Open source in education: Winning hearts and minds

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."

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Topics: Apps, Software Development

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  • What an Irony ?
    This article is partailly covered with Microsoft ad
  • Good evening,
    After reading your piece "Open source in education: Winning hearts and minds" I'm left with a question: When was the last time Ovum analyst Gary Barnett used Linux or open source? As a Linux migration specialist and open source advocate working with public schools in the US, I have found very little open source software could not accomplish in both usability and features. The OpenSuse project has put out an amazingly easy to use desktop OS where networking, desktop navigation and ability to "surf the Web and write documents" is as easy or easier than the latest offerings from proprietary companies. Does Ovum have any alliances with proprietary software companies?, would be my follow up question.
    That being said, please feel free to explore my links to educational open source software, where over 600 individual education focused software projects are listed thanks to Seul/Edu.
    If you have any further questions or need for resources when writing about the state of open source in education, feel free to contact me.

    Chris Gregan
    Open Source Consultant/Founder
    Aptenix LLC-Desktop Solutions
    New Market, MD
  • Not only is the Ovum rep clueless about Open Source, he is also clueless about schools. The reason school s used Acorn technology in the past was simply it was better for what they wanted to achieve and RISC OS was more advanced as a user interface than Windows 3. The main reason why mass migration to Open Source hasn't happened is simply confidence. The biggest influencer in that would be government and agencies like BECTA providing the required leadership. Instead of spending
  • Schools are also wary about being seen as 'doing the wrong thing'. If you teach kids how to use a word processor and for your particular purposes you chose OpenOffice, you may have some fear of parents howling at you about 'not teaching WORD' and then you'll find yourself trying to explain that the program itself doesn't matter one bit and that it is the concepts that matter. Aside from all that, most people are hesitant to change until someone forces them too. Now and then you have extraordinary individuals who see that things can be done better and push for change - and these people really are extraordinary. For example, let's say one teacher wanted to use FreeDuc ( because it's got all these neat learning tools suited for kids 6-12. Questions come up: who will support it, etc? Although it runs off a CD, it's far too inconvenient to boot from CD, save setting to a floppy, etc. You have a computer tech, but one who sees his position as just a way of paying the bills (some people are incredibly lucky and have competent techs who love their job and love being part of the education system) - so there's no hope of getting the tech to set up a system (not that he/she could).

    There's never a shortage of problems that come up - so the best thing to do is read comments to see if there's something you haven't thought about and then push on with your plans for world domination by penguins,
  • One open source product which is being used increasingly in schools and colleges in the UK and abroad is Moodle - a Course Management System which is similar to a Virtual Learning Environment.

    A number of educational insititutions are actually moving away from proprietary VLEs to use Moodle. This is as it's in many ways more userfriendly and it has features which have to be purchased as add-ins from other companies.
  • I would like to find the jobs that are paying Junior Techs
  • Open source should be mandated by Governemnt and LEAs wherever possible. I dont want my taxes funding proprietary and closed source dead end solutions that have to be discarded every few years.
  • I
  • I was skeptical about the previous posters comments. Claims of being a student and that the schools grades where bad.
    This is what I discovered.

    Make up you own mind