Solving Problems with Open Source Solutions

"Each problem that I solved," wrote Rene Descartes, "became a rule which served afterwards to solve other problems."

Finding and adapting solutions to specific problems is an exciting job. This is particularly true in educational technology, since we have access to so many solutions that can be adapted for use in educational settings. While I have always appreciated the value of free, easily adaptable solutions, one of my team members, Greg Rodriguez, helped me to appreciate it even more on a district-wide scale. Imagine the power of Blackboard or WebCT at your fingertips, but at no cost. Imagine a content management system that enables district level staff — and campus, too — to share documents securely through passworded levels of access, as well as update them without knowing how to create Web pages. Imagine online help desks, frequently asked question (FAQ) repositories, and more — all management systems available to you and your district at no charge.

What motivated Greg had been exactly what spurs others seeking out open-source solutions — finding powerful solutions that can be readily implemented without expensive licensing. Solutions this straightforward are ones that you can set up in your district — just as we have done in our district. I am sure that once you begin to solve real life problems using open source solutions you will, like Rene Descartes, be able to solve future problems you may encounter.

Four open source solutions are presented in this article along with tips on where you can find others.

1) How do I realize the benefits which course management solutions like Blackboard offer, but without the cost?

When I worked as a professor of record for Houston Baptist University, I had the opportunity to use Blackboard. As a graduate student, I have also used Web CT. If you're not familiar with these systems by now, they are described as "discussion boards." Some might think of them as complex, Web-based electronic bulletin boards. Since many groups within school districts see the need for Web-based discussion boards, you might be tempted to invest in Blackboard or WebCT. Fortunately, other solutions exist. Among them, Moodle offers a powerful discussion board that is Web-based, hostable on your own server without recurring charges, and entirely free.

Greg set Moodle up for San Antonio ISD, and we promptly decided that "Moodle" was not descriptive enough a title. Instead, we chose to call it our Online Learning Environment or OLE for short. Currently, OLE is used to host the following discussion boards:

You can see these boards in action online at Instructional Services Online Learning Environment. Click on the graphic below to see a large image.

Within OLE (or Moodle), you can find all the typical discussion board features, including account management with multiple levels of access, easy posting of assignments, discussion items, polls, and document sharing. If you have ever used YahooGroups! Web-based interface, then you will see many, if not all, of the features available in Moodle. Setup of Moodle is straightforward and you can find specific information online at the site.

Moodle describes itself in the following way:

Moodle is a course management system (CMS) — a software package designed to help educators create quality online courses. Such e-learning systems are sometimes also called Learning Management Systems (LMS) or Virtual Learning Environments (VLE). One of the main advantages of Moodle over other systems is a strong grounding in social constructionist pedagogy.

Moodle is Open Source software, which means you are free to download it, use it, modify it and even distribute it (under the terms of the GNU General Public License). Moodle runs without modification on Unix, Linux, Windows, Mac OS X, Netware and any other system that supports PHP, including most webhost providers. Data is stored in a single database: MySQL and PostgreSQL are best supported, but it can also be used with Oracle, Access, Interbase, ODBC and others.

Setting up Moodle in San Antonio ISD has saved us the cost of investing in higher-priced course management systems such as Blackboard and WebCT. Why bother when such a powerful, yet free, solution exists? After first setting it up, Greg and I worried that we would find sufficient uses for such a powerful discussion board. It is obvious now that we worried in vain. There are many applications for discussion boards in PreK-12. As more people become aware that it is available, the more uses will arise. At least, that is what we in San Antonio have discovered.

2) How can I better manage document sharing via the Web?

It has been a goal for me to put everything we do out on our Web site. My fundamental desire has been to share — part of the writing and publishing bug, I suppose — our work with others. Sometimes, business types ask, "Why do you share so much of what you do with others at no charge?" The answer is not easily explained. But recall that among classroom teachers there is often a powerful motivation to share lessons and resources among our colleagues, an ethic not necessarily shared by "business types." Yet, it is something that teachers seem to understand. Sharing ideas and the forms those ideas take is a matter of survival.

That same ethic finds expression in sharing online tutorials and other documents via the Web site. Yet, the sheer management issues — including creation and posting of new documents, maintenance of old documents, organizing placement of these documents — can quickly become a full-time job in itself. How do you better manage that as a school district or organization? The solution is to use a "document management system." Of course, this might be better known as a content management solution , and there’s more information online at How to evaluate a content management system.

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. Furthermore, they have access to only their "section" of the content management solution but are unable to make changes to the work of others.

While there are many content management solutions available on the Internet, Greg's choice was Mambo Open Source. Although we are still adding documents to what we renamed as a "document management system," or DMS for short, we plan to unveil it in the Spring, 2005.

Some of the main uses I envision for it — as do my team — include the following:

  • Technology Literacy Institute : This contains a wide variety of MS Word, Publisher and Adobe PDF documents that are available as print tutorials for our school district. Managing all these documents involved placing them on Web pages, making them available for download and keeping track of what was the latest version. With the Document Management System, we're now able to keep track of all these online, eliminating the shuffle of electronic documents from local computers, network drives to the Web server. Now, everything resides in one place.
  • Electronic Announcements and Newsletters: These are available through the document management system.
  • Workshop Agendas and Materials : Since our primary goal is fostering professional learning, we value placing workshop agendas and materials online, and making those "linkable" from our Professional Development Planner (PDP). The document management system allows us to link directly from our online workshop registration and tracking system — a.k.a. PDP — to specific agendas.

3) How does one manage Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)?

One of the important lessons I have learned is that the more information you make available on the Web, the fewer phone calls you are likely to receive. This enables a small team of project coordinators — about six in the Office of Instructional Technology — to do the work of 14 to 16 people in managing a wide variety of initiatives. When I look back over the different ways that I've managed FAQs in the past — using Web pages with FAQs, Word documents, simple Web-enabled databases — and the way we now do it, I'm grateful that Greg discovered ODFAQ v2.1.0. It offers over 36 different categories — and you are not limited to that — and up to 200 questions per category.

Having an FAQ Repository or management system has been critical to the success of many an initiative. When I presented the FAQ Repository to fellow Directors in the Accountability and Technology Department, they were overwhelmingly supportive of expanding this FAQ management system from use by a single office (e.g. Instructional Technology) to multiple areas. You can interact with the FAQ Repository online at San Antonio ISD Frequently Asked Questions yourself, but you need an administrator login and password to add new FAQ categories, questions and responses. Of course, if you just want to submit a question, you can do that online. Management of the categories, questions and responses is easy, and it is also easy to customize the Web pages to reflect your distinctive logos and needs, as you can see from the initial Web page, of which a screenshot appears below:

and finally,

4) How do you collect survey data?

Over the years, I have been asked to collect information tracking: digital video distribution system usage; a technology assessment for paraprofessional staff; available technology assets; and more. Each time, the effort began as a survey. The hardest part about surveys is not collecting the data. Rather, it is designing the surveys and then analyzing the data. Although it would be too much to hope for to simplify both ends of the process — the design of the survey and data analysis — what if the latter could be made easier? A free, open source tool can help you do that. The free survey tool is known as Unit Command Climate Assessment and Survey System, or UCCASS.

In past years, I would have recommended the $700+ DragonWeb Surveys. Yet, paying that much money for survey software seems excessive. Instead, you can use UCCASS at no charge. On their Web site you can see Samplequestions. More exciting than that is what the results look like, as shown in the table above.

Implementing these Solutions

Implementing open-source solutions is cost-saving, but you will need to spend some up-front time. In implementing these solutions, Greg and I had to set up one of our servers as a PHP/MySQL server. While this is not as difficult as I thought earlier, it does involve a commitment to install PHP/MySQL on your Web server or other appropriate machine. You can find more information on how to setup PHP/MySQL online in free Web-based tutorials. Go to and enter “PHP/MySQL” and you’ll find many tutorials listed. To get started, you can download Windows Apache MySQL PHP (WAMP for short) or Macintosh Apache MySQL PHP (MAMP). Links to these are available by ‘Googling’ either “Windows Apache MySQL PHP” or “Macintosh Apache MySQL PHP”. Should you need help Email at the address below.


As you wonder whether the effort of implementing these solutions is worthwhile, remember that you may spend a lot of time and money to pay for open source solutions. Whether you work in a small or large district, have access to a $10,000 (or more) server, or a small desktop machine working as a server, these solutions can work for you. If you are interested in finding other solutions and have a few hours to spend, visit where you will find, as Greg and I have, many solutions to the problems you face. I hope that open source solutions will become a rule you can use to solve future problems.

Email:Miguel Guhlin;

Email:Greg Rodriguez;