After reading Marc Wagner's post "Don’t be fooled, Linux is not free," I was struck by a few items. First and foremost, Marc is right. Linux is not a panacea. It doesn't take away the cost of doing business and it certainly requires a degree of expertise, just as Windows, Mac, and every other flavor of OS out there do. The majority of the network I run is Windows-based since that plays to my users' greatest strengths, as well as my greatest expertise in terms of administration. My .nix understanding is certainly growing, as is my respect for the set of platforms, but I'm still not at a point where I can bring a large percentage of my users onboard with any incarnation of Linux and address their requirements, needs, and training as well as I can with Windows.
In a classroom setting, Linux presents a lot of advantages for me as a teacher. I can easily use and experiment with cool new software and expose my students to a variety of platforms in a controlled environment. As Marc points out, doing this at an enterprise level is a much different story.
Yes, as a few of my readers have noted, I have become a real open source advocate. I'm no Linux purist or fanboy, though, and my goal with all of the Linux posts lately has been to simply make make Linux accessible and "try-able" for the ed tech masses. Many of us use (or have used) Windows (or even Mac) because it's what we know, not because it represents the best choice (although it actually might in many cases). To quote Marc,
What we forget is that Chris came to education IT after several years in enterprise IT. His depth of experience exceeds that of many working in education IT today and many school systems have little access to personnel with professional IT experience.
Thanks, Marc. However, if a few more of us begin experimenting, take the summer to move outside that comfort zone and learn what we can about open source software, then I've achieved my goal with these posts. Linux can't save the world, but if we share our experiences and growing knowledge base, we may very well save ourselves some cash, as well.
Again, as Marc points out, many Ed Tech staff are simply teachers who have a lot more dedication than experience. However, as I handed my wife my laptop tonight so that she could order a gift online, she didn't even notice that she was clicking away on SUSE rather than Windows. Ironically enough, she is one of the most technophobic people I've ever met. Quite frankly, my 5-year old is more technically literate than she is, but he doesn't know if he's using Linux or Windows either.
My point, however, is that our collective inexperience and naivete can actually be an asset as we assess our needs and requirements (and those of the schools we support). This absolutely does not apply at the university level where funding is such that trained, professional IT departments cultivate expertise, often in a single platform to leverage economies of scale. However, at the K-12 level, where economies of scale are generally a pretty silly concept, we have a certain flexibility, as well as a pressing need to cut costs wherever possible. Therein lies the difference in Marc's and my perspectives on this matter. While there is much to be said for standardizing to a platform with which many are familiar, there is also much to be said for leveraging ignorance and attempting to save some cash while we're at it. I think I've just coined a new phrase...leveraging ignorance.
Which leads me to my final point and the title of this post. Jerry Gartner wrote a great response to Marc's article on his own blog. In it, he wrote
Much of the money saved on software cost, assuming you are not using one of the many commercial (i.e. license fees) Linux distributions, is best spent on training, particularly if the system administrator is self taught or lacking real IT experience. Even the best of us can benefit from training. Proper implementation of IT must affect the bottom line of an organization in real and positive ways. Knowledge based on experience and thoughtful training at all levels of user and administration, serve only to realize these benefits.
Another reader of Marc's post wrote:
In addition, should someone with a great deal of training and experience devote time to the schools and set up an even slightly elaborate system, the likelihood of replacement by someone equally knowledgeable is low.
How does this relate to me getting hit by a bus? What happens if we as Ed Tech staff introduce Edubuntu labs at all of the elementary schools in our districts? As we've seen from some very small-scale experimentation, this is really quite feasible, but were any of us hit by buses, who could step in and understand or administer the labs? We may have saved money upfront, recycled hardware, supported open source, and saved the world, all at the same time. Yet when parent volunteers are ripping apart the lab and installing Windows after our untimely demise since no one can run the Linux-based thin clients (or even knows what those are), they won't be singing our praises.
So Mr. Gartner's words about training are especially important. If we, as we leverage our ignorance, look at alternative and potentially money/world-saving solutions, we must train and document until the cows come home. The elementary school teachers must absolutely know what an LTSP lab is and anyone with a technical clue should be able to sit down in front of your servers with your documentation (and maybe a printed blog post or two from some wacky ZDNet education website) and keep everything functional.
While we should always train and document wherever possible, this becomes particularly important if we bring solutions to the table that every A+-certified member of the local geek squad can't immediately understand. In your absence, you need to ask yourself, "Who will get it?"
Open source has a great deal to offer education, perhaps more so at the K-12 level than elsewhere. Just look both ways crossing the street and make the best choice for your users, whether open source, proprietary, or somewhere in between. Hopefully the Linux articles this summer will at least give some folks the tools they need to make informed decisions.