Academic journal article T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education)

Opening a New Door: With the Potential for Cost Savings and a Growing Number of Educational Applications, Open Source Software Is Proving to Be an Effective Alternative for Schools Willing to Make the Switch

Academic journal article T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education)

Opening a New Door: With the Potential for Cost Savings and a Growing Number of Educational Applications, Open Source Software Is Proving to Be an Effective Alternative for Schools Willing to Make the Switch

Article excerpt

To Vista or not to Vista; that was the question looming large for Christel Powell, manager of information systems for School District 118 in Danville, IL. Microsoft's long-awaited operating system upgrade was coming, and Powell had to advise the school board about the district's computing platform strategy going forward. If the district stuck with Windows, the investment in hardware upgrades needed to support Microsoft's new, graphically seductive, resource-gobbling OS would stretch an already taut budget. On the other hand, the latest version of a leading Linux distribution would probably require few or no hardware upgrades. It would be, essentially, free, with minor or no intellectual property restrictions, and the commercial distributor would provide competitive support options.

It seemed like a no-brainer to Powell, whose business background made looking at the bottom line something of a reflex. But it still took years for the district to warm to the idea of shifting to an open source platform.

"In education, it's tough to get people to give up what they're used to and comfortable with," Powell says. "But cost is a huge factor. When there's no money to update and upgrade, you start looking for alternative solutions. Faced with the Vista decision and the prospect of upgrading to the next version of Microsoft Office, the board of education and superintendents finally said, 'OK, open source makes sense.'"

Danville is one of a growing number of K-12 districts that are taking the open source plunge, both to cope with tight budgets and to escape proprietary vendor lock-in and expensive upgrade cycles.

"I think we've reached a tipping point, or we're very close to one," says Steve Hargadon, founder of K12 Computers and project leader of the K-12 Open Technologies Leadership Initiative at the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN). "The people who are managing technology at the schools have a tough job, and they're under enormous pressure to provide computing with very little money. There are some very compelling financial reasons to adopt open technologies, and the link between what's being done in open source and education is growing stronger every year."

Budget concerns figured prominently in Danville's open source strategy. District 118 is part of one of the largest school district units in the state, with 11 schools and more than 700 teachers and staff serving 6,500 students in East Central Illinois. The district is now implementing Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED) version 10 on 1,600 desktop machines, and Powell says the district plans to order 600 more. Some of the existing equipment is five years old and would not have met the horsepower requirements to run the new Windows OS.

But it wasn't the potential cost savings alone that sold the district on open source. District 118 didn't even initiate its adoption plan with an operating system rollout, but with an implementation of OpenOffice, an open source alternative to Microsoft's ubiquitous Office suite.

"Everybody said, we've got to have Word, we've got to have Word!" Powell recalls. "We decided not to try to change anybody's mind about that. We just pushed OpenOffice to every desktop in the district. We never said a word, and people just started using it. For us, that application was the toe in the door."

Coming of Age

As the Danville example illustrates, this accelerating adoption rate is also being fueled, at least in part, by the arrival of a growing list of solid open source desktop applications for K-12 education, Hargadon says. "OpenOffice has matured to the point where you can actually use it as a replacement for Microsoft Office," he says, "and you're not going to have to worry that people are getting trained in an unfamiliar program. You also have specialty programs that are providing schools with capabilities they would not otherwise be able to afford. Moodle has probably done more for open source software (OSS) than any other program out there for schools. …

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