Open source in education: Winning hearts and minds

Summary:Trying to convince schools that open source software won't be a management headache is proving an uphill struggle

...burnt. We have to move on from that kind of attitude."

But others disagree with Barnett's feelings on the usability of open source. John Osborne, a deputy headteacher at Orwell High School, which runs about 350 Linux-based thin-clients, says the pupils in the school found it relatively easy to learn how to use the open source desktops, although the staff struggled initially.

"The kids have not been a problem, but the switchover for staff was fairly painful — we did quite a lot of training and support in first few weeks," he says.

Spencer from SiriusIT claims that in the schools where it has installed open source, children of all ages — from 4 to 18 years old — have picked it up quickly. He claims that children can find Microsoft applications such as Windows XP and Word difficult to use compared to open source applications, because the latter are available for many skill levels.

"When primary schools moved to XP it defeated children. My wife is a school inspector and when she went in one primary classroom the whole class of little ones failed to log into XP," he says. "You can easily customise a Linux desktop to make it easy to use, for example, with big buttons."

"Word is too ferocious for little children — it has too many features," he says. "With open source you can use a simple word processor. For very little children Beaver [an application that is bundled with some versions of the Puppy Linux distro] is good — it simply says 'type in this space'. For nine to 12 year olds Abiword is perfect."

The lack of availability of open source educational applications is also "no longer an issue", according to Spencer. "All of national curriculum [is] covered," he says.

There are a number of open source educational suites available, including the KDE Edutainment Suite, which includes tools such as the geography learning tool KGeography and the vocabulary trainer KVocTrain; the GCompris suite which includes algebra, science, geography and reading tools; and the Tux4Kids project, which has produced software such as TuxPaint and TuxTyping. Some Linux distributions. such as Edubuntu, come with bundled educational applications, including.

Fear of the unknown
The limited use of open source by schools can also be put down to lack of awareness or technical skills, and fear of the unknown. Orwell High School's Osborne claims that the lack of knowledge about alternatives to proprietary software is a key factor, but says this is slowly changing, with many schools expressing an interest in Orwell High School's migration to open source.

"The big problem is ignorance — a lot of people don't know about open source," he says. "We have had about 20 or 25 schools visit us and several of the schools are looking at doing test classrooms. We were invited to do a talk at BETT [an educational technology conference] and had about 90 people in audience and about fifteen inquiries to come and visit."

Osborne himself knew little about open source before the migration — his first experience of open source software was when the school bought some laptops for teachers and decided to get them pre-installed with StarOffice as it was cheaper. He says having an open source evangelist within a school is not necessarily a good thing, as "if that person leaves the network falls apart".

"We needed the migration to be sustainable," he says. "I don't know anything about Linux thin clients, but we've got a commercial company that supports us."

Lack of the appropriate...

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Topics: Apps, Software Development

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