March 2011

What keeps FOSS from being well-accepted in schools?

I think John Spencer may have the big reason pegged.

Read his whole blog post at ComputerWorld.

…teachers generally do not love their IT.

Their attitude (speaking from long experience) is split into two. The first thread is that they see computers and associated equipment merely as tools to get a task done. In this context familiarity and reliability trump all other requirements.

The second thread is best described as ‘careerist’ or approval-status related.

A display of ICT skills is rated according to its approval index. Thus a slick MS PowerPoint presentation projected from an svelte i-Pad in front of Ofsted or parents accrues credit whereas a quick RAM upgrade or mastery of Blender would not.

His conclusion: “Start selling to women.”

Are “It’s cool.” and “You can hack the code.” the wrong recommendations?

What do you think?

(a response to the post by Tony Bates –

Quality matters. Quality takes effort. Quality takes time.

All of these are true, but the third, time, is tricky. Quality takes time because it involves the mistakes of practice. We don’t know what will work until we see it work. It also helps a lot to see something not work. Quality comes from refining a first effort. Practice is effective ONLY when it involes making instructive mistakes along the way. A good work may be the result of many stumbling iterations. OER has a unique avenue for that stumbling practice.

The tone of the post by Tony Bates and the reply by Keith Hampson (in the comments) provide some criticism, but seem to suggest that OER is only good in a finished form, one which has been quietly run through a gauntlet of peer review in the shadows, as it were. However, one of the main benefits of OER materials is the workflow of the community. A rough cut OER product may hold the germ of a wonderful piece of work. By putting it in a visible, shared place, an OER can be remixed. After several such remix steps, the result may please even the most harsh critics. What results may be the OER product you seek and would praise. The sequence is more in the open, though, and therefore a little more “messy” than a typical educational “product.”

I am not suggesting that a respected institution lend its name to shoddy work. I am proposing that the OER “movement” is still young. It absolutely NEEDS masses of contributors. OER isn’t business as usual with a few experts delivering the authorized “word” to the rest of us.

The interactive nature of the Internet, with its open borders, does not rely on the old models of scarce knowledge. New contributors can join the effort at any time. Some of their work may be weak at the beginning, but the persistent contributors will refuse to be silenced. They will keep at it. They will get feedback. They will generate new OER materials which supplant the product of the traditional educational power structure.

Third world, indeed. Who says expertise is exclusively a first world holding? Individual learning has never required anyone to be a silent sponge in the presence of academic giants. The printing press spread the world’s expertise to the masses (gradually), breaking the grip of the old power structure. The Internet is providing a path for even broader spread. OER simply prevents the power hungry from controlling access. If work is unlocked from the monopoly of copyright, it is available to any with the basic skill of reading and reasonable access to the network.

Any “religious” reference seems gratuitously negative. Indeed, OER proponents may be reacting to the closed status structure of the citadels of authority. OER may, indeed, originate outside the walls of the university. Does that make it a “religious” effort, or does it simply a challenge to the status of the credentials system (PostDoc, PhD, Master of Arts, Baccalaureate, whatever!) Does a person really need any of those to be a producer of “content”?

If anything, the OER “movement” might deserve “cult” status, since it bucks the authoritarian line of the “religious” hierarchy. Please note that I’m not suggesting that OER is either religious or cult-like. It does seek to wrench the world of knowledge from the hands of an educational elite. OER is an attempt to break loose from the caste system.

If you are interested:

Liz Davis, Director of Academic Technology at Belmont Hill School, has posted a survey:
Balancing Innovation and Tradition in a Rapidly Changing world – a Google Doc form

If you have an interest, I think she would appreciate your input.
More information through Twitter @lizbdavis
Her blog:

Happy St. Pats!

Graphic credit: public domain clipart elements from
lmproulx (laptop), liftarn (leprechaun)

Software you choose to use in your school has license terms the school must follow.

If the software is proprietary (closed, tightly controlled), it typically has something called an EULA (End User License Agreement). That license usually includes a phrase which allows you, the school which purchased the software, to install the software on one computer per license purchased. That is important. You have rights of use which limits the number of licensed installs. It is not okay to license 50 installs and then install the proprietary software on 51 computers. That means, if you have paid $50 a copy for a total of $2500.00, you need to spend another $50 to use it just once more.

Photo Credit: Misha Popovikj
Creative Commons license: Attribution Share-Alike

Most proprietary  software does NOT allow teachers to install a working copy of school-purchased software on their home computer. That means teachers must buy their own copies, unless the school decides to buy copies for teachers’ homes. Teachers appreciate the chance to avoid buying personal copies of all the software they need to use in their classrooms. The price can add up quickly.

The software schools purchase are generally selected so that the students will benefit. Generally, EULAs prevent the school from letting students take home a CD to install the program at home.

Site licenses partially solve the problem, but even then, home copies for teachers and students are not typical.

Open Source Benefit

By contrast, software which is commonly called “open source software” has a liberal license which explicitly states that there is NO RESTRICTION on the end user. There is no limit to the number of copies which can be made of the software. There is no need to keep teachers or students from having a copy of the program to take home and install. Even if you paid $10 for the original CD to be sent to you, you do not need to spend any more. The total investment stops with the initial CD. If you are willing to do the creation of a CD by yourself, the cost drops even more. You are allowed, even encouraged to download software to your own computer and to put the installer file on a blank CD yourself. The cost per CD then drops to under fifty cents. You can make just a single copy and share the CD among many others, no additional cost. If the disk gets scratched by overuse, you can make another copy of the CD from the file on your computer.

Open source software is ideal for schools because getting enough copies of the software for everybody has minimal costs. At worst, the school is permitted to make copies of the installer CDs and let teachers take them home to use and return. The school doesn’t need to make copies for everyone to keep (though that is permitted by the open source licenses). Teachers and students can even get the software directly from the Internet. Most open source software is conveniently available for download.

An additional benefit is that many open source programs have been developed with versions for each major operating system. That means students can use a Macintosh computer at school, a Windows computer at the library, and a GNU/Linux computer at home, running the same software on all three systems. Of course, for that last sentence to be true, all the support players need to understand the power of open source. If you want to benefit from the benefits, you need to spread the word. Let parents and students know what you want to accomplish, getting everybody access to the same powerful tools. Talk to the local library staff to get them on board. Get your school principal to see the benefits. Take the story to the school committee. Let the local newspaper in on the deal.

Software is at the center of our “information society.” Our students are getting prepared to participate in the information society. Preparing them for the Industrial Age isn’t good enough. The power of software is best realized when it supports open data formats, and open source software is the main way to accomplish that.


License Compliance Essay by Simon Phipps,
GNU Project,
Free Software Foundation,