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Opening the Lid on Open Source: Is It Good for Schools?

Chris O'Neal

Educational consultant and former blogger
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At NECC, I visited several booths that dealt with the open source software movement. (See my previous post.) I had been using Firefox, an open source browser, for quite a while. I had also just begun to use Mozilla, an open source mail client.

Since NECC, I've been playing around more and more with open source and talking to a few technology coordinators and school-based technology coaches, wondering whether open source could truly be a viable option for schools. Using open source can alleviate some of the huge licensing fees that schools pay, potentially freeing up some of that money for other uses -- more tech-support personnel, higher bandwidth, more technologies to extend into the community, and so on.

I recently reformatted an older laptop, wiping out all contents and traces of the existing operating system. I installed Ubuntu, a variation of the Linux open source operating system. It was a breeze to install the software, and it took me only a few minutes to get used to the look and feel of my "new" computer. I connected easily to my home wireless network and changed a few options for sound and appearance.

Then came the most important test: I handed it to my ten-year-old daughter and said, "Go online and check your email." She took the laptop from me, began clicking around to try to find where the browser was, and was off and surfing with not a word of instruction from me -- she transitioned in less than a minute. I'm wondering how long it would take our schools to do so. Is open source a viable option? Are there any other converts out there?

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Chris O'Neal

Educational consultant and former blogger

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Randy Coleman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Our school district is moving from Windows to Linux so that we can use open source software to cut our costs for hardware, licensing, and tech support. If you are considering doing the same, I recommend looking at the K-12 Linux web site ( I also recommend finding a Linux geek to help, especially if you want to set up terminal services. For larger installations, take a look at what Novell has to offer. It's SUSE Linux products are not free, but they're much cheaper than Microsoft and include excellent services.

Cameron Bell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am starting a low-key OSS evolution at my school. We have added Gimp, Scribus, Open Office, Inkscape and a raft of other OSS on the lab computers. I have converted my laptop to Ubuntu, however it still needs Windows due to 2 critical apps that need Win (our roll marking only works properly on IE and our reports/assessment program only runs on Win or emulation on Mac. Other than that, it's fine.
My major concern is that we are moving to digital portfolios etc for records of student work and that in the course of a typical students 6 year program that work completed in Year 7 will be unable to be read (easily if at all) by the time they reach Year 12. Think about how much progress you see in 6 years in ICT!
Open Office's open file formats are a better archival solution.
When teachers complain, I ask them what is the best outcome for students- confined to the present "industry standard" at school, or being able to freely obtain the software for use at home where they can do more work and gain a better understanding of the concepts?

~Tim's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In my district (in Florida) the cost of software is justified by being "industry standard". And, while I appreciate having software I would never purchase for home use, I don't NEED it except to comply with articulation agreements with the local community college. I think this makes us too much a follower and not a leader....

At this point I'm afraid we are so entrenched that a change to open source would be long and painful. (Hmm, not that that's much different from upgrades with our current vendors now that I think about it.)

Richard Harlin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm a technology director in upstate New York, and am very much interested in Open Source applications and operating systems. Last summer we created an initiative for educators in our county, in order to evaluate and rate Open Source applications. It's been slow going, but when people see some of the very high caliber applications that will run on Microsoft operating systems (e.g. OpenOffice, Blender, etc.) they are frequently amazed.

I have been experimenting with several Linux desktop distros over the years, right now EDUBUNTU has my eye - UBUNTU with lots of educational software included. People need to keep in mind that Linux can be an effective server platform also. There are many instances where a small, inexpensive server could be of use for utility or limited purposes.

Harry Keller's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Too many applications are Windows-centric. How can we push developers to create platform-independent apps like Open Office? Stephen Downes's example of EA Hockey may not be important to educators, but lots of educational software runs only on Windows.

The future of software, especially of educational software (in my opinion), lies in platform-independent, web-delivered applications. Toss out those CDs!

Bonnie Bracey Sutton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Well, since my initial comment, I have converted one of my computers to mostly open source resources. I think it was scary to do, because I sort of know the programs, but
had to figure out the differences. It helped that at the Supercomputing Conference in
Tampa, that many of the new programs were explored and shared. It also helped
that I had David Thornburg's book as a guide. I wonder how we could make that
resource available to developing nations,. Just a thought., Bonnie Bracey Sutton

Dave Floyd's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Other than OpenOffice, what other educational software is there for open source OS's?

Spence Morris's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have really wondered when a grassroots movement would begin to form around open source and I think I see evidence of it right here. I've been watching open source since the nineties when it was not at all ready for prime time. It is only recently that solid usable open source has come of age for the ordinary computer user.

Downloading Firefox 2.0 web browser is a good way to get one's feet wet while still using Windows. It is far superior. The download manager has become a regular tool for me. There is an optional PDF reader, named Foxit that puts the Adobe product to shame when it comes to opening quickly. If a piece of software takes forever to open, I leave it on the table. I do not have time for waiting, and here I am thinking of Photoshop. It may have cool stuff, but what a bloated load that is. The open source image editor of choice is called the Gimp, available for Windows and Linux variants. I am a believer.

Next, I recommend downloading Audacity, an audio recorder and editor. It is simple and clean and best of all it works. Open Office.Org recently released the newest version- 2.4- I think (I might be off a digit or so) and it is superb in many ways. Of course it has it's shortcomings, but so do the big dollar packages. I especially appreciate the PDF conversion function, and the ability to take powerpoint presentations and convert them into flash. For free.

As far as distributions go, many are offshoots of a project called Debian, including the Ubuntu variants. I purchased Linspire 5.0 reasonably at MicroCenter, and found it to be a gorgeous interface, with every tool I want for everyday use and more. Linspire is descended from Lindows and is sold on new computers at every major retailer in the USA. The good part is coming now. The Linspire organization has made available a free version,
named Freespire, and it is excellent. Many of the programs on Linspire and Freespire have been customized and optimized. I use both Operating Systems on an AMD based 800mhz Hewlett Packard and it performs like nobodys business. So much for planned obsolescence.
The beauty of Linspire and Freespire is that the maintainence is unlike that of the other OS. When you shut either of them down and restart them, as you might at the end of a workday, the system rebuilds itself- so you never undergo the hassles of defragmenting your disk. Additionally, there are few viruses and worms going around, so it is far less vulnerable than the other products.
Check out the online store, Frozentech. Just reading the product descriptions will tell you a lot- and there are links to sites for each systems builders. I usually buy online because I don't use a high speed connection and I like haveing the disks anyway.

To make open source work, ust use it. The foot draggers will eventually fall in line. I build small network systems for CBT of my own design and have set up six older PC's and the network server for less than the cost of one new computer. IT people will come around in time. It just make sense.

Luke Forshaw's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As an educator always looking to find new means of promoting student learning through technology, I find myself constantly gravitating towards open source software.

I re-furbish laptops and install Edubuntu. I am able to distribute these laptops to classrooms that only have one or two older windows boxes. While the windows machines are able to access our network and the internet, the Edubuntu machines provide wonderful support for the students when they are offline through the multitude of games, office software and special educational software.

I have actually been trying to establish a sort of community Edubuntu recycling program in which students would help me refurb community donated laptops to then donate to charity.

Additionally, I am a huge fan of Moodle, through which I run an on-line professional development course.

I am always looking to connect with other educators who find value in technology for learning, feel free to reach out by visiting my blog ( , I apologize for spamming here , but am always looking to reach out to others in the field :) )

Rianne Kruyswijk's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Just some thoughts...

Originally, open source software sounded very desirable, especially open source learning management systems such as Moodle or Sakai. I'll admit there are a lot of benefits, but also argue that open source isn't quite as 'free' as it advertises.

While attending the Conference for Information Technology in Charlotte, NC this year, we visited presentations that praised open source software as the hope for the future, while also attending presentations that said open source is really not any cheaper or much easier than other LMS such as Desire2Learn or Blackboard. These presenters (college administrators and tech people) found that, after having presentations from various open source and non-open source vendors, the cost of implementing open source would even out with other vendors. They based this cost analysis on costs for: time for implementation, teacher/administrator/student training, hiring tech people to keep up software and debug, etc, and various other factors. They found that vendors such as Blackboard, etc, had the experienced employees and help for training, implementation and upkeep; these vendors were far more developed in their 'help' section than open source.

Any thoughts?

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