IT Trends | Feature

Considering Open Source Software for K-12

IT directors across the country are implementing open source software in their K-12 districts--a decision often prompted by the improving quality of open source options, as well as cost savings.

Selection of OSS is sometimes a value-added option when the commercial version would never be financially feasible. In other cases, IT directors are replacing existing solutions with OSS, instigated by license agreements that are ending, the need to refurbish old computers, or the purchase of netbooks.

While there are no recent surveys to measure use of open source software (OSS), anecdotal evidence reflects growing interest in--and use of--alternatives to proprietary software.

A few years ago, an OSS talk at the National Educational computing Conference (NECC; now ISTE) would draw about five attendees, and there would be just a "smattering of people" in the open source lab. Now the rooms are full, said Alex Inman, director of technology for Whitfield School in St. Louis, MO.

"What I think will happen soon is that open source won't be a special thing, something people talk about," Inman said. "The horrible economy has been fantastic for open source. They're looking for ways to do things for less money. There are still costs, but you still save significantly."

At the ISTE conference in Denver last month, sessions included several OSS topics, focusing on online assessments, pitfalls, whether a school can become an OSS school, and enabling scalable 1:1 with OSS. As for the open source lab, all 13 sessions were sold out more than a month before the event.

Inman noted that Moodle is an example of how the attitude toward OSS is changing. Instead of talking about Moodle for the sake of Moodle, "It's coming of age; it's almost becoming ubiquitous," he said.

Said Benoit St-André, educational resources director at Revolution Linux. "The reaction has changed tremendously in the last year, in part because of the budget crisis, and also lots of people want realistic solutions."

How OSS Is Free ... and Not Free
OSS is free in the sense that there is no licensing fee and never will be. It also is free in that the source code is openly available. Without source code--even if software currently is free--it may not remain so. The social networking site Ning is a recent example of what can happen when business models change.

When a product like Ning is free, but not open source, the business may create conditions or add a fee. In comparison, with open source solutions (such as Elgg, a social networking platform), users can make a choice about whether to pay for hosting or support, but the product stays free.

OSS is not free in the sense that other IT and training needs diminish. There are still hardware requirements, and, as with any technology innovation, it takes time to gain support, train staff, and transition, as with any software deployment.

"Those who think about moving to open source because it's free aren't getting the whole picture," said Inman, noting that only 25 percent of cost is related to acquisition.

Those experienced with OSS agreed that the "free" nature of the software is not generally the deciding factor--just one component. They had to select the best software and hardware options for their districts.

Of course, when OSS has been feasible--or simply a better solution than commercial options--it has been an advantage to save funds, which can then be used for staff development or additional IT resources.

The fact that open source is an "equitable" option, available to all students regardless of financial situation, is an additional advantage.

Concerns and Pragmatism
A 2007 article in THE Journal described reservations with open source solutions, including support, security, integration, and track record.

Many of these issues have resolved themselves in the last few years. Strong support communities have evolved; many of the popular software options are available on different platforms; and case studies help with track records.

As far as security, OSS is probably better than anything else, said Tim Goree, director of technology services for Norris School District in Bakersfield, CA., noting that Linux- and Unix-based systems are built better for network security. "Windows just happens to have more market share, so viruses are targeted at them more than Linux or Macs," he said.

Michael Feldstein, author of the e-Literate blog, said that he is a pragmatist when it comes to OSS for education.

"While I do have an affinity for open source, the most important question is whether any given software and the support services that surround it will meet the needs of the school," Feldstein said. "Open source can be better for schools in many cases, but it isn't inherently better."

Wen-Hao David Huang, assistant professor in the Department of Human Resource Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said he has mostly in-service K-12 teachers as students and has seen continued reservation.

"My impression is that school systems have not yet embraced such movements," Huang said in an e-mail. "Most efforts I have seen so far are from individual teachers who are more 'tech-savvy' than their peers."

Huang, who is also vice president of communications of the Training and Performance Division for the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, said he sees several key reasons for reservation, including lack of awareness about the technology, security concerns, and lack of tech support.

Huang said that it helps that there are many examples of school districts that now have experience and are willing to share their knowledge through articles, online forums, and events.

As Kevin McGuire, director of technology for Michigan City Area Schools in Indiana, said, OSS is not the best solution in all cases, but it is the best solution in most cases. IT directors just have to find the best place to begin.

In upcoming weeks, THE Journal will continue its focus on open source software for K-12 with case studies describing how IT directors got started--including McGuire's story. Another part of the series will include tips for IT directors who are interested in implementing OSS solutions.

About the Author

Natasha Wanchek is a technology writer based in New York.