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IT Trends | Feature

An Education in Open Source

At Maryland's Chelsea School, free and open source software is helping deliver services to the school's elementary students inside the classroom and out--from audio editing software to learning apps for special needs students to course management. In fact, open source so permeates Chelsea that some students are even working to contribute code back to the open source development community.

Chelsea School of Silver Spring, MD, is a good example of how open source software can serve as a great enabler for educators. Working primarily with students who have language-based learning differences, a handful of teachers at the school rely heavily on technology to accommodate 86 students, for many of whom syntax, reading comprehension, organization, and writing fluency are severely impacted.

The school serves fifth through 12th grade students, some of whom have difficulty scanning and shifting their eyes across lines while reading, while others read fluently without comprehending the material. The institution also has several students with dyslexia, which finds them inverting Ps, Bs, Ds, and Qs (or letters with similar shapes), and saying blended sounds backward (like hte instead of the).

In the past, reaching these pupils and teaching to their individual learning styles is a challenge Chelsea School's instructors live up to everyday. "Reading and writing at grade level is an issue for many of our students," said Rik Goldman, an English and advanced technology teacher, and proponent of the development and use of open source software in education.

When teaching reading, Chelsea School teachers focus on a three-tier approach that includes helping pupils turn sounds into words; become more fluent; and comprehend what they're reading. But where a traditional English teacher would ask students to read X number of chapters for homework in anticipation of a classroom discussion on the material the following day, the approach isn't effective in Goldman's class. Instead, open source software augments the time-consuming "read aloud to the students" approach that he had found a useful tool.

Empowered by a free, open source audio file manager/Web-based media server called Ampache, Goldman spends a few minutes a day reading the text into a recorder, storing it in a folder, and directing students to a URL where the files are based. "Students access the Web site, search for new recordings, and add them to their own playlists," explained Goldman. "From there, they can listen and take notes on their own, without my [intervention]." Ultimately, students will be able to access the Ampache server from their homes and use auditory material to guide their independent practice.

With many of his students characterized as highly functional, concrete thinkers, Goldman said the open source software allows him teach to the students' strengths, regardless of their deficits. Recently, for example, he said one student using Ampache tested at the 1100 Lexile level (which is close to college level), perfectly comprehending and "grasping the metaphors and figurative language that often eludes our pupils."

Goldman also uses speech-to-text software to help improve students' writing capabilities. Using a microphone that converts speech to text, pupils can express themselves vocally and then have the audio files translated into text by goQ's WordQ and SpeakQ software.

The school relies on a text-to-speech program that allows teachers to scan a book and create audio files for students to listen to and take notes on. WordQ, SpeakQ, and Kurzweil Educational Systems' Kurzweil 3000 lack open source licenses. However, Oracle's free and open source OpenOffice.org provides word prediction, one of the features provided by the proprietary alternative, WordQ.

"Our state testing is provided as Kurzweil 3000 documents, which allows students to listen to the test, rather than having to read it independently," said Goldman, who is committed to finding on open source alternative to Kurzweil 3000. "So far, making that happen has been a challenge."

Chelsea School, which also uses the open source course management program Moodle, gives back to the open source content community. Doing so allows Goldman to take his advanced technology students to interesting new levels. "These students make contributions on a seemingly weekly basis," said Goldman. (Their work, which recently received a bronze award in TurnKey Linux's international development contest, is archived at 9while9.com).

For example, Goldman said students are working on ways to realize Ubuntu's plan for a "School Server in a Box." A free operating system that powers desktops, servers, netbooks, and laptops, Ubuntu's vision revolves around quickly setting up a complete server solution for a school using a simple interface. "We're hoping to demonstrate that TurnKey Linux is the appropriate Ubuntu platform for this project," said Goldman.

Advanced technology students at Chelsea School have also been asked to contribute to the Sahana Foundation's Eden Project, an open source humanitarian platform that can be used to provide solutions for disaster management, development and environmental management sectors.

"We've been asked to produce a live and installable ISO to be distributed with the Red Cross, Oxfam, and other organizations in many nations," said Goldman, who is working with students to script a solution based on TurnKey Linux that can be deployed to first responders in disaster recovery and management efforts.

In addition to its roles as learning technologies, open source software has a place in Chelsea School's planning and administration. For example, reading and English teachers both use free audio editor and recorder Audacity, and Web-based, open source solution IEP-IPP is used to develop and manage students' individual education programs (which are used with most pupils).

With open source software gaining popularity in the educational field, Goldman said, one of his biggest challenges is getting faculty members to invest precious time into learning how to use the available technology strategically. Students typically grasp its value quickly, he said, while teachers need a stronger nudge in the form of training and support before jumping onboard. "I have three other teachers using it, but not nearly to the software's potential," he said.

Goldman said he would like to see those numbers increase this year as more open source options are introduced and as administrators realize the cost savings involved with such programs. "Converting to open source was not a costly endeavor because the software is all free and I was able to use my existing hardware," said Goldman. "But new machines cost money, and I must have students build one every year and budget for it, in order to keep assessments authentic. That's the challenge I'll be tackling in the next few months."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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