EDUCAUSE takeaway #2: Open source is alive and well

Except on the desktop
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

I, like about 4 million other people in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast, am sitting here without power. My 4G card just died, but should be able to charge enough off my laptop in the next few minutes to at least post this piece once I finish writing it. The power outage, though inconvenient, is at least forcing me to sit in one place long enough to reflect back on the mid-October EDUCAUSE conference, from which I've only had time to give you one takeaway (essentially that learning management systems are everywhere, but Pearson's new Google Apps-integrated LMS isn't nearly as big a deal as most of us initially thought).

One thing that I found interesting, though, was the ubiquity of open source software just about everywhere except the desktop. There were open source learning management systems (Instructure Canvas, Sakai, and Moodle were stars), open source databases, open source content management systems, open source server software, you name it. And yet everyone was walking around with iPads, Macs, and, somewhat less frequently, Windows laptops. Not a single person asked if the software my company was demonstrating was compatible with Linux. Developers, engineers, and marketing types alike on the showroom floor were Mac-ing it up, and, among instructors and college staff, Windows 7 and OS X were the only operating systems I observed.

Moodlerooms in particular has done an awesome job of not only pushing the open source Moodle LMS forward but also finding cool ways to monetize it and make it even more useful for schools. Their booth was huge and their presence and reach with educational customers even bigger. Companies hosting, promoting, or developing open source software were among the event's sponsors, as well.

But not a single gunslinger, wielding an Ubuntu desktop could be found.

Why? I have a few theories.

Long-time readers will know that I have long promoted the use of open source software in education for potential cost savings and powerful free tools for instruction, learning, and management. Where schools spend countless dollars on anti-malware software, Linux desktops generally have little need for anything but the simplest, free antivirus applications. Ubuntu's software center is loaded with everything from mathematical modelling software to student-centric organizers, all for free. So why won't desktop Linux take off among college students and faculty, a decidedly progressive and savvy bunch of computer users?

Here are those theories I mentioned:

  1. It's the applications. No matter how much time students spend in the cloud (be it doing actual work or just hanging out on Facebook), Word and PowerPoint reign supreme as the content tools of choice. You can talk till you're blue in the face about LibreOffice, but without Word or PowerPoint on an OS, it tends to be a nonstarter for a very large group of users. Same goes for Adobe's Creative Suite which is available very cheaply to academic institutions and which sets the standard for graphic arts and multimedia.
  2. iTunes: Yes, I know iTunes is an application too and yes, I know that you can manage iOS devices with open source tools. I even know that iTunes (especially on Windows) isn't the most awesome piece of software ever to come out of Cupertino. But Apple has an incredible ecosystem lock and iTunes just makes it so darned easy for students, whose primary pastimes are music and gaming, that Linux is just too much of a barrier to simple access to their tunes.
  3. OS X and Windows 7 are pretty great. They both have their niggles, but the need for an alternative just really isn't there for the average student/professor.
  4. College computer labs are dead. Linux, often in the form of Edubuntu or LTSP for thin client installations has found some big fans in K12 (myself included) where multiple computer labs major cost centers for most schools. On most college campuses, computer labs are generally empty. Everyone has a laptop and the lab is something of an anachronism.
  5. College students are almost always digital natives, adeptly moving among mobile and desktop computing platforms. That said, very few members of this generation are tinkerers, for better or for worse. If the computer or smartphone works, why invest time in additional setup?

So open source software continues, as it has for a long time, to drive the back office of education. It continues to innovate on the server and platform fronts and is even making inroads into corporate and K12 desktops. For colleges, however, the highly distributed, heterogeneous nature of on-campus computing means that few perceive any benefit in the Linux desktop. So unless Windows 8 is a major flop or Apple products start to suck, there simply won't be any students or staff asking "Does that work on Mint?"

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