IT Trends | Feature

4 More Tips for Open Source in K-12

How can education technology pros help ensure the success of their open source deployments?

Open source isn't just about cost savings. As with any technology deployment in education, it's about rolling out the right tool to accomplish a goal, whether it be enhancing classroom teaching and learning or streamlining the operations that support education.

Ensuring the success of that rollout can be tricky. Teachers and administrators aren't necessarily on board with abandoning their current tools and ways of doing things whenever the IT department gets an idea to change things around. So how can K-12 education technology pros help ensure the success of their open source deployments? Last week, we posted four tips for helping to ensure the success of such deployments, based on input from experts who've been there. (You can read those tips here.) This week, we have four more.

1. Utilize Support Networks.

There is an incorrect notion that there is no support available for open source software, consultant Randy Orwin said in a Webinar hosted recently by the National School Boards Association. "Eight to 10 years ago, there weren't really companies supporting open source," he said. "Now there are a number of options to get support for your open source implementation, both on desktop and server side."

If done in-house, support can include having a "guru" on staff with time to spare or a staff member who has time to fully participate in the forums. This strategy requires a "safety net," Orwin said in the presentation--warning that too much knowledge shouldn't be invested in one individual who may move elsewhere.

A lot of OSS options have communities that provide support, said Miguel Guhlin, director of Instructional Technology & Learning Services (ITLS) in Texas' San Antonio ISD. "If I have a question, chances are someone has asked it," he said. "It's a question of finding people out there who I trust and can ask."

When he had a question about how to do something on the open source learning management system Moodle, he posted on Twitter and got a quick reply that helped solve the issue. He later realized that the sender was a book author on Moodle. That sort of helpful exchange has happened more than once, he said.

In recommending packages for K-12, Michael Feldstein, author of the e-Literate blog, said he often refers people to two server-based OSS packages that have widely adopted communication and collaboration platforms--WordPress and Drupal. "Both are relatively easy to support and both have robust networks of commercial support from small and large vendors as well as individual consultants," he said.

That criterion--selecting OSS with supporting communities--is a key part in OSS being useful for schools and reasonable for IT staff to administer.

2. Consider External Assistance.

While OSS can be implemented in-house--depending on expertise of staff and time issues, another option is to hire external support. This can include a range of services, someone to take care of installations, train technical staff, and have a number available to call if there are issues. Orwin said there were a lot of companies that can do that--like Revolution Linux, Moodlerooms, Unicon, and many others. There is also a more full-service option to have an external company install and remotely manage.

Goree called Revolution Linux the "tip of the spear" when they want to do something new with OSS that they haven't done before--which is everything, he said. The company helps IT staff to determine what they need, draw up a plan, select hardware, and conducts trainings.

"Their goal isn't for us to be reliant on them," Goree said. "After we've done a few projects with them, we'll be an open source shop, and then maybe implement our own projects without their help."

That is the aim in Goree's case, an open source IT shop that will be self-sufficient. In the meantime, when they need it, they have a source for support.

Goree's district had funds available for consulting and initial projects from their extended day care program, which was profitable. In other cases, funds are available for new OSS projects from the savings that would have paid for proprietary licenses.

Other firms that provide OSS support include Novell, Resara, Red Hat, and Canonical.

3. Maintain Ongoing Communication and Staff Development.

Maintaining regular communication about changes, funds saved, and where the funds are redirected--via newsletters or a Web site--all help maintain support for current open source projects and those to come.

Several IT experts interviewed for the article emphasized that the "savings" from OSS licenses are best put back into IT or in training. Goree emphasized that any money saved is poured into professional development.

"If we're spending a certain amount on software, say $20,000 on licensing, and we're able to supplant with OpenOffice--if we're able to do that, my promise to teachers is to put it into another area they can see, usually professional development," Goree said. "That has really helped the attitude of buy-in for the entire staff."

4. Dive In.

An article about planning an open source implementation, from the widely cited Saugus Union School District, gave two recommendations: assess your skill set, and then dive in. The best way to learn and/or refine your skills with Linux was to force yourself to use the solution.

Another safe way to dive in is to experiment with OSS options that add to current offerings, rather than take away anything familiar during the learning phase.

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A Sampling of Open Source Support Companies