Beyond Open Source

Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for technology at Plano Independent School District in Plano, Texas, serves as liaison for the open technologies committee of the Consortium for School Networking. School CIO recently caught up with Hirsch to ask him about the significance of open source in K–12.

Q. Why is open source such a good idea for the K–12 environment?
A. First things first: Open source is only a small piece of open technologies, which comprise open applications, open operating systems, and open content. It’s really all about open interoperability standards. The whole open technology business is where the rest of the world is by and large now, and it’s where our students are as well. It’s not an individual package or piece of hardware or device. It’s a mindset. Our students are very much into a world that is collaborative, and because of that, they tend to see things a little bit differently. They are exposed to a greater number of information resources than ever before, and whether it’s good or bad, they’ve come to expect that information to be available and free. Because of the Internet and its growth in their lifetimes, they’ve had the opportunity to share and remix information that none of us have had before. If nothing else, over the past 15 years, the rapid increase in understanding of learning in terms of brain-based research has taught us that our school systems have been successful for more than 100 years, but we also have to take into account the fact that information doubles every 2.5 years. We can’t just say that students will learn in the same environment [year after year].

Q. How do you measure ROI with open source?
A. The same way you’d measure ROI with a proprietary solution. How does a district do that? It’s different in every district. The key to open source is not that it’s low cost. Free doesn’t mean no charge. It’s free as in freedom to use. Anyone who thinks open source means free has another thing coming. We’ll pay $900,000 to $1 million a year in licensing fees to Microsoft in licensing fees for Microsoft Office. If we look at OpenOffice, I think it’s legitimate for my board and my community to suggest looking at value. But it’s not free. We blend open source with purchased resources.

Q. Which open source technologies are you using today?
A. We’re looking at OpenOffice, as I mentioned. We brought in a product from myinternet that’s based on open source. Many of our services are run on Linux servers. Our Google search appliance is a Linux-based box. Our benchmarking tool that we built for our consortium of districts is on a Linux box. Student accounting, finance accounting and HR accounting—it’s all on Linux. Simple applications, whether Firefox or Gimp or IHMC Cmap tools, those kinds of applications are becoming more and more in use as we look at appropriate spots for those to fit. We have a Moodle server that’s up. We’re one of Blackboard’s oldest K–12 customers, but the fact of the matter is that those products are not changing quickly enough with our demands to provide the service we need to. That’s where Moodle comes in.

Q. What are the biggest challenges to open source in K–12?
A. Awareness. That’s the biggest challenge here in the U.S. We’ve become so ingrained with proprietary software that once we get something working, it’s difficult for anyone to take a good objective look at an alternative. The answer is education, whether it’s from a group like CoSN or [other organizations]. People are now realizing the impact open source can have in the United States. Students need to see the power of collaboration, which is the whole basis of open source. Open source gives them the opportunity to not be copyright violators.

Matt Villano is contributing editor of School CIO.