Open source in education: Winning hearts and minds

Trying to convince schools that open source software won't be a management headache is proving an uphill struggle
Written by Ingrid Marson, Contributor

"Give me a child until he is seven and he is mine for life." While this Jesuit maxim was originally conceived with religious fervour in mind, some technology companies are equally zealous about its relevance to IT adoption. The education sector is an enormously important one to technology companies not only because it is an extremely lucrative market in its own right but it also a way of influencing the technical proclivities of the next generation.

"For companies like Microsoft the school market is important because they're leading innocent young minds to love Microsoft technologies," says Ovum analyst Gary Barnett.

And it is not only the proprietary vendors such as Microsoft and IBM who have seized on the importance of reaching young minds. John Spencer, the head of education at open source consultancy SiriusIT, claims that the schools are a key to the wider adoption of open source.

"It's massively important. When [Apple] Macs were used in the education market in the US, people started asking for Macs in the workplace. Once children have seen other ways of doing things their eyes are opened," he says. "If more children can use open source, when come into the adult market they won't say: 'That's not what I'm used to.'"

Other reasons why the school market is important is its relative size — there are around 26,000 primary schools and 5,000 secondary schools in the UK, and the opportunity to influence consumer purchases of software — many parents will use the same software as is used in their child's school.

Although it is widely accepted that the school market is an important for open source, at present, few schools in the UK use open source software. SiriusIT claims that between 10 and 15 percent of secondary schools are using some open source, and less than 1 percent are using mainly open source. The consultancy collated its figures by monitoring public information about the use of open source in schools, such as postings on mailing lists and forums.

Outside the UK, the situation varies. Non-proprietary software is widely used in schools in some countries, such as the Spanish region of Extremadura, where Linux has been deployed on around 70,000 desktop PCs and 400 servers in schools and Norway, where it is thought that up to 200 of the 3300 schools in the country are using Skolelinux. But in many other countries the use of open source software in schools is less common.

Open source, children and usability
So, why if it is supposedly cheaper, is open source not used more in schools where price is a bigger factor than most corporations? Barnett from Ovum lays the blame on the lack of availability of open source educational applications and the usability of open source software.

"Linux is a long way from being appealing to ordinary users who want to surf the Web and write documents," he says. "Linux or OpenOffice must be significantly easier or more rewarding to use."

Barnett gave a few example of proprietary software that he believes is significantly easier to use than its open source equivalents. "Microsoft home networking support is far from perfect, but it's a doddle compared to Linux," he says. "Linux support for wireless is fantastic, but is a pain to configure."

There is a prevailing sentiment among many in the free software community that technology shouldn't be too easy and that people should invest the time to learn about it, says Barnett.

"With usability or graphics administration tools you can tell they're written grudgingly," he says. "There's also a belief that if you're not willing to open a terminal window and stay up till 0300 reading a 100-page manual, you're not worthy of the software. You can see this if you go to a Linux user group and ask a stupid question — you get...

For more, click here...

...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...

For more, click here...

...technical skills among school technicians is also a key factor. Paul Jenkins, the managing director of open source consultancy SimpleICT (formerly SchoolLINUX) says that few IT technicians know anything about Linux, so are unlikely to support a migration to such software. "The IT guy doesn't know anything about Linux, so a way to protect himself and his job is to say it's no good," he claims.

Schools don't tend to pay technicians much money, compared to other employers, so are likely to struggle to attract highly-skilled staff. A junior technician at a school is likely to get paid around £18,000, while a senior technician is unlikely to earn much more than £35,000.

Ovum's Barnett points out that historically schools have often hung back on adopting new technologies, so are unlikely to embrace open source until it has become mainstream. "Look at schools and the way they track technology. They were still trying to use BBC Micros when the PC was taking over. They're not necessarily huge leaders when it comes to technology," he says.

Even when schools are aware of the potential cost-savings of moving to open source, fear of the unknown can make them hesitant to take the leap. Open source consultant Spencer says it recently lost a tender to revamp the IT systems in a large comprehensive school, despite the fact that its tender was less than a third the cost of the winning tender.

"£350,000 pounds was the winning tender, we could have done it for £112,000, but they didn't take us. It's fear — fear of the unknown," he says.

It can be difficult to change this perception and educate schools about open source as it is not an environment that you can easily sell into, says Spencer, who spent 20 years working as a teacher before moving into an IT role.

"The big problem with schools is that unlike other sectors it's not possible to do direct sales," says Spencer. "Teachers are immensely busy so you can't physically talk to them and they don't have time to answer email. They don't want to be cold called."

Blame it on Becta
The British Educational Communications and Technology Association (Becta) has recently taken a number of steps that could encourage the use of open source in schools. It published a report last year which concluded that primary schools could cut IT costs by nearly half if they stopped buying, operating and supporting products from software vendors such as Microsoft. It has also launched a review to examine whether schools get good value from licensing deals with Microsoft. The interim report from this review is due in June 2006.

But SimpleICT's Jenkins believes that Becta is not doing enough to promote open source. "Becta doesn't help, even though they've done this Mickey Mouse report on open source," he says.

Jenkins also criticises Becta for being inconsistent in its attitude towards open source. For example, he points out that despite the Becta report, it's educational software database lists only a few applications that can run on Linux. Only 18 applications are listed that run on Linux, compared to over 3000 applications listed that run on various versions of Windows and over 1200 applications that run on Mac OS. Even RISC OS, an operating system that had its hey-day in the early 1990s, offers more than 15 times as many educational applications than Linux, the site claims.

The reason for this skew, is that the Becta site does not list any open source software in its list of educational applications that run on Linux, therefore...

For more, click here...

...omitting potentially hundreds of educational applications for Linux.

"TuxMaths is a great maths program for kids, but it's not in there. In fact nothing is in there. So if you were a teacher and you wanted to use Linux then this official site tells you that there is no software for it. It's a shambles," says Jenkins.

Spencer agrees that Becta could do more. "It says the total cost of ownership is worth it, but it never gives overt incentives to move to open source software — schools need cash incentives," he says.

The problem does not just lie with Becta, but goes much higher, according to Jenkins. He complains that the UK government has given schools too much money, which has not encouraged them to look for lower cost open source products.

"The problem in schools is that they have too much money. In the last few years [secondary] schools have been getting £10,000-15,000 pounds to build up their IT infrastructure. If you have a lot of money thrown at a problem, you don't buy what's the best value," he says.

However, primary schools are a "different kettle of fish", according to Jenkins, as they receive significantly less funding from the government, and are therefore more likely to consider open source.

Orwell High School's Osborne agrees and says that one of the primary schools that have visited his school is looking at deploying Linux thin clients.

"A lot of primary schools are in deep doodah — many are still running Windows 95 machines and have no big budgets to replace them and no technician — they can't afford one," he says.

The way the government earmarks funding for particular types of IT spending has not helped open source either, claims Jenkins. "The government gives out e-learning credits, which schools can only spend on software, so they end up simply buying more software for their Microsoft suite," he says.

Cost isn't everything
So, what lessons can businesses learn from schools that have successfully adopted open source? SiriusIT's Spencer has found that children in schools have easily learned how to use the software, and often found it easier to use than applications such as Windows XP.

"Businesses can relax about the training barrier — it isn't anywhere near the barrier that people think it is," claims Spencer.

He agrees with Osborne that Linux thin clients are more resilient — at one school where SiriusIT has installed thin clients, there is no technician to support the technology, but due to the resilience of the technology this has not been an issue.

"With Linux, IT isn't an issue any more — systems don't crash. The thin client environment is quicker to boot and if someone pulls the plug it's back up in a few seconds. Also, they don't blue screen any more," he says.

He claims that schools are a "great test bed environment" for software in general. "Youngsters are the most probing of users — if they can't break it, nobody can," he says.

For businesses, this resilience could mean less downtime and higher productivity. Businesses may also be able to replicate the savings made by schools in the reduced need for support staff. Rishab Ghosh, the programme...

For more, click here...

...leader of an open source research project at Dutch research institute MERIT, agrees with Osborne that open source desktops have lower support requirements.

As part of Ghosh's research project he studied the implementation of open source by schools in Extremadura and says that schools in the area only have one or two support staff for every thousand students. This has been made possible by the fact that the same version of the free software can be installed across thousands of desktops, even though some schools are using old PCs.

"Schools dealing with old hardware can't use the latest proprietary software, but you can use free software on any hardware configuration and get a similar interface," he says.

Overcoming barriers

The importance of the education sector for the wider adoption of open source, in both the public and private sector, is clear. Yet there are many barriers that open source vendors need to overcome to get a foothold in this market.

One of the main barriers — Becta's implicit support of proprietary software — appears to be crumbling away with successive reports. But open source vendors need to work with Becta to make sure that its policy and documentation regarding open source is consistent, so that schools get the message loud and clear.

Open source vendors would also do well to take a long-term view of the education market; even though the schools may not as lucrative as other parts of the public sector, the trickle down effect from education into the wider consumer and even business arenas is surely an opportunity they cannot afford to miss.

Read on for a detailed look at Orwell High School's Linux migration.

Case Study: Orwell High School — migration to Linux was a 'no-brainer'
Although many schools may be reluctant to try open source, one school that has taken the plunge is Orwell High School, a secondary school in Suffolk that has around 850 pupils aged between 11 and 18.

The School's deputy head John Osborne says that the decision to move to Linux was easy, once it analysed the potential cost-savings. "When we did the sums and looked at the [open source] software and its reliability, it was a no-brainer. Schools who have visited us have thought the same thing," he says.

Orwell High School started deploying thin-clients running SuSE Linux 9.1 in summer 2004 and is now running 350 thin clients. It replaced Microsoft Office with StarOffice, Microsoft Publisher with Scribus and is using the HTML editor Quanta and the image manipulation tool Gimp. The school is also running Windows Terminal Server so that the Linux-based clients can still run Windows-only educational software.

Deputy head Osborne says the school has saving a considerable amount of money by moving to open source, by cutting down on licence, support and hardware costs.

"We're saving huge amounts of money now. Our annual budget is around £30,000 per year. In the past, the entire budget was used just to keep things going, now we've been able to buy more laptops and more thin clients," he says.

The school was able to easily convert all the machines it already owned into thin clients by adding a network card to the computers that didn't have one, and also converted a batch of second-hand computers donated by Credit Suisse into thin clients. With the money it has saved on software licensing, it has bought Sun Ray thin clients, which have the additional advantage over converted fat clients that they are silent, produce no heat, and only use a fraction of the electricity. The school has also been able to provide every member of staff with an individual laptop running StarOffice.

Software licenses accounted for around half of Orwell School's budget in the past. As well as Windows and Office licences, which cost around £35 per desktop, it was also paying around £2000 per year for a Symantec antivirus product, and thousands of pounds a year for a RM Ranger product to lock-down workstations. Now, as it only needs to license one copy of each product to run on the Windows Terminal Server, its total software budget is only £400 per year. This amount will be cut back even further soon, as the school is planning to move to DansGuardian, an open source Web content filter.

The school is also saving a considerable amount through the reduced cost of supporting thin clients. Osborne claims that he would have needed a "team of technicians" to support 350 fat clients and the staff laptops, but only has one technician. The thin clients are easier to support as they run software from the central application server and students cannot change the local environment as there is no hard drive.

"The thin clients are proving to be staggeringly reliable — we are spending only three quarters of an hour every week maintaining 350 clients," says Osborne. "Before, the big problem was security — students downloaded software so we regularly had to wipe the hard drive and start from scratch. We were running 20 types of computers so ghosting an image was difficult, which meant that reinstalling the software took a couple of hours per machine."

The use of thin clients has also extended the life of the school's current hardware. "We used to get only three years out of each machine — the software gets bigger each time it comes out and the hard discs in the computers have a limited life," he says. "Some of our thin clients are now five or six years old."

Editorial standards