SCHOOL CIO: The Pros & Cons of Open-Source Products

4/1/2011 By:

By now School CIO readers know a lot about the benefits as well as the limitations of using open-source products. It turns out that people can find just as many reasons to fight open source as they can to implement it. So we decided to go right to the source (pun intended) and ask some of our School CIO advisors about their experiences and put an end to the debate.

Claim 1 Open source is way too expensive. We can’t afford to change everything!

The whole story: People who think open source is prohibitively expensive are looking only at the short term, says Jim Klein, director of information services and technology for Saugus Union School District in California. With respect to the initial transition, he says, the price of making the switch can be high; you have to think about the long-term savings for it to make sense. “For starters, add up the licensing fees you’ll save. Just with that, open source will cost a lot less over time.” Support costs will decrease too. Klein no longer hires an administrator to handle the mail servers and file servers.

Over the past six years, Michigan City Area Schools in Indiana has invested heavily in open source. As one of the districts involved in the Indiana ACCESS program (www.doe.in.gov/olt/InACCESS/about_inaccess.html), it started a one-to-one initiative by rolling out open-source desktops in five classrooms and expanding to 29 classrooms by 2008. Because of that success, when the district opened a new school in January 2009 and another that August, it went with open source again.

“We saved $125,000 per building by going with open source,” says Kevin McGuire, director of instructional technology. Here’s how: He bought 350 to 400 computers for each school and saved $100 on hardware for every machine, since Linux can run on older computers. He saved an additional $100 on software for each machine, because he didn’t have to buy Microsoft Windows or Office.

Like her counterparts in most of the country, Karen Fuller, chief technology officer for Klein Independent School District in Texas, is trying to cut costs. “In the past couple of years,” she says, “anytime we had to upgrade or buy new, we approached it by asking ‘What’s out there that’s open source or shareware? Can we find something that’s free instead of paying for maintenance and licensing?’”

When Fuller needed imaging software, she found the Linux-based Fog (www.fogproject.org), which she uses to image the desktops and laptops on some of the district’s large one-to-one campuses. “We were paying more than $100,000 for our previous imaging software, but with Fog we had to buy only a couple of servers.”

Over the past two years, going with open-source products has trimmed Fuller’s budget by 15 percent. “Twenty years ago, we wanted the best, the most popular, and to do it right. Now it’s like, ‘How can we do it right and affordably?’ It doesn’t have to be a name brand anymore.”

Claim 2 Our teachers won’t use open-source software. They are accustomed to the products they already use.

The whole story: Can you say “Moodle” (moodle.org)? Thousands of teachers use Moodle every day. In fact, Intermediate District 287 in Minnesota has used it for five years and is hosting it in-house this year. The district even boasts a Moodle expert, who has created MoodleShare (moodleshare.org), a site on which teachers develop and share Moodle courses, says Chad Maxa, director of information technology.

District 287 has also gotten its teachers to use an opensource bulletin board, called phpBB (www.phpBB.com). Teachers subscribe to forums and chat rooms to discuss everything from mobile learning to standards. “It took a while for teachers to adopt it, because it’s a paradigm shift for them to work together, but it’s a great product and it’s gotten very popular. We’ve been using it for about a year,” Maxa says.

Change doesn’t come easy, of course. When Coby E. Culbertson tried to get his staff to use OpenOffice, “it went over like a lead balloon,” says Culbertson, director of technology at Western Dubuque Community School District in Iowa. His schools have classes that teach students to use software with stepby- step instructions created to work with Microsoft Office, so no one was willing to make the switch. “Hats off to schools that got this off the ground, but it didn’t work for us.”

Claim 3 There’s no tech support for open source.

The whole story: Go online, McGuire says. Just as the products themselves are open, members of the opensource community help one another when necessary. “The nice thing about open source is that with any package, you can go to Google and find a slew of people with a multitude of solutions to your problems.” Also, open-source consulting companies are on the rise; McGuire uses one called Révolution Linux (www.revolutionlinux.com).

Support is easy to come by, Jim Klein at Saugus Union agrees. “The open-source community continually improves upon the software.” In addition, some of the larger opensource developers, including Red Hat (redhat.com) and Novell (www.novell.com), have tech-support people on staff.

Claim 4 The tech department will have to learn a new way of doing things.

The whole story: “We were going to move to Windows Vista or go with open source,” McGuire says. “The learning curve to go with the opensource operating system we chose was a little greater, but there would’ve been a learning curve for Vista as well. It was a no-brainer for us.”

Open source is exciting for tech staff, he says, because it expands their knowledge and their options. He believes that tech staff who complain about learning something new are doing themselves a disservice. “We go home and read about new tech and where we’re headed and don’t think twice about it.” And incidentally, Klein points out, the money you save by choosing open source can go into training your staff.

Claim 5 Open-source products aren’t as good as their mainstream counterparts.

The whole story: This belief is McGuire’s biggest challenge. “When we put an open-source solution out there, it takes on a reputation that it’s not as good as a paid product.” When he tells teachers it’s open source, their first reaction is often negative (“Oh, great, here we go again”). All the open-source products he’s given them, however, have worked out fine. For instance, when his teachers wanted to do audio editing, he found a package called Audacity (audacity.sourceforge.net). At first everyone complained. Now they use it all the time and would be furious if it went away, he says.

These days McGuire just tells people, “Here’s a solution” and leaves out the open-source part. Still, he knows that open source isn’t always the best fit. “We won’t see Ubuntu [an open-source operating system] in AutoCAD, and we still have Macs in the art classrooms,” he says. “But for the 90 percent of our machines that are used for word processing and Internet browsing, there’s no need for top-ofthe- line hardware and costly software.”

Claim 6 But no one uses Open–Office! Our students and teachers will learn useless software.

The whole story: Klein hears this complaint all the time. His rebuttal? “Skills transfer. If you teach people to use OpenOffice (www.openoffice.org), they’ll know how to use Microsoft Office. Besides, each version of Microsoft Office changes, so you have to learn each one all over again.” When Microsoft upgrades Office, the file format changes, but when Klein installed OpenOffice, there were no problems with opening documents. Another huge benefit is that it’s free, so it can be installed on everything, including home computers.

Chad Maxa also tells his Minnesota district that it’s about teaching the skills, not the product. In addition, the money he saves by not buying Microsoft Office is put into other tools teachers want, including tablet PCs, document cameras, and 60-inch plasma screens. “These are the carrots we can offer,” he says.

Claim 7 There aren’t any opensource administrative or management products.

The whole story: McGuire hears a lot of people say that open source lacks image-management products, but that’s not true, he says. “I don’t know any network administrator who resorts to boxed products anymore. For network management, there’s a whole lot of open-source solutions.”

Claim 8 We’re about to launch a one-to-one program. We can’t do that and go with open source.

The whole story: Talk to Klein. His one-to-one SWATTEC program (goo.gl/2OkT) includes Linux on 2,500 netbooks and an open-source social networking and media platform. “We have built a system that makes oneto- one practical and manageable for schools,” he says, “and have shared the software and program with dozens of districts across the country that replicate our program on thousands and thousands of netbooks.”

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