Magazine article Technology & Learning

Open Source and ROI: Open Source Has Made Significant Leaps in Recent Years. What Does It Have to Offer Education?

Magazine article Technology & Learning

Open Source and ROI: Open Source Has Made Significant Leaps in Recent Years. What Does It Have to Offer Education?

Article excerpt

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 Open0ffice 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."

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. …

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