opened two new elementary schools and loaded classrooms with open source software. According to the district’s IT director, Kevin McGuire, 95 percent of the software used in Lake Hills Elementary School and Pine Elementary School is open source. All of the student desktops are running Linux’s popular Ubuntu distribution, and every user in the district, including the superintendent, uses open source technologies when authenticating, printing, or storing files. Only one computer lab in each of the two schools runs Microsoft Windows.
Replacing Microsoft Office with OpenOffice was a big money saver, McGuire says, but the schools also saved a bundle by implementing the Moodle CMS, the GIMP photo editor, the Firefox web browser, the Foxit Reader PDF document viewer, and the Scribus desktop publishing application, as well as Zimbra and iTalc.
Lake Hills, for example, will realize a $100,000 savings over its first 10 years by avoiding costly software upgrades, McGuire says. And he expects to save on hardware, too: “Because a Linux desktop doesn’t require as much horsepower as an MS Vista or Mac OS machine, we do not need to push the technological envelope. Our district can use technology that was developed one or two years ago and still design a system that is more capable. The cost savings? Approximately $150 per machine, or $60,000.”
Danese Cooper believes OpenOffice is destined to have that much-anticipated profound impact on K-12, but she might be a little biased. While working at Sun Microsystems, she helped to develop it. She was, she says, the world’s first open source program manager at a corporate level. She now serves on the board of the Open Source Initiative, an open source advocacy group that also acts as a standards body.
In her day job, Cooper is CTO of the San Francisco-based Wikimedia Foundation, the organization behind Wikipedia. “We use OpenOffice here,” she says. “In fact, we run on 100 percent open source software.”
Cooper argues that OpenOffice is not really that disruptive. “You can run it on your existing operating system without messing up your existing infrastructure at all,” she says. “And schools can save a ton of money in licensing fees, which, disruptive or not, isn’t really something they can ignore. We just cut 23,000 teachers in [California]. One of the things that drive up school district costs is running proprietary software on proprietary operating systems. It’s just a shame; all of that money could be saved.”
According to Orwin, the cost savings are so significant, school officials can no longer hold out against more disruptive software. “OpenOffice is probably the most popular non-proprietary alternative now under consideration,” he says. “In a large district, just replacing Microsoft Office on student machines with OpenOffice will save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.”
Hargadon believes we are seeing just a hint of the economic impact open source will have on K-12, but he hastens to add that we’re also just beginning to understand this software delivery model.
“There’s no doubt open source can save a district a ton of money,” he says, “but this stuff isn’t without its costs. It’s not like free beer; it’s more like free puppies. You don’t have to pay for the program, but you have implementation costs, administrative costs, and the costs of training. The truth is, in many cases the cost of the change exceeds the value of the return. A switch to OpenOffice, for example, means that a lot people are going to be struggling with a new interface. ‘My program doesn’t work! I don’t know where my templates are!’ You have to show the new users that just because a menu is different, that doesn’t mean the program is worse.
“I could go down to our local school,” he adds, “and put a Linux machine on every desk in the place, and it would cost about a tenth of what it would cost for a Windows or Mac machine, and it would be more reliable and more secure—and it would be a better computing environment for the students. But if you haven’t invested in training people for the new OS, nobody would be ready for it.”
The issue, however, isn’t just financial. One element of open source’s appeal that doesn’t often get much attention, Orwin says, is that you can run these same applications at school and at home.
“If you’re running open source at school, your students are free to run the very same applications on their home computers,” he says. “To me that’s huge. Some families can’t even afford to buy the student version of Microsoft Office. Full price is 300 bucks! With open source, they have the same word-processing suite at home that they have at school and it doesn’t cost them anything.”
St-André of Revolution Linux believes the real advantage of open source is missed, even by its advocates: There’s too much focus on cost savings and not enough on flexibility. “The most successful argument for open source is that it provides access to computing technology to the greatest number of people,” he says. “That’s where it will have the greatest impact.”
St-André’s company, based in Quebec, does large-scale open source deployments. Educational implementations are its specialty, he says—as is breaching educator resistance.
“We’re working with school districts that have Macs and PCs, Active Directory, Novell—everything. We don’t come into a school and throw out what’s in there already and replace it with open source. People will resist this, loudly. But when you show them that it works with what they already have, that open source is meant to be interoperable, it’s meant to connect with everything that exists, they see the value.”
Even more emphatic of the benefits of switching to open source systems is Christian Einfeldt, a volunteer software administrator at KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) San Francisco Bay Academy, a public charter middle school. “It’s like printing money,” he says.
Einfeldt, a full-time attorney, is also the producer of The Digital Tipping Point, a documentary project that is tracking the cultural impact of the open source software movement in short, modular video segments.
Einfeldt argues that, in the long run, the greatest changes will be influenced by the “stone-soup culture” from which Linux, OpenOffice, Moodle, and all the other open software systems and applications emerge.
“You really have to think about technology as a kind of modern-day village well,” he says. “People would go to the well not only to get water, but also for the society that developed around it. Open source comes from a community of people sharing their knowledge at the community well. It’s very compatible with what I think is at the heart of teaching.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of THE Journal.