Open Source and ROI

from Technology & Learning

Open source has made significant leaps in recent years. What does it have to offer education?

The ROI Advantage

A switch to free open source software can minimize cost and allow funding to be diverted to equipment and other programs. For instance, the OpenOffice suite is an alternative to expensive basic application programs offered by major vendors. Many such programs on the market offer features seldom used in education but for which educators must pay. From an ROI standpoint, it makes sense to take the money earmarked for widespread licensing and apply it to a different area of need, such as consultant services.

A sample cost comparison might look something like this: If a desktop computer costs $1,300, certainly as much as $140 of that might be spent on software, if not more. The cost for Windows XP is $41 per machine; MS Office, $49; and antivirus software, $50. For a large urban district with perhaps 20,000 computers, this translates to $2.8 million, a savings the school board is bound to find impressive.

Consider all the services that have gone open source. Online discussion boards, like Moodle or phpBB, help educators facilitate online courses, enhance professional learning offerings, host book studies, or conduct online meetings.

Content management solutions enable users to share their work via the Web without having to get their Web page software up and going first. This is powerful because users who have little or no experience in Web design can share documents with each other. The cost of a commercial course management system could be as high as $280,000 per initial sale and 22 percent of that for annual licensing and support fees.

Additional examples of newly open source services include mail systems (for example, Xchange in lieu of MS Exchange), chat tools, survey tools, and now—with the just-released Curriki—learning management systems. The tools (a list is available at that educators need are quickly becoming free and open source.

While there are many more examples—both at the desktop computer level as well as the district level—consider, as well, the efficiency aspect. In the past, the model for implementing solutions for schools was as follows: (1) Get approval—which hinges on funding—for a technology project; (2) go through a bid process; (3) work with the vendor to customize the solution; and (4) hope that no budget cuts eliminate future funding. With an open source solution, you can immediately implement the solution after developing a plan and hire a consultant at a fraction of the total price of a commercial solution.

Although clearly a cost saver in the long term, it's important to look at the larger picture of open source. The Consortium for School Networking, a group that's done extensive studies on TCO for schools, suggests in "Taking TCO to the Classroom" that "districts should review open source software opportunities by application area, but with the understanding of support, training, and integration implications of adding yet another application or operating system."

Free vs. Fee-Based Digital Content Usage

Ninety-two percent of curriculum directors agree that free materials on the Internet will be widely used or used over the next five years.

It will be important to work with vendors on fixed upper limits for one-time purchases or per-student license fees and to take full advantage of free high-quality content.

Most districts will use both fee-based and free materials. One-time purchases are problematic for schools because there is no way to control the budget, so fee-based materials are usually ordered on a subscription basis.
—America's Digital Schools 2006

The Challenges

So, what challenges do educators need to overcome as they consider open source tools in their teaching, learning, and leadership environments?

Though counter to the whole notion of digital technology itself, fear of the unknown still ranks high among "digital immigrant" educators. Starting small is one way to address this obstacle. Mixing Windows XP or Mac OS X with free software is an option. Some districts, such as the Dallas ISD, chose to deploy teacher laptops with Windows XP and StarOffice basic application software. Instead of paying $40 per computer for a proprietary office suite, the district paid $25 (total, not per seat) for district-wide unlimited installations. The highly developed OpenOffice, which features a familiar interface, is a good first step.

The same solution addresses the lack of support staff most districts have. With more familiar Open Source applications—such as switching to the Apache Web server from Windows—open source troubleshooting from a support side becomes more commonplace. Also, by allowing your district staff to learn key tools—for example, the back end of blogging and online forums is PHP/MySQL—they can provide support as needed without being programming experts.

A dearth of time, money, and resources for getting staff up to speed is another very real concern for districts. Online tutorials can come to the rescue. One excellent resource containing 11 video clips about OpenOffice and information on how to get more can be found at NewsForge. An alternative is to hire an OpenOffice consultant like Solveig Haugland, author of an OpenOffice Training and Tips blog and book (find out more at Also, there are about 100 tutorials (Web and Flash) available at

A lack of standardization can also present a problem. Not all applications that run on Windows or Mac OS X will work on GNU/Linux. For example, Inspiration graphic organizer software does not work on GNU/Linux. However, you can use free, open source diagramming software like Dia (which also works on Windows). Another alternative is Cmap Tools.

Also key is getting buy-in from district decision makers who often least understand the technical issues of transitioning to open source. An effective approach to getting these administrators onboard is to demonstrate a long-term cost comparison between open source and proprietary applications—be sure to reference the CoSN report mentioned previously. Another angle is to point out the advantages of open source in helping bridge the digital divide by increasing access of important documents and applications to parents and homes via the collaborative tools.

Miguel Guhlin is a bilingual educator and technology specialist who writes a regular blog at