Temporary exile

Open Source in Schools

This afternoon I read a really thoughtful paper about Free/Open Source Software in schools published in the Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology. As an aside, the CJLT has a really solid collection of papers and I look forward to paging through them in the coming months. Anyway, this paper, Open Source Software and Schools: New Opportunities and Directions by Gary Hepburn, presents a tasty discussion of the benefits and advantages to using F/OSS in schools. After a brief overview of the proprietary software model, Hepburn devotes a solid page examining the issues surrounding using proprietary software in schools. He cites the cost of doing business with Microsoft (according to the Microsoft School Agreement), as of Winter 2005 with a school of 400 machines, to be US$7200 for the OS alone and US$19,200 for a complete desktop package. Additionally, he notes that, in general, “…using proprietary software requires a high degree of accountability” on account of license compliance issues and other legal liabilities. Alongside the financial downsides, Hepburn makes a very good point when examining “…school’s complicity in exposing students to commercial products and corporate interests”. The idea of a classroom as a corporate marketing machine is rather unappealing. While it’s not hard to find literature extolling the virtues of F/OSS, Hepburn does a nice job of emphasizing the potential benefits for schools. One particular point that caught my eye was his comment that “Schools can also burn OSS on to a compact disc and give it to staff or students to take home and do what they wish with it”. Granted, projects like OpenDisc have been leveraging the flexibility of F/OSS licenses for some time now, but I have been toying with the idea of using virtual machines as distributable workspaces. Personally, I find the idea of being able to send a student home with their own system saved on a thumb drive very compelling. After touching briefly on the subject of Linux, Hepburn goes on to discuss some of the neater software packages from the F/OSS world. In particular, OpenOffice.org gets a shout out though I don’t know if I agree with his insinuation that OO.org requires fewer system resources (specifically hardware) than MS Office. Overall, I do agree with his other major points which support the ideas that the F/OSS community is better equipped to respond to change and correct errors. Moreover, I fully support the idea that more diverse exposure to different types of software will lead to an overall greater computing literacy. With a healthy sprinkling of Lawrence Lessig quotes and shameless support for F/OSS, this paper is definitely worth a read.

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