Open-Source Schools: Got Data?
01.18.2007—We all have our opinions about open-source technologies. While many are in favor of "free" and "open" software conceptually, there are those whose reservations about open source trump even the high ace in the deck, also known as budgetary restrictions. So, no matter how good open source might seem to many of us--no matter how many benefits we can enumerate--those reservations hold back any serious attempts at implementation.
So what are those reservations?
From an IT perspective, support is always near the top of the list. Most open-source projects/initiatives (AKA software) do not include support as an option, at least not at the level of the paid support offered by commercial developers. Some do. Many don't. And that leaves it to IT to know everything and to be called upon personally when problems arise. (Heaven forfend.)
Security is another big one. Who's accountable if somebody tunnels into your systems through some hole in a piece of open-source software? What if an open-source application crashes? Who's responsible? The person who approved the implementation, of course. You. And commercial software gives us at least the perception of some sort of buffer between the perpetrators and "victims" of security breaches.
Integration is yet another. How is open-source software going to fit in with pre-existing systems? And, if open-source is going to replace some of these system, how difficult will it be to migrate data from one to the other?
And then there's track record. For those who advocate open-source implementations, there have not been a whole lot of places to turn to find detailed case studies of successful open-source initiatives in schools. We at THE Journal do, occasionally, highlight some particular piece of open-source software. But if you're a technology leader in your school or district, where do you turn to find actual real-world examples of open-source initiatives implemented in institutions that face the same issues your schools face and get real data on start-up costs, follow-up costs, support issues, integration and other factors?
This last one, I believe, is the ace of trump that could potentially overrule all the others.
If you had those data, you just might be able to come up with an adequate response to the three major concerns (and the innumerable minor concerns) that block open source adoption.
And there should be data on these issues. After all, despite the reservations we've discussed, there are schools and school districts out there moving forward on the implementation of open-source technologies. But we're still years away from having truly adequate resources on every conceivable implementation of the technologies that leaders like you would be interested in.
But take heart. There are organizations out there that on working on building up these resources in a way that will be meaningful to district and school technology leaders, whether they be in favor of or against open source.
One of these is the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), which is developing a series of studies specifically addressing open source implementations in K-12 environments. The K-12 Open Technologies Initiative series has, to date, produced two in depth reports covering implementations: one district-wide, one state-wide; one covering enterprise applications and systems, one covering classroom installations.
The second in the series was just released last week, covering Indiana's inACCESS program and focusing on the state's Linux Desktop initiative, which placed a number of Linux-based workstations in K-12 classrooms. And, unlike some of the articles we've seen to date, it does not simply look at the advantages of the low equipment start-up costs for implementing open source, which are, of course, a given.
This is a huge step in the right direction—not just to support open source but to look at strategies for implementation, questions raised, workarounds for issues that are certain to arise, etc. And this isn't huge just because of what the data in any particular study might say but because of the fact that there are data at all, that the questions are being asked and that those who are responsible for implementations are sharing those data.
In the case of the study released this week, the article covers how Indiana placed some 22,000 Linux workstations in classrooms around the state, with plans to roll out about 300,000 systems total. Why workstations and not laptops? What were the cost advantages? Is the solution scalable? What applications are being used? How is open source helping to achieve educational goals in the schools involved? All of these questions and more are addressed in this research.
At this point, the organization (which, incidentally, is sponsored by Apple, IBM, Pearson Education, and the Wm. & Flora Hewlett Foundation) has produced only two studies. But more will be forthcoming on the topics of learning management systems, open content, and interoperability.
These studies should be required reading for any school or district even remotely pondering the idea of adopting open-source technologies. Take a look at the links below for the complete text of the studies, and be sure to keep an eye out for the other ones that are on the way.
About the author: Dave Nagel is the executive editor for 1105 Media's educational technology online publications and electronic newsletters. He can be reached at [email protected].
Have any additional questions? Want to share your story? Want to pass along a news tip? Contact Dave Nagel, executive editor, at [email protected].