Open Arms for Open Source

At a time when school budgets are shrinking, technologists in the K–12 market are forced to do more with less. Sharon Betts, educational technology coordinator for School Administrative District 52in Turner, Maine, has responded to these challenges in her 2,200-student district by adopting open source tools.

Q. Why is open source such a good idea for the K–12 environment?
A. For starters, it’s less expensive then the alternatives. It also offers flexibility so you don’t have to buy something out of the box. We’re working with a development company named NPV to take open source programs and tweak them to meet our needs. With their help, we’ve taken Moodle and made it fit our needs. They’ve also helped us use OpenOffice, Linux Terminal Server Project, and Metadot, which powers our Web site and our portal for the teachers. With this company’s help, we’ve really embraced open source completely, and done it in a way that’s unique to us.

Q. How do you measure ROI with open source?
A. If you’re using open office in place of Microsoft Office from Microsoft, licensing is a savings immediately. Some other areas of savings revolve around centralized management and maintenance. If you need something fixed, you have the large community out there to work with, so you don’t have to pay for it yourself. This comes in handy for other issues, too. If you use Photoshop, you’re not going to get a hold of Adobe and say, “We wish it did this.” With a program like the GNU Image Manipulation Program, however, you can go to a forum and suggest that the software should be a little different.

Q. When did you start using open source?
A. The State of Maine people have been using it for the last five or six years. Getting it down to the desktop level in individual districts has been a little slower coming. Part of the reason it’s taken so long is because educating users has been a little more difficult. We don’t only have to convince people open source is good but we also have to find the right software.

Q. How long do you think it will be before you have open source on the desktop?
A. It could be soon. But it also could take a while. I tried to do a test run at the district I was at previously, near Kennebunkport. We bought 25 Linux laptops and we found that the operating system was not quite ready for the general education user. It didn’t have the plug-and-play, and we were always working a little too hard to get it onto the wireless network. It just wasn’t user-friendly and it caused a bit of user frustration. The solution is always getting better, though. I have a good feeling that you will start seeing it appear more and more at the K–12 level.

Q. What are the biggest challenges to open source in K–12?
A. I just talked about the fact that it’s not always easy to use. Also, change for teachers and others in the education environment is always difficult. The lack of familiarity for users and staff can be a problem. And if you have a district that’s totally involved with technology from Apple, using open source will be a battle. There’s so much on everybody’s plate, the last thing in the world you need to think is that you have to learn something brand new. The truth is that many teachers still haven’t even heard of this stuff. The easier open source gets to use, the more likely it will be to be accepted.

Matt Villano is contributing editor of School CIO.