Bringing open source to the education sector

Proprietary software could be harming students; open source to the rescue!

What are some issues that open source adoption pose to policy makers?

A number of pieces of software -- particularly the Microsoft licenses -- have a lock-in to the education sector. In the school sector, the market is huge in the sense that there are two million odd students in the school sector in Australia. If we're looking at the licencing that the government school sector have, they feel, both in reality and in practice, that they can't pull out of those license agreements because the fall out - politically, as well as from parents, teachers and students -- would be too much to justify the pull out.

I used to work in South Australia with people looking at whole-of-government licence agreements. While I was in South Australia, the Democrats introduced into parliament a bill that suggested that open source software should be the default software unless a case could be made for purchasing a proprietary piece of software.

As a result of that being introduced into parliament, Microsoft had a lobby organisation, and it wrote to every politician in South Australia suggesting that this was not the way to go, and the world as we know it would fall apart if this approach to open source software was taken.

We need to be aware that the big proprietary software organisations, aren't big for no reason; they are politically savvy, and they are operational if their markets look like they are going to be challenged. I think that that's a hurdle for educators, particularly policy makers and politicians.

What other hurdles do open source technologies face before servicing the education sector?

Sometimes, parents and students are their own worst enemy; they feel that they need to be prepared for the world of work, which they believe to be a proprietary world. So they operate on the basis that they need to learn a piece of software.

I don't know if you've seen Office 2007; the interface is so different to Office 2000 that people are going to go berserk when they try to use it. People believe that things stay still and what they learn in school is going to hold them in stead when they go into the workforce -- which might be two, three, four years hence, or might be ten years hence if they go to university.

Often people will write into teaching documents that they have to learn a particular piece of software. We don't do that in home economics; we don't say you have to learn how to bake a cake with a particular brand of milk. What we're interested in is whether a student can bake a cake, or run a hundred metres, or whatever it is. We actually want to focus on what it is we want someone to learn -- to use a database, or to do a presentation - not PowerPoint, or Access, which are simply brand names.

What's currently being done to enable the adoption of open source in schools?

I wouldn't suggest that there is any overall grand strategy, but I think over time, the reality of open source software is eventually going to hit government school education -- if for no other reason, because of the cost.

People like me plug away, and there are a few champions around Australia who are keen to promote open source software in the education sector, but before any substantial changes are going to occur, there has to be leadership taken by policy makers, particularly within government departments, because they have the critical mass as well as the licence agreements that really need to be looked at carefully.

Unfortunately without having agencies that have control to bring about those changes, I'm afraid we're going to be tinkering around the edges a bit for the foreseeable future. That being said, it took one hundred years to get a national railway system in Australia, so getting open source software into schools might take us a little while as well.

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More about BillMicrosoftUniversity of CanberraUniversity of Canberra

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