IT Trends | Feature

4 Tips for Adopting Open Source Software in K-12

The cost savings of open source software aren't too bad. But without a focus on what's needed and what will be accepted in any given situation, an OSS implementation might be doomed to failure.

IT directors interested in open source software have an ever increasing number of resources available for learning more about options, best practices, and pitfalls. Online communities, conferences, blogs, and Webinars all provide perspective.

After a dozen interviews and review of even more online sources, THE Journal put together a list of tips for IT directors considering open source software (OSS) in their districts. The main take-away? Focus on what is needed and what will be accepted in any given situation--and the cost savings aren't so bad either.

1. Learn about the open source community.

There are several online open source communities specifically focusing on K-12 education. A first step should be, which has forums, a wiki, and information about events, coordinated by Steve Hargadon, an OSS advocate, blogger, and consultant.

Additional stops in online exploration might include Open Source Schools, a UK-based initiative, which offers forums and case studies, and SchoolForge, which includes an e-mail-based discussion list and conference information, among other resources.

The National School Boards Association recently hosted a series of Webinars on OSS for the NSBA's Technology Leadership Network (TLN). These are available online, and two in particular shouldn't be missed: consultant Randy Orwin talking about intelligent implementation for open source and Benoit St-André from Revolution Linux offering the open source guide for school district technology leadership teams.

There also are OSS events, Webcasts, and conferences, including the Southern California Linux Expo (SCALE).

Electronic mailing lists, or "listservs," are available through professional organizations, and those with experience are often open to helping others in the field. "A lot of our research consisted of asking questions on the CETPA--California Educational Technology Professionals Association--listserv," said Tim Goree, director of technology services for Norris School District in Bakersfield, CA. "A lot of our research was through others that have gone open source already."

2. Tout the benefits of open source.

Choosing an open source solution is not only about saving money. Yes, funds likely are saved from licensing fees, but OSS also might allow implementation of something that would not otherwise have been affordable.

The "free" nature of open source is the main reason people choose it--to save money--and that really is not the right reason, St-André said. "When people go there to save money first and they don't have other reasons, it will backfire," he said.

It is also about finding the right solution, which includes the specific needs of the district, willingness to move to new solutions, and timing, as well as budget constraints. It also has other impacts, including scalability. Students will have access to the same software at home as they have at school.

That is one of the significant things about Moodle, which has made a learning management system possible for many schools for the first time. That experience has made OSS fans out of many who otherwise would not have considered it an option. Then the question is: where to go from Moodle?

A good way to promote OSS is to use it to solve immediate technology problems and requests. In his Webcast, Orwin described teacher requests to find a way to broadcast the presidential inauguration in classrooms. He and his staff decided to use VideoLAN, an open source streaming and multimedia solution, to stream across the district.

If there are early adopters of open source in the district, that should be highlighted. Other people see what they're doing, and students talk about it. This is encouraging for others to move forward if it is first being used successfully.

3. Get buy-in.

As with any change in technology, process can make the difference in whether a project is successful. That means demonstrating the benefits; involving others in the decision-making; getting buy-in; offering training, coaching, and documentation; and asking for ongoing feedback.

It helps that there are increasing numbers of school districts to use as examples for OSS implementation, but change is sensitive.

IT experts recommended organizing a committee representing teachers, administrators, and office staff to discuss IT issues and the cost of software licenses. They also suggested stakeholders be surveyed and that the focus be on function rather than product.

As change agents, IT directors have to give a compelling reason to make the switch, such as freeing funds for training, which can help get buy-in from administration and staff.

"Anytime you do change, you have to offer benefit, or people just won't do it," said Alex Inman, director of technology for Whitfield School in St. Louis, MO.

For Inman's school, the key benefit was access and the ability to implement a 1:1 environment for laptops and netbooks. Teachers were told, "You will be able to do more with your students, and you won't have to wait for a lab. You'll always have a lab at your fingertips," Inman said.

4. Consider strategy and timing.

There are several ways to consider OSS implementation strategies in a school district. One to avoid is moving too quickly--without adequate discussion, agreement, and training--to a big change that impacts users. Switching to, for example, can be a sensitive issue.

"If that is the first open source you try--people will cry that it is cutting off their hands," St-André said. "If suddenly your Office suite disappears, you're going to be mad."

In his Webcast, Orwin described two methods--one easy and one difficult. With the "value-added" method, he said, people will not complain too much about something new added to their computer or the network.

"Moodle was a good place to add value to the environment," Orwin said, adding that in his case, training was conducted with money saved from OpenOffice. He also suggested adding software like GIMP or Tux Paint but not removing any software that students, teachers, and staff are already using.

With what Orwin called the "rip and replace strategy," there is disruptive change--replacing something existing with something from OSS. "That is more difficult," he said.

Examples would be replacing Microsoft Office with OpenOffice, Microsoft Explorer with Mozilla Firefox, or Microsoft Exchange with Zimbra.

The timing is also important. "If you're in the middle of a license agreement--you don't decide the following day to go to open source--it has to be in the right timing," St-André said. "It's changing technology, so you have to be careful how you bring it in."

Next week we'll provide four additional tips for improving the odds of a successful open source implementation. Meanwhile, you can find further open source resources here.