Why Aren’t More Schools Using Free, Open Tools?

| June 9, 2014 | 63 Comments
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The promise of using technology in school technology has been to give students more control over their learning, while helping teachers provide tailored instruction to individual student needs. “Personalized learning” has been the common rhetoric driving most one-to-one device initiatives.

The stated goal is to make learning more of an individual experience, but many schools have chosen to implement technology programs in fairly regimented ways — for lots of different reasons. Many schools want all students to have the same kind of device, with the same apps pre-downloaded. Students often have little choice over which tools they can use on their devices. Even for online research, many schools filter out useful websites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, making it harder and more restrictive.

Schools have many reasons for wanting to systematize the technology in schools: to ensure equity for all students, the ability of IT department to support the devices, and to comply with federal laws. Most schools are working with limited technology budgets and IT directors are trying to decide how to get the most out of those limited dollars. At the same time, they’re being bombarded by tech vendors, feeling pressure to keep up with new changes.

Though all these reasons make sense in context, this focus on controlling devices may also be undermining the goal of helping students to become independent learners. Are schools missing a key element of the technology revolution in schools, a moment for real change, by locking down computing systems and by default ensuring students remain tech-users, not creators?

A PIRATE ISLAND DISTRICT

A district in Pennsylvania is flying in the face of the trend towards closed systems, instead choosing open source devices and software whenever possible. “We sometimes feel like a pirate island because this is unusual,” said Charlie Reisinger, technology director for Penn Manor School District in Pennsylvania.

The district recently gave all 1,700 high school students laptops running Ubuntu operating systems, an easy-to-use version of the open source product Linux. Reisinger estimates that going with an open-source operating system has saved the district $360,000 in just the first year of the program and his dedication to Linux machines has saved closer to $750,000 over the ten years he’s been with the district.

“The difference is with a device such as this, it’s unlocked and kids have administrative level accounts on their laptops,” Reisinger said. “So where our formal instruction ends, their new learning can begin because they have control over the device.” Students can download and load anything they want — and Reisinger even encourages them to do so. He’s not worried about them breaking the system because of its flexibility and wants them to learn from mistakes, if they do.

Reisinger is baffled by the behavior of districts like Los Angeles, which rolled out a one-to-one iPad program and then revoked student privileges when kids figured out how to navigate around district filters. “On the one hand we’re handing kids amazing learning devices, perhaps one of the most amazing inventions of the past 100 years, but yet we’re saying don’t learn about it, we don’t want you to understand how it works,” Reisinger said.

Treating devices that way makes students and teachers dependent on programmers for their needs, rather than letting them learn what’s under the hood. Penn Manor teachers assign work on devices to help kids meet learning standards just like teachers everywhere else, but they also have more options to let the kids explore safely.

“While we have the ‘must do’ layer, there’s also that little bit of subversion here, giving kids that little bit of creativity and maybe a ray of hope,” Reisinger said. “I want them to learn that learning is not all about what someone else preordains for you. It’s OK to tinker and play with things.” Penn Manor is as beholden to performing well on state tests as any other school district and its teachers make sure to cover curriculum, even using a few third party software programs to provide remedial help.

But Reisinger says in addition to the advantage students have by just having access to their own laptops, students are becoming curious about the world of computing. “We’re seeing these little sprouts of discovery and problem solving that they never would have been about to do if we’d given them a locked down device,” Reisinger said.

STUDENTS DESIGN CLASSROOM SOLUTIONS

When Penn Manor was rolling out its one-to-one high school laptop program in January, a core group of students who had already showed an interest in computer science played an integral role. A few juniors and seniors who had been interning with the IT department over the summers helped configure laptops and served as support to their peers on hardware issues. They essentially became part of the IT team.

“What we did a little differently is we structured the help desk into an actual course, so they could do this type of work,” Reisinger said. Schools often have students staff this kind of help desk before or after school, but Reisinger felt that making it a class would legitimize the effort and make the students a part of his team. Students are even designing programming solutions to problems that arise in class.

Teachers were complaining that they wanted a simple way to share files and links within the classroom, like a private Twitter app. Rather than having IT professionals respond to the request, Reisinger’s students programmed a solution that they call Paper Plane. ”Those kids have code up on GitHub [a site for open-source code] right now that they’re sharing out,” Reisinger said. Students also designed the help ticketing software that their peers use to request IT support.

Reisinger is aware that his computer science interns don’t represent the whole student body and that not every student is taking advantage of their open devices to become programmers. But a few are. “Every district has talent like that,” he said. The systems just have to support them to let those talents shine.

IS OPEN MORE DIFFICULT TO SUPPORT?

A lot of people are scared away from open-source software or operating systems like Linux because of the belief that they are harder for teachers and students to use, and are more challenging to support. Reisinger hasn’t found that to be true for his district. “If you look at the learning opportunities in the free and open source community there is so much out there and the community is incredibly friendly,” he said. He gave students and teachers a 10-minute tutorial to their Ubuntu devices and that was all they needed.

Reisinger thinks a bigger reason people don’t go open-source is that the devices and software aren’t as shiny and exciting as iPads or Chromebooks. “Schools are sometimes so afraid to try things that are outside the box because they’ll be met with fierce criticism,” Reisinger said. “It’s tough to follow a path that hasn’t’ been well trodden.”

Aside from the cost savings Penn Manor has found by using open-source software whenever possible the district also owns all its student data, so recent concerns regarding third party providers and privacy are less of an issue. “We have control of our destiny this way,” Reisinger said.

Penn Manor uses open-source solutions like Moodle and WordPress, companies that have built their businesses on providing support rather than on tracking data. The district is also able to customize the software, a service many schools complain they can’t get from third party providers. “If we need to make tweaks to it, we own it, it lives on our servers and we can make changes we need,” Reisinger said.

It’s also very expensive to change providers once a school has chosen one because all a school’s data is in that system and it can’t be easily removed and transferred. That puts districts in the difficult position of being married to the first vendor they choose.

WHY DON’T MORE DISTRICTS GO OPEN?

There could be a lot of reasons more districts aren’t following the Penn Manor path. In many cases districts haven’t even heard of the open-source options available. In others, there’s a perception that getting something for free inherently means it will be a worse product.

In other places, giving students the most expensive, shiniest device might be a point of pride. “We wanted our students to have the best of the best,” said Dr. Darryl Adams, Superintendent of Coachella Valley Unified School District. This is a very poor district. Every child gets free and reduced priced lunch and yet voters passed a $42 million bond in 2012 to provide technology to schools. In the eyes of this district’s students, Apple products are the best.

“They’re very proud,” Adams said. “There are two other districts in the valley that are more affluent, but they don’t have what our kids have.” The district also chose iPads because it liked Apple’s iLife products and wanted teachers to have access to the app store with its many education resources. “We felt like the benefits outweighed the cost,” Adams said. “We wanted something more systematic.”

Hillview Middle School in the much more affluent Menlo Park School District had similar reasons for choosing iPads. “Currently, and things are changing, the iPad education app store is far more advanced, mature, bugless and ubiquitous than the others,” said Eric Burmeister, principal of Hillview Middle School. At his school all app downloads have to be approved and initiated by the IT department, so all the devices have the same resources on them. The central system knows immediately if a student has tampered with any of the internet filter settings or tried to download something.

Burmeister said he chose tablets instead of laptops because he felt the touch screen was intuitive to students and the devices could do just as much as laptops in terms of video editing and other creation tools.

Yet another district, Oakland Unified, chose Chromebooks, deciding that the most important resource for students is the internet and the many programs and applications found there. Relying on the internet allows schools to make individual decisions about when and where to spend money on other online tools.

“Don’t pay for anything until you’ve gone to one end of the internet and back and decided that it either doesn’t exist for free or it doesn’t exist in the way you really need it to in terms of functionality and support,” said Killian Betlach, principal of Elmhurst Community Prep, a Title I school. “There is so much out there.” He’s confident with a strong internet connection his teachers can do a lot to support their student’s learning.

Reisinger understands concerns of other districts, but can’t help thinking they are overlooking powerful, low cost tools in the open community. “There’s so much emphasis on the new and shiny,” he said. “And in some ways we’re going back to the start, letting kids work on computing and programming, it’s not that sexy.” For him, the big differentiators is the freedom to explore and build meaningful products without being cut off from the underlying code.

“If this program is truly for and about our kids then why would we not want to put them in the drivers seat and make them the engineers?” Reisinger said.

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  • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

    “Open source” generally refers to software code, while “open educational resources” generally refers to instructional content. Yet it’s fascinating that schools seem slow to adopt the former, while the latter is definitely hot. Both are free. Perhaps it’s because open source code requires even more tech knowledge to assemble and maintain. The latter, well, can just be searched, downloaded and used, so there’s less of a barrier to adoption (see this earlier MindShift post, http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2012/05/how-open-education-is-changing-the-texture-of-content/ ).

    • Chuck Ditzler

      Thank you, Frank, for the link to your MindShift post from 2012. I don’t recall reading this. I use a great deal of free online materials in my sociology and criminology classes, such as public radio stories, PBS documentaries, and government reports, as alternatives or supplements to textbooks and to incorporate in lectures. One reason for more attention given to open educational resources is that individual teachers might be more motivated to save student costs. And many teachers probably enjoy assembling these resources, even if it can be time-consuming. I love the creativity of exploring for new materials and the satisfaction that my students are saving money while learning from a variety of sources.

  • John storhm

    What I did not see in this article was any discussion about how an open source word processor improves the learning process when compared with Word. Do students learn open source applications faster, can they solve their problems (like how do I add a table or a chart) faster, do open source word processors tie into more devices or services then does a commercial app like Word. We all understand that open source is cheaper but from an educational perspective – learning as well as teaching – cost is not the #1 priority. If Charlie Reisinger could make the case that open source improves the entire learning process then I think it would be a case worth considering.

    • Katrina Schwartz

      Penn Manor uses WordPress because it is committed to open source software as a district. Reisinger said the software gives students and teachers the same functionality as Word and is compatible with the other systems they use. In this case, I don’t think the IT department’s choice of WordPress is specifically about helping a student learn a word processing skill faster. Reisinger used it as an example of an open source software that works as well or better than Word, is free, and allows for lots of flexibility. And, using WordPress in conjunction with the open source operating system gives students more flexibility to work with the underlying code running the software.

      • eduleadership

        WordPress is a blogging platform, not a word processor. There are open-source (and even cross-platform) office suites like OpenOffice.org, but WordPress isn’t the same thing.

        WordPress is PHP/MySQL based, and while it supports common standards for blogging tools, like RSS and XML-RPC, there is not a meaningful way in which it’s “compatible” with school district systems.
        To the larger point, WordPress isn’t really an alternative to mainstream commercial blogging software. WordPress IS the mainstream solution, and has been for years. Yes, it’s free and open source, but in a market that has never been dominated by serious commercial players. Even the preferred platform for commercial sites, Drupal, is open source.

      • JC

        And how is WordPress preparing your students to have the basic productivity applications skills 80% of the job market uses? WordPress… not even a word processor and what about core applications like spreadsheets and presentation software?

    • Matt Early

      We are currently implementing Google Docs as our primary office suite solution. We live in a poor county where a PC is a luxury for our students much less the additional cost of MS solutions on their home PC. As internet connection becomes more prevalent in our community via 4G we find that students are able to more easily traverse the instructional experience from school to home more easily.

      • JC

        Google Docs is great for quick work when necessary. Requires and always on connection. Feature set does not meet market standards for productivity application skills. GD feature set has not substantially changed in 4 years.

  • Tech Supporter

    I admire Charlie’s passion for open source but what happens when he retires or find another opportunity? Will his district be able to find someone with the skills to continue to develop and maintain an open source infrastructure? He mentions the expense of switching providers but he runs the same risk if the person behind the open source software he’s utilizing loses interest or decides to concentrate on something new. I think districts must find a balance of the two. Putting all your eggs in one basket even if savings dollars might not be the right answer every time. It will cost that district a lot more dollars to switch back to main stream products in the event they can’t find someone with the same talent or passion that Charlie has. We must applaud his efforts in giving the kids an opportunity to learn while saving his district a significant amount of money. Lets just hope that his passion for open source doesn’t blind him when making decisions that can impact the district in the long run. I’m not saying that what he’s doing is wrong, as it seems to be working perfectly for this district. It just might not be the answer for all districts.

    • Urko Masse

      Not all open source projects have a single person behind them. For the most popular ones, you’ll find it’s the opposite.
      The same argument could be used to argue against commercial products backed by a single company. Quite a few of the darling startups in edtech have gone belly up, leaving their users and customers with no options and their data locked down. A far worse place to be in.

      • Guest

        Great point indeed.

    • eduleadership

      Great point, and a reason to take this issue on a case-by-case basis. I wouldn’t run a Mac server, and I wouldn’t run a Linux desktop, because neither has the critical mass to be worth the hassle and easy to support.

  • eduleadership

    I think it’s important to answer the question in this article’s title. There are good reasons most districts don’t choose Linux and other open-source software for many of their needs.

    Linux makes sense for servers, but for teacher and student machines, the drawbacks don’t seem to be offset by the savings. For example:

    Few computer scientists—to say nothing of k-12 end users—enjoy tinkering with their desktop operating system. This doesn’t ring true as a benefit.

    Support costs for open-source software are often high—the $750,000 Mr. Reisinger has “saved” in 10 years of using Linux has likely covered his salary, and little else. Having to train people on an atypical desktop operating system is a significant—and apparently unaccounted for—expense.

    The idea that 10 minutes of training was all that teachers needed is laughable. Let me propose an alternative explanation: teachers did not ask for any additional training, because they realized that Linux-based computers could do virtually nothing that they were interested in doing.

    This is the real reason hardly any school districts run Linux on the desktop: the near-complete lack of available educational software. There is simply no market for it, and thus there are no developers, and thus there is no software, and thus no educator wants to use Ubuntu. Sure, it’s a chicken-and-egg problem, but a real one.

    What do the educators from Mr. Reisinger’s district have to say about having to use Ubuntu? Not much, I’ll venture.

    That’s not to say that Linux and other open-source software has no place in school districts; on the contrary, it’s useful for many specific purposes, like blogging with WordPress.

    But those purposes are not enhanced when districts deny teachers and students access to powerful—and increasingly indispensable—tools, simply because they aren’t open-source.

    I appreciate the points about ensuring that student devices are not overly locked down, but comparing device restrictions to open-source software is apples and oranges, as well as a false dichotomy.

    Devices running proprietary commercial software do not have to be locked down, and open-source software is not inherently less restrictive, especially if students do not have the tools they need to meaningfully use it.

    • Urko Masse

      Several of your statements make very clear that you haven’t tried a Linux desktop distribution in a long time. The latest Ubuntu does not require the user to do any tweaking to get work done.

      And to say that an Ubuntu-based laptop will do nothing that teachers would be interested in doing is simply ridiculous:
      Students have amazing creative tools such as Blender, Inkscape, LMMS, Ardour, OpenShot, KDEnlive, and more… And let’s not forget: full Minecraft.

      Besides this, you forget one little detail: Google Chrome runs fantastically well on Ubuntu or many other Linux systems. Which means that all educational options that are available to Chromebooks are available to Charlie Reisinger’s students as well, if you find any functionality gap.

      And sure, we could unlock a Windows laptop for our students, but it leads to a disaster in maintenance, with malware bringing even the fastest laptop to a crawl. I know, because I have supported a 1:1 program like that.

      Give Ubuntu a try. You won’t regret it.

      • eduleadership

        Good point about the comparison to Chrome OS. I can see a good case for, as policy, encouraging cloud-based software.

        I didn’t mean tweaking the OS is necessary – just taking issue with the article’s suggestion that the possibility is a meaningful benefit for students.

        I think the fact that no one has ever heard of any of those apps (except Minecraft) kind of proves the point. It’s hard enough to get teachers to use any technology, much less open-source alternatives that are more obscure.

        It’s about supporting learning, not providing defensible alternatives to what people want.

        • Urko Masse

          And here I was, thinking that we are supposed to support learning transferable skills vs. teaching to the tool ;)

          A non-linear video editor is a non-linear video editor. A word processor is a word processor. And the thousands of users of Blender, Inkscape, Ardour, OpenShot beg to differ about “nobody has heard of”. Maybe you haven’t heard of them because you refuse to explore desktop Linux?

          Supporting learning is also about finding sustainable ways to run 1:1 projects. When it comes down to having 1700 students with a device vs. having 400, do you want to be the one going to those 1200 students and telling them that their learning is less important than the learning of the lucky 400?

          Please don’t take this personally. It just bothers me that your line of thinking encourages lack of change, and vendor lock-in. It’s “let’s do what everyone else is doing” what keeps us enslaved to the whims of the large IT companies and their marketing departments. We owe students more than that.

          • eduleadership

            Good point. I like this approach if it’s explicitly a netbook strategy, as a ChromeBook alternative. That does seem like it would save money and make a lot of things easier. And I certainly agree that reaching a one to one ratio is a tremendous success.

            I just don’t like the article’s overly rosy perspective on how Ubuntu is working out for teachers. Nothing personal, but in my experience, when the IT guy is happy, chances are that everyone else isn’t, and it’s strange not to have any teachers’ perspectives reported here.

            Linux boxes may be a fine alternative to ChromeBooks, but that’s not the same as saying that open source is inherently better, and everyone should just like it because there are plenty of apps that can do the things they want.

            It seems to me that open source, just like brand allegiance, should not be treated as an orthodoxy. Use open-source software when it makes sense, but don’t force people to tolerate an inferior solution just because that’s all you support.

          • Matt Early

            In my experience desktop roll-out is much more streamlined on Microsoft than Linux. I don’t know how many K12 teachers Urko has tried to teach desktop navigation to, but it is a challenge to explain how to navigate a directory structure to find where they just downloaded an email attachment to five seconds ago on the same operating system they have on their home computer and are familiar with. I can give you accurate costs on professional development sessions to train staff on operating systems that they already know.

            But what still strikes me is the lack of conversation of why we would let students or staff on our network with administrative rights to the local machine. Do we assume that all staff and students are so benevolent that their classwork or job expectations are the only use of their computers? Excuse my scoff, but I could write an epistle on angry ex-spouses and enterprising students that have used classroom computers to create havoc on “locked down” systems with restricted Internet access. And guess who was ultimately liable? It wasn’t the ones violating school policy. It was the school system, because it was the school’s computer system that made it possible for the crimes to be committed (that and the lawyers tend to go after the entity with the most money). In turn we were forced to create stricter policies and employ deeply extensive logging.

            In my decades of K12 tech experience I have come to the conclusion that you cannot trust the majority of the enterprise’s culture to make reasonable decisions concerning other’s property and reputations in some instances, and the cost of responsibility to the division for the school culture’s malevolence is greater than any cost of OS deployment or support.

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  • LeRoy Cressy

    I find it amazing that the High School Students used Linux to create an app that is available all around the world. It has been posted on GitHub for all of the world to download, and add to. This is training students to be real engineers and to become a true benefit to society.

    When I first programed I used Fortran IV G in 1969, (Which mostly I have forgotten) and Dartmoth Basic which is basiclly still in use. This school system has shown the students that they have the ability to create real programs while still in High school before they even attend college.

    These students are learning that they have a choice in the world and not just stick with what everyone is using. They can compile their own kernel and actually see how a computer works. They have the ability with open source to look at the source code of Open Office or Libre Office and see how an office suite operates not just be satisfied with what is provided by Microsoft. These students are learning real skills that can be used. They are learning tech support, administration, and etc without the fear of being attacked by a virus or worm.

    • eduleadership

      That is pretty great! I’ll add—because this gets at another issue that could be misconstrued from this article—that students can develop apps for proprietary commercial platforms, too. Open-source isn’t the only type of software open to developers—all OS platforms are, and many web apps have APIs. Apple’s Xcode environment includes powerful tools for app development and I bet most kids would be more excited about making an iPhone app than messing with their kernel.

      • Bill Fitzgerald

        This comment ignores many things, but especially issues related to socioeconomic status, and access. It also is pretty blind wrt how development happens, and the range of options available for people looking to create.

        When you tether yourself to a proprietary service, you tether your skillset (or learning) to that service. Why learn Xcode when you could learn html5 and javascript? HTML5 and js have universal applications beyond a device or a single company.

        And, the barrier to entry b/w open source and proprietary is worth considering. Many proprietary platforms are pay to play, where open source is freely available.

        The whole “no one wants to do kernel development” is a red herring as well. There’s an enormous space between kernel hacking and app development, and a range of skillsets required for software projects in that space.

        It’s pretty amazing that in 2014, we are still hearing the same FUD about open source that we heard in 2004. One would think that the near universal of open source tools that power collaboration – from git to php to apache to go to ruby to python to mysql to mongo to [the list goes on] would have put this to rest.

        Unfortunately, this is not the case. So it goes.

        • eduleadership

          Many good points, Bill! Just saying, the arguments presented in the article for running Linux aren’t the ones I’d make. Everything you described is doable on a locked-down Windows or Mac machine.

          • Bill Fitzgerald

            RE: “Everything you described is doable on a locked-down Windows or Mac machine”

            Not accurate. Many dev tools on Macs require admin rights to install. I can’t speak to Windows machines in depth as my main use for them is primarily cross-browser testing, not any development work.

            But I switch back and forth b/w Linux and Macs (about 90%/10%) and I need to make liberal use of sudo/admin rights on both. Why throw artificial barriers between students and creation? It’s worth remembering that school networks exist to support *student learning* – our decisions about software, hardware, and use need to be informed by that.

          • eduleadership

            You can push out any dev tools you want or give kids admin access as on Linux machine. And you can do JS and HTML5 with a text editor. Again, not a reason to choose desktop Linux (though I hear 2014 is going to be THE year :)

          • max

            Haha, you are sooo Wrong! Not even close to Open Source>

  • Ryan Schrenk

    It’s apparent the schools and administrators in this article are not just throwing this stuff out there without a plan to the teachers or they wouldn’t be talking about “making their own tweaks” to it. That’s one of the critical items (and maybe the answer to the question in the title of this article) that needs to be discussed if open solutions are ever going to be more embraced in education. Along with use of open items, usually comes the need for help in use/integration by humans who can walk the line between tech and education. While us techies like to sit and figure stuff out, time to effective usage/application/integration needs to be reduced for most educators who are busy teaching all day and grading or prepping outside that time. It is often the common reply I hear that “it’s free, you should use it”. While it’s true that the software, OS and/or OER might be “free of monetary cost to use” (and for some that is enough), it’s not always the case. Sometimes it’s the additional (and often overlooked) costs associated with hardware to host or access it, professional (or sometimes adequate/timely) tech support/troubleshooting or lack of having someone to help bridge the gap from the tech to the classroom where folks can get into trouble. In order for many of the Open efforts to work in education, a shift in thinking has to happen both from within and from outside experts. They can’t just be seen as cost replacement for the “stuff” that educators formerly got trained on and used for that purpose. Also, thought needs to be put into a plan if they are to go much beyond the cutting edge users in an organization or system.

    • Matt Early

      This is an excellent point and what leads me to believe that the author has stumbled upon a “good idea” without any hands on experience to support his claims.

      His lack of budgetary evidence alarms me and leads me to assume that he wants to push a point for the sake of the point.

      But what alarms me even more is his assumption that all students are of a benevolent fellowship and instructors are so committed to the instructional experience of their students that they too are incapable of malevolence.

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  • grassyoung

    School using free open tool is vevy important for students.http://www.lippsilo.com/silo/farmsilo.html

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  • IT Admin

    And what stops students from installing and running metasploit or any other pen testing/security software and using it for malicious purposes?

    You can’t manage what you can’t control.

    So when a student performs a Man in the middle attack, steals another students password to… anything… then the questions from parents will be about why IT didn’t prevent students from hacking other students, and data privacy, etc.

    • IT Admin

      Just to clarify, I’m not necessarily against open source or free. I’m just against letting kids install whatever they want.

      • Matt Early

        An interesting question to ask is when students crack the “locked down” system and perform the illicit act of “anything” who is legally liable?

        The school system is ultimately liable.

    • Jim Jordan

      Password theft via man in the middle is only possible if the server/client connection is not secure. Giving admin access to a student on their computer is no less secure than having some adult in your parking lot using his laptop to explore your poorly secured network and services.

      • K12 School Admin

        This is a bogus claim. With over twenty years experience I could write an epistle discounting this comment

    • dcdingo

      and what stops them from doing so if all the other students are on ipads or other platforms? sure the article says some of them will detect tampering, but the skill levels you are talking about (and getting away with it) are present in *every* infrastructure.

    • 127wexfordroad

      What’s to stop any student on any OS from doing that?

  • http://www.dangerouslyirrelevant.org Scott McLeod

    I love the story here, particularly about the kids coding, but I’m with Justin (eduleadership) on this one. Linux and most other open source software (NOT open ed resources) just aren’t mainstream enough in education to ease the concerns of most educators. I realize that’s a chicken and egg statement but trying to get technology-uncertain teachers and administrators to adopt something that seems and feels strange to them is a steep uphill battle. They’re struggling to integrate into their work fairly ubiquitous tools like laptops or Google Apps and now someone comes to them promising that some software or platform or device they’ve never heard of will ‘work just as well’ as what they’re already fearful of? They’re understandably wary…

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  • Luis Garcia

    Governments do not use free software mostly because corruption. Deals buying commercial SW distribute money, free SW doesn’t… Then there is the other side of the spectrum. Microsoft hired the daughter of the Italian Minister of Public Administration, a month later The Italian Government assumed MS (proprietary) standards, without even a tender…

    • CarlSHess

      The problem with this analysis that many private schools aren’t any better when it comes to using open software.

    • Lauren Gordon

      They can’t just be seen as cost replacement for the “stuff” that educators formerly got trained on and used for that purpose. Also, thought needs to be put into a plan if they are to go much beyond the cutting edge users in an organization or system.

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  • Matt Early

    I think this article mistakenly premises that all students are law abiding, virtuous, and inherently motivated to learn. In a Utopian school system, I’m sure that the student population would be a brotherhood of a like-minded fellowship eager to help promote each other, and every system would have a fraternity of tech-savvy students ready to correct the innocent mistakes of over-achievers. In the real world however, there are malevolent students and staff members with the intent to damage property and reputation.

    It may have been more objective if the author included the legal and tech support costs to school systems with students and/or staff with administrative privileges and unrestricted Internet access, not to mentions the costs of practices they put in place to protect (especially elementary school students) from websites and predators lurking in cleverly disguised websites.

    Such dreams presented in this article are simply not realistic in rural schools with a personnel budget struggling to meet the demands of core subject assessment and “No Child Left Behind” requirements. I lived in a county that had public education denied to African-American students for nearly a decade during the civil rights era and hasn’t fully recovered yet. The budget focused on simply maintaining state accreditation in a population where the stakeholder’s trust in the national education system had been shattered. Something like instructing a student support desk staff would be too much of a pipe dream to include in even the most liberal five year technology plan.

    The county I currently live in has a tech staff of three support technicians responsible for managing all staff and four schools. It would not be able to support a network without a hands free network management system. Political corruptness, “pushy” vendors, and other undermining factors of that sort simply do not exist. We easily ignore vendors because there are no funds to entertain them. Everything we do is based on cost. Our operating system (server and workstation) is one that can be managed by a system which support cost makes up for the OS cost.

    Between the article’s lack of evidence supporting cost factors and the assumption that every staff member and student is a grand benevolent autonomous fellowship, I question if the author’s wisdom on the subject is due to experience in the field.

  • Aaron Birenboim

    The main barrier to adoption of Open Source is the lack of marketing. Nobody is being paid to promote LibreOffice or Ubuntu to school administrators, so they do not even investigate the possibilities. Proprietary system vendors offer special deals so they can use the schools as a channel to market their products to the next generation of users. I believe that this is an inappropriate use of public resources to advance selected commercial enterprises.

  • Matt Early

    I think this article mistakenly premises that all students are law abiding, virtuous, and inherently motivated to learn. In a Utopian school system, I’m sure that the student population would be a brotherhood of a like-minded fellowship eager to help promote each other, and every system would have a fraternity of tech-savvy students ready to correct the innocent mistakes of over-achievers. In the real world however, there are malevolent students and staff members with the intent to damage property and reputation.

    It may have been more objective if the author included the legal and tech support costs to school systems with students and/or staff with administrative privileges and unrestricted Internet access, not to mentions the costs of practices they put in place to protect (especially elementary school students) from websites and predators lurking in cleverly disguised websites.

    Such dreams presented in this article are simply not realistic in rural schools with a personnel budget struggling to meet the demands of core subject assessment and “No Child Left Behind” requirements. I lived in a county that had public education denied to African-American students for nearly a decade during the civil rights era and hasn’t fully recovered yet. The budget focused on simply maintaining state accreditation in a population where the stakeholder’s trust in the national education system had been shattered. Something like instructing a student support desk staff would be too much of a pipe dream to include in even the most liberal five year technology plan.

    The county I currently live in has a tech staff of three support technicians responsible for managing all staff and four schools. It would not be able to support a network without a hands free network management system. Political corruptness, “pushy” vendors, and other undermining factors of that sort simply do not exist. We easily ignore vendors because there are no funds to entertain them. Everything we do is based on cost. Our operating system (server and workstation) is one that can be managed by a system which support cost makes up for the OS cost.

    Between the article’s lack of evidence supporting cost factors and the assumption that every staff member and student is a grand benevolent autonomous fellowship, I question if the author’s wisdom on the subject is due to experience in the field.

  • Shawn

    First, let me start by saying I have been using Linux since 2002. I first got started using Red Hat 7.2 and then moved to Fedora in 2003 when Red Hat started to focus on Enterprise clients. I’ve dabbled in every distro and package manager that exists today; I’ve created/forked 4 distributions from scratch using tools and the command line, so I know my way around and can fix most issues on most occasions without looking to Google as a reference. That being said, I’d rate my own skills in Linux as the thin line that separates intermediate and advanced – I know I still have a lot to learn! And that’s the way Linux is supposed to be and has been since its inception, a moving target that’s always advancing.

    I also work at a school district in PA and we’ve been implementing open source software and solutions since I got here last year. We are also looking at WordPress for our new website design on our webpage so we can retire our server that’s running Windows 2003, which will be running on an open source and reliable server (Debian, maybe CentOS, which is a Red Hat Enterprise Linux clone) and we’re looking at imaging all the laptops that were running Windows XP with a Linux distribution called Linux Mint simply for the fact they are lab computers and only need access to websites that run Flash and Java content.

    The main reasons why people don’t use open source and “free” software (in large organizations, or with an infrastructure of more than 500 computers) was indicated in the article and it’s stressed everywhere in IT – the lack of support for any of these alternatives. The main player in the field of support is Red Hat, but their main focus is on enterprise (servers, SaaS, etc.) and it’s up to the knowledge of the employees as far as support is concerned (or in a public forum where answers can come in minutes, or days, or not at all) if you’re using a Linux that’s not Red Hat, so that’s why companies and organizations are reluctant to switch.. it’s not so much about unreliable software, it’s that they want the warm fuzzies associated with support contracts and don’t have to rely on (sometimes) limited experience and knowledge through their own IT support staff.

    At my school district here in PA, we are running Mac OS X 10.7, 10.8, 10.9, Windows Server 2003, Server 2008, Windows Professional 2000 (soon to be retired/upgraded), Windows XP (looking at a Linux Mint or Windows 7 upgrade, depending on hardware), Windows Server 2003 (see Windows 2000), Windows Server 2008, Windows Server 2012, Windows 7 and we have just recently converted about 90% of our physical servers to virtual servers using VMWare ESXi 5.5. On top of that, I use Debian, CentOS, Ubuntu, Windows 7, Windows 8.1 and Mac OS X 10.9. Needless to say I understand the hurdles anyone faces while using a specific operating system and the pro’s and con’s that come along with it. Most people, as nature intended, get stuck in their ways and aren’t really adept to change, especially when it comes to a “daily driver” or tools they need and use every day to get their job done. When we switched from Windows XP/Office 2007 and upgraded to Windows 7/Office 2013, let’s just say that most people faced a big learning curve and had a ton of questions and this is just upgrading from one Microsoft product to another!

    Linux has come a long way in terms of usability and user-friendliness and having options is great. We evaluate and ask questions such as what do the computers need to do before we look at Linux as an alternative, so people need to know what tools and applications they use instead of telling the IT staff that they use the red icon on the desktop and give vague descriptions of what the software does. Knowledgeable users are key to any IT success!

  • Safirah Chinwe

    I will definitely follow the progress of Penn Manor School District. I applaud the administration’s courage to be trailblazers in technology usage in public schools. From the research I gathered, the resistance to open software in public schools is in large part due to federal laws. The internet is a “beast”, and open software enables students to enter into “questionable portals”. I say that an engaging, project-based learning curriculum facilitated by educators who can actively monitor the students’ group work should minimize this dreaded apprehension of students travelling to the “dark side”.

    • eduleadership

      I don’t think there’s anything about federal laws that’s discouraging the use of open-source software. If anything, a bigger driver is the lack of salespeople.

      Ultimately, the vendor-ish language of “solutions” exists for a reason—districts are buying solutions to their problems, not pursuing dreams. The better companies get at selling those solutions, the more successful they’ll be.

      It’s up to educators to insist on what they need to go beyond “solutions” and get access to the tools they need to support their vision.

  • 127wexfordroad

    Sad when a school values shiney name brands over actually teaching kids how to use and create technology.

  • Sunitha

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  • umbrarchist

    If all of the students not in the school learn about the free tools then why do they need the school?

  • Sundara Rami Reddy

    Very Healthy discussion on Why are’t more schools using free other tools. Govt. s must support on this .basically politicians are most of the Nations are correpted so,they never focus on free sources and big corporates are influenced them by sponsoring them. so, naturally they buy from them even through same benefits society getting from almost free. example ubantu OS is free software ,but most govt buy windows OS.

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