Microsoft's education claims rebuffed

While there is still a lack of specific applications for schools, community development methods will win out, says one open source user group

Open source advocates have conceded that open source software for schoolwork is weak right now, but promise a better future, as the battle for Britain's school IT systems continues.

"Some schools are hooked on particular applications that only run on Windows," said Richard Rothwell, chairman of educational user group Schoolforge UK, "but there are ways for schools to get onto high quality sustainable open source software".

Rothwell, who is also head of computing at Handsworth Grammar School in Birmingham, conceded that there was something in Microsoft's claim that open source systems had fewer applications for coursework. However, open source content has fundamental benefits that will give schools better long term value, he said.

Last week, Microsoft was stung by a report from the UK government's school ICT agency, the British Educational Communications and Technology Association (Becta), which concluded that open source software can save schools money.

The software giant seized on the report's caveats, including a comment that content-specific open source software is "weaker", than that for Windows.

But despite Microsoft's focus on the negative aspects, Rothwell claims the overall Becta report was "unbelievably positive". He suggested several ways that schools can keep access to legacy closed-source software, and pointed to future developments with which open source could trump proprietary content.

"Ninety percent of what people do in classrooms uses standard office applications, Web browsers and productivity applications," he said, pointing out that open source software is readily available for all of this.

"Just like every organisation, there is a must-have application in every school," said Rothwell, citing the maths and science suite Crocodile Clips as one example of an application that presently only runs on Windows. "Schools are going to have to decide what their response is," he said.

Access to back-end systems running on Windows will also be an issue, as schools are unlikely to move these critical systems as readily as other applications. "MIS systems often support web access, but often this actually only runs with Internet Explorer," said Rothwell.

The options for schools who want to migrate to Linux but are constrained by their Windows-only applications include running it under a Windows emulator; or using a server to run Windows applications in terminal mode, to limit the licences required.

More forward looking schools should look at getting the content they want in open source form, said Rothwell. "If a dozen schools want something, for the cost of licensing the software, they could probably have it written," he said. David Hargreaves, the head of Becta, has advocated schools creating content, in his work at the Learning Working Group, published by Demos, said Rothwell.