The Case for Open Source

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

In these days of tightened belts, accelerated global competition, and a growing need to equip both educators and students with the skills they need to innovate, more and more districts are exploring the open source option. Essentially, open source software differs from commercially developed, or closed source, software in that the application's source code is publicly distributed and available for modification by users. Open source relies to a great extent on the free software movement. In this context, the term free refers not to cost but to the freedom users have to modify the source code.

Not a new concept, open source has been available since the early '90s with the development of the GNU/ Linux operating system and a whole suite of accompanying software applications. (See "Resources for Schools,"). But it was mostly programmers, software developers, and similar techie types who recognized this as a boon. Open source has continued to evolve, however, and in the past three years the development of a graphical user interface has made it increasingly accessible and viable for end users without special training.

The Peer Contribution Model

Education, in particular, seems especially well positioned to benefit from today's open source alternatives. Web 2.0 contributory applications such as Wikipedia and Flickr are now gaining traction in the more progressive schools as powerful tools for learning. This recognition has laid the groundwork for a broader understanding of the benefits of the kinds of collaborative communication tools offered via open source. In fact, a central vision of the K-12 advocacy group Free Open Source Software is that school systems be environments that promote authorship and collaboration.

From the professional development angle, much stands to be gained. Educators might equate the open source development of software to the open source development of curriculum. Instead of having a group of educator-specialists developing curriculum for the whole district, the curriculum is developed by teachers in the trenches. This approach has a number of benefits, but at its heart requires recognizing the value of peer contributions.

In a proprietary model, teachers who wanted to share a lesson with their grade-level teams would have to buy that lesson before using it. Even if they licensed the lesson, they still would not have the right to modify it for specific purposes. In an open source model, communities of teachers (a campus) could work together to change lessons and then share their lesson plans with colleagues.

This model is being pioneered by the Georgia Public Library Systems, which chose to eschew proprietary automation systems in favor of a free open source system (the Library Journal shares the story of Evergreen at This has empowered librarians to work together to build or help others construct a product that directly meets their needs rather than relying on commercial vendors.

The free nature of open source also encourages the development of 21st century skills for students. Innovation is fostered when students have legal "hacking" privileges that allow them to manipulate, customize, and improve Net-based applications. As with educators, they are learning to work collaboratively within a global community toward the end of improving a product for the good of all.

Beyond that, the skills students develop in using open source applications at school will free them of a dependency on often expensive commercial software programs. For instance, the professional-level image editing tools that constitute a heavy investment for schools are often not within the financial reach of students on their own. Knowing how to use a comparable open source alternative, such as the GNU Image Manipulation Program, will go a long way toward keeping kids from pirating programs and violating proprietary licensing agreements.

Open source solutions such as GIMP, a GNU image manipulation program, can discourage students from pirating software.

Among the additional advantages of open source is its ability to facilitate school-community relations. Students, parents, teachers, and administrators are able to exchange electronic documents—such as blogs, wikis, and library automation systems— that encourage them to participate in the decision-making process.

The ROI Advantage

A switch to free open source software also minimizes cost and allows funding to be diverted to equipment and other programs. For instance, the OpenOffice suite is an alternative to expensive basic application programs (word processing, spreadsheet, and so on) 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—previously proprietary—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 (such as this one: 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 (go to for more information).

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 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."

The Challenges

In spite of the benefits, school districts and universities may still balk at abandoning the old ways of doing things. So, what challenges do educators need to overcome as they consider open source tools in their teaching, learning, and leadership environments?

Some popular software tools won't runon GNU/Linux. However, users can find many alternatives, such as CMap concept-mapping software.

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 SD, 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 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. For practical tips on getting started, see "Eight Steps to a Smooth Transition."

Transforming Education

"Do I dare...disturb the universe?" asked poet T.S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock. MIT's OpenCourseWare Project responds, "Our answer is yes...we must create open knowledge systems as the new framework for teaching and learning...we see [OCW] as opening a new door to the powerful, democratizing, and transforming power of education."MIT plans to make the primary materials for nearly all of 2,000 of its courses available on the Web. These will be available for use by anyone, anywhere. What if schools in your state did that with their curriculum scope and sequence, lessons and activities? What if the nation did?

The power of openness holds tremendous potential, and not just in the software arena. A wave of change is headed for schools. It involves a different way of valuing individual contributions by students, classroom teachers, and administrators. Experts say each of us is an expert on a particular topic. Open source invites us all to find that topic and share. For educators, it is a matter of opening the door to a worldwide community of expert software.

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

Eight Steps to a Smooth Transition

1.Convene a committee representative of teachers, administrators, and office staff and share the problem with them.

2.The problem: We're spending a lot of money on software licenses. Let's brainstorm some solutions that lower that total cost. Get buy-in on beginning with a familiar basic application open source tool, such as OpenOffice, which can be easily shared and includes a clipart library.

3.Prioritize the different solutions. Thoroughly evaluate each solution in a test situation so that the committee is aware of why something works or doesn't. Have the members keep a blog or journal of what they experiencing.

4.Survey all stakeholders. Focus on function and need rather than product. This will give you the data you need to make decisions on the best solutions.

5.Maintain regular communication. Via newsletters and aWeb page, disseminate committee findings and keep stakeholders abreast over time of funds saved and how they've been redirected to worthy projects that directly impact students, teachers, and community.

6.Immediately create quick reference cards for the open source solutions you choose. Also train your help desk. You can turn to OpenOffice textbooks as well as Web site resources.

7.Make the transition across several campuses, setting up training and offering to do on-site demonstrations for teachers. Also setup a FAQ page online to help train everyone.

8.When you announce the decision, make CDs of the software available for people who do not have a high-speed Internet connection at home, including parents of district students. Offer to give those away at the cost of the media/duplication.


Resources for Schools

CMap Tools (concept-mapping software)

GAIM (instant messenging client)

Mozilla Firefox (Web browser)

Mozilla Thunderbird (e-mail program)

OpenOffice Suite

RealPlayer (media player)

Scribus (desktop publishing tool)

For more programs and resources,
go to