Open for Business

OSS could help districts keep costs down.

Many educators are familiar with the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) initiative, a project that aims to revolutionize education worldwide through the development of a $100 laptop. But fewer know that when these computers are delivered they will be loaded with open-source software (OSS), not proprietary programs. What is OSS, and why are OLPC officials so keen on using it?

OSS is developed through the collaborative efforts of programmers around the world. This is possible because the underlying program code is available to all users. Best of all, OSS is free to the public. That means that OLPC can provide fully loaded laptops to children at a reasonable cost. Because the project is initially targeting underdeveloped nations, it's unclear how OLPC will impact schools in the United States in terms of hardware acquisition, but cash-strapped districts might consider taking OLPC's lead and adopting OSS on existing equipment.

Though many OSS programs run on Linux, a growing number offer versions that are compatible with Windows and Mac OS X. Two resources for identifying these programs are the Open CD for Windows and Open Source Mac for Mac OS X.

What kinds of software are available? Web browsers, antivirus software, office applications, course management systems, and education programs are just a few of the categories. Here is a sampling of familiar titles for Windows and Mac OS X programs.

Mozilla Firefox: Extremely easy to install and use, this Web browser incorporates a variety of useful features such as live bookmarks (which alert you when a page has been updated) and tabbed browsing of multiple sites.

Moodle: This course management system can be used by individual teachers but also handles the needs of institutions with thousands of students. (For more about Moodle, see OpenOffice includes programs for word processing, database management, spreadsheets, drawing, and presentations. The files are compatible with most commercial programs.

Susan Brooks-Young is an educational consultant and writer.