Dr Christopher Craft is a world language teacher and advocate for open source technologies in Columbia, SC. Find him at @crafty184 on Twitter.
As budgets contract, it is becoming more and more important for schools to consider alternatives to expensive proprietary software. Open source software can provide a viable alternative to traditional software at a fraction of the cost. It is available for free, and is as stable as traditional commercial software (provided schools choose mature software packages). Furthermore, most open source software packages have large communities of developers and users who work towards the common goal of improving the software. This collaborative environment mirrors the style of work educators often seek to create in the classroom.
Open Source vs. Web 2.0
In the last several years educators have begun adopting Web 2.0 sites as alternatives to traditional installed software. The propagation of Web 2.0 sites has provided options not previously available for schools, however there are important distinctions that need to be drawn between Web 2.0 and open source to avoid conflating the terms. First, Web 2.0 sites are not open source. That is to say, the end user has no ability to view, edit, or change the source code of the application. The only permission typically given to the user of a given Web 2.0 site is use of the site. Open source software, on the other hand, affords you the ability to download the source code (the building blocks) of the software.
Web 2.0 sites are hosted on the creating company's servers, meaning use of the site is dependant on sufficient bandwidth and the site's servers must be running at a high rate of speed. However, the costs of running Web 2.0 sites can lead to sites shutting down or going to a pay model, leading to frustrated users. Open source software cannot move to a pay model due to inherent restrictions in open source licensing. With open source software, there is no fear that a favorite package will one day cost money. For example, I personally know of many educators who used Gcast.com as a podcast-hosting service. It worked well and was free, until Garageband (the parent company) decided to shut it down. This left many educators searching for a replacement tool.
Open Source Alternatives to Traditional Software
One of my favorite ways to find open source software that is an alternative to traditional software is using OSAlt.com. This site will offer free and open source substitutes to traditional software. For example, if a school wanted to find an open source alternative to Adobe's Photoshop software, a visit to OSAlt.com reveals an open source package called Gimpshop. This is just one example of many possible alternatives to traditional commercial software.
One way open source software can save schools money is by replacing Microsoft Office. Schools often spend large amounts of money on Microsoft licenses, propagating the dependence on commercial, proprietary software. One alternative to Microsoft Office is LibreOffice. LibreOffice is a free and open source software package that looks and feels much like Microsoft Office and can interact with Office documents.
In my classroom, we often use LibreOffice in place of Microsoft Office because our district has yet to upgrade past the 2003 version of Microsoft Office. LibreOffice gives us newer features and compatibility we did not have with Office 2003. We also use Audacity to record audio. We use Audacity to record podcasts, we create "radio commercials" as projects, and learn to edit audio. Without this free tool, we would have had to invest in a commercial software package for audio editing. This decision has saved us a significant amount.
The other open source software package we use frequently is called iTalc. iTalc is similar to SMART Sync (formerly called SynronEyes) and NetSupport. iTalc allows me to see student screens to provide remote support, demonstrations, and supervision while students are working on their computers. As in the other cases, the use of this software has saved us a significant amount of money.
Practical Advice for Implementing Open Source Software
A proper implementation plan can make the difference between users who thank you and users who get frustrated. There are several ways to ease the transition to an open source software package, especially when it is replacing a traditional commercial package. Here are some tips for planning your transition:
1. Involve key stakeholders. If you educate users ahead of time and prepare them, the transition will be easier. Help your users see the need, help them see the cost savings, and show them that the differences in the software are minimal.
2. Start with early adopters. Each district has an easily identifiable group of users who would be willing to try this out and report possible issues. These same users will become your "go to" folks when the switch goes live.
3. Create short how-to videos and/or screencasts addressing common transition issues. The time it takes to create these will save you help desk requests in the future.
4. Roll out the change over time. Consider running both packages side by side for a year so that users have the chance to try it out.
Open source software can save your school/district/community money while still providing the features users require. In today's budget crisis, consider how using open source software can replace some of your commercial software.