Bringing open source to the education sector

Australian schools are subscribing to proprietary software - but the choice between proprietary and open source may have not been made on entirely equal ground, according to Kathryn Moyle, an Associate Professor who researches issues arising from integrating information and communication technologies into school education at the University of Canberra.

A self-proclaimed open source advocate for the education sector, Moyle has published a number of academic papers detailing the merits of open source from practical, pedagogical, sustainable, and political points of view.

Liz Tay speaks with Moyle, a former teacher who has also worked in the South Australian Department of Education and Children's Services, about the role of open source in the education sector, and how policy makers, teachers, students and parents might overcome what she calls the hegemony of proprietary software.

What sparked your interest in open source technologies?

My son. I was doing my PhD in between 1998 and 2002, and as part of the research that I was doing, I happened to come across the expected prices for the Microsoft licences for the school sector as a forward estimate, in the budget papers for the Victorian government. The amount of money surprised and shocked me.

I was talking to my son about it at the time, and he said, 'have you come across open source software?' and he kept pestering me about it. One thing led to another; I got interested, and actually included a section about open source software in my PhD thesis about digital technology policies in the school sector in Australia.

What role do you think open source technologies have in the education sector?

It has many roles. Basically, the backend of any IT infrastructure can run open source software; most schools that run a server off open source software can attest to the reliability of open source software at the backend.

But because I come at open source not from a technical point of view, but from an educator's point of view, I happen to think that when you're in school, you ought to learn how to use a range of software - we're not in the business in the school education sector of training people to use one piece of software.

Sure as eggs, the software that we train students to use in schools is not going to be the software that is either current or available to them once they leave school. For those students that don't have the money to be able to personally upgrade on a regular basis, proprietary software, I believe, is actually doing those students a disservice.

Should open source be introduced into schools as part of a broader range of software, or should it completely replace of proprietary software?

I'm not advocating a complete replacement, but I am advocating that it should be included into any teaching and learning that is about software. I think that proprietary software has a role. To suggest that we need to get rid of all proprietary software out of schools would be both politically impossible, and also unrealistic about what students are going to face.

I think there is a role for proprietary software, but I do think that we are doing our students a disservice if we don't expose them to learning about open source software; both in terms of its philosophical underpinnings and the communities of practice that sit behind the developing of open source software, but also from a straight user point of view that there are alternatives to proprietary software.

Should these alternatives be actively promoted at schools?

I'm not one that personally thinks that we need to promote open source software per se; I think that what we need to do is come at it from the point of view that there is a range of software out there, and understanding how it works and how it can be used is part of the challenge.

Obviously, open source software has a whole range of benefits that outweigh proprietary software in my mind, but as educators, we need to both be agnostic about the software we promote, and willing to teach the capabilities, benefits and risks of using open source software. Students will come to their own conclusions about which software they want to use for their own purposes.

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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.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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