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Why Open Source is Failing in Education

The fact that Open Source software has not found a slam-dunk home in the cost-sensitive, educational sector is a mystery that needs to be explained before it can be rectified. This note overviews the use and adoption of Open Source (FLOSS) in the educational sector in an attempt to explain this phenomena.

Computers have been used in schools for a long time. Yet it remains true that their role is largely limited to simple tools for writing and researching, as ends in themselves - in IT education - or in administrative support functions. In general, computers are rarely used to support and enhance education at the student-teacher interface in non-IT disciplines. Thus, it may be said that the failure of Open Source in this context is a failure to adopt computers more pervasively and effectively in this sector rather than a failure, per se, of Open Source. This note concludes with some suggestions that we feel could facilitate adoption of Open Source in this vital - for all of us - sector.

In comparison to its commercially-oriented cousin, educational Open Source is largely fragmented and fledgling - while clearly brimming with energy and enthusiasm - and, importantly, without any simple, cohesive and compelling driving force. It is also excessively, in our opinion, focussed on administrative functionality rather than addressing the delivery of student education. This conclusion is meant in no way to denigrate the efforts of the many hundreds of people who are striving - and have striven for years in many cases - to bring the educational Open Source movement to where it now is. Rather we suspect it simply reflects the fact that those who understand the capabilities and advantages of Open Source are typically working within the IT sector of education not - generally - in front-line teaching.


  1. The promise of Open Source adoption in education, in our opinion, is to deliver unlimited - in the sense that software purchase is not a limiting factor - educational opportunity and efficiency through curriculum based software (we use the term Learning Objects).

  2. It is our contention that there is a vital role for Open Source software in the educational sector but that it does not lie in the classic reduction of operating costs, which are generally low - relative to the commercial sector - due to special factors we explain below. Rather

  3. By not aggressively using Open Standards and freely available Open Source software the educational sector is unfairly denying access to many students - especially those in disadvantaged circumstances. Further, any policy which mandates use of standards based on commercial software we contend is - perhaps unwittingly - encouraging a culture of software piracy.

  4. The lamentable failure of computing to radically improve the form and delivery of educational material within a classroom/lecture hall setting is one of the sadder reflections on the state of computing. Much work has been done using web technologies to publish existing course material including the use of remote learning and the MIT OpenCourseWare initiative. While in so sense trying to trivialise the breakthrough these initiatives represent - the MIT one especially is truly stunning - they are mostly about the means, not the form, of educational delivery.

  5. Our societal reluctance to invest in education means this sector is forever doomed to reap only the trickle down effects from the world of commerce. It has neither the commercial clout to offer an attractive market to innovative enterprises nor - in most cases - the courage to experiment and innovate.

Tactical Limitations

We briefly explore tactical considerations, motivations and points of resistance to Open Source adoption at the point of education.

Stick to the knitting

The Status Quo Argument: Schools are in the business of education. Schools use tools to assist them to execute their educational tasks. Computers and software are tools. The analogy here is with books - schools have always bought books. Schools have never published books. Tools - books, computers, software - are part of the cost of doing education.

Change Requirement: Open Source software requires development of unique functionality and capabilities. Schools are not in the business of software development. The organisations that would use the results of Open Source software - schools - are not designed to be - and have traditionaly never acted in - the role of publisher or sponsor but rather as a passive consumer of third party products. There is a mismatch between the organisational motivation of the end consumer - the school/educational institution - and the means necessary to effect availablity of Open Source software. Schools must become agents of change not remain as passive consumers.

What are you going to be when you grow up?

The Status Quo Argument: The need for the individual and society to compete means that educational and vocational training are inextricably linked in the minds of many. If the tools - computers, software - used in the schools are the same as those used in the wider society is that not a good thing for vocational opportunities?

Change Requirement: This is a classic cart-and-horse argument. If schools were to unleash into the labor market individuals with skills in freely available, high quality Open Source software, and thus help increase local economic competitiveness by lowering its cost base, would not the mandate of education be more effectively accomplished? Perhaps simply maintaining the status quo is not the best use of educational resources.

A Risky Business?

The Status Quo Argument: In the first place it is the duty of those who administer schools and educational institutions - implicitly public funds - to provide the best service they can with the resources they have at their disposal. This duty is not, in the first instance, compatible with innovation and the taking of risks.

Change Requirement: However the converse is also true. If there is no innovation, if educational administrations do not take risks how can they expose individuals to more, or more effective, education. Unless the society provides additional resources which it seems unprepared or unwilling to do at this time.

It does, however, follow that - depending on the organisation of the school/educational sector - the educational institution or board does not, of itself, have the resources necessary to effect great change without taking unwarranted risk. Only by acting in concert with others or through a hierarchical (National or State/Provincial) organisation can the necessary resources be mustered to effect such change.

Give me a child for the first seven years......

Heavy educational discounting for standard software (Operating systems and Personal Productivity tools among others) is the norm. This is a cynical policy adopted by the majority of software suppliers in the full knowledge that most students when taught to use one tool (computer, software) will likely continue with it for, perhaps, the rest of their life - the supplier's initial investment will repay itself many times over. Current costs for this kind of software, while by no means trivial, are - relative to the commercial sector - very low indeed and represent only marginal savings when compared with Open Source alternatives. When coupled with necessary training/conversion costs any change may even show a negative return in the short-term.

Altruism is not the driving force for commercial organizations in keeping costs low for the education sector. It is a calculated policy to lock-in young minds. Educational policy makers must not confuse cost with benefit.

The Bureaurocratic Conundrum

Education is the responsibility of government - whether local, state/provincial or national. Government is open to multiple pressures and is administered by bureaurocrats. To see just how far business interests will go to prevent the establishement of threatening (Open Source) standards you might want to read about the Massachusetts spat over OpenDocument and the blood-letting that followed. As of 2005 the Massachusetts State web site still showed support for OpenDocument. If you are a career-minded bureaucrat are you going to stick your neck out and make game-changing decisions? It will take the bureaucratic courage of a very high order, firmly backed by their political masters, to marshal the necessary resources to make stuff happen.

Dare to Dream

Few of us dare to believe that the adoption of Open Source will have a effect on the fundamentals of our respective national economies.

But there are some who do. Among them is Peruvian congressman DR. EDGAR DAVID VILLANUEVA NUŅEZ who introduced a bill in which the Peruvian state mandates the use of Open Source in government (which includes education), this article reprints an english translation (the original spanish is included) of a letter in which the Congressman expands and explores the rationale behind the bill. Whatever your position on the use of such mandates, you have to gasp at the sheer breadth of vision cogently argued in this correspondence.

A Way Forward

Here for what they are worth are a set of objectives that, in our opinion, are the necessary precursors to making progress. Many of these may already exist, our investigations are by no means exhaustive, if they do exist however it further re-enforces some of the points below. We do not advocate single solutions to any of the items identified below rather a healthy plurality with reasonable limits only to ensure that adequate resources exist to allow organizations to effectively achieve their intended goals.

  1. Organizational: The establishment of a legal and organisational framework which groups wishing to contribute to Open Source educational software could adopt and which would allow those groups to attract funding in a manner that removes repercussions or obstacles to donation by public (including educational institutions), and other, bodies or individuals. The following issues could be addressed:

    1. Incorporation - charity, non-profit etc.

    2. Management structure, boards, supervisory boards, by-laws, etc.

    3. IPRs - assignment, transferability etc.

    4. Acceptable licensing regimes, existing licenses, new license etc.

  2. Centers of Excellence: There is clearly a vast amount of raw research going on within the academic community, universities, government and other bodies into the efficiency and delivery of education. Such information should be readily available to allow non-teachers to make contributions to the educational sector, examples could include development of Best Practice recommendations in the following areas :

    1. sequence of material and concepts by subject, by age

    2. visualisation and presentation of complex subjects/concepts

    3. learning ergonomics

    4. recognizing distress in a learning environment

    5. Research repository - cataloged by subject with synopsis and links

  3. Information Portals: While there a number of sites which are already providing some form of service (we would point to Schoolforge and OSFET specifically in this context) the following services could be added:

    1. Available applications categorised by subject and age range

    2. Best Practices by subject and age range

    3. Relevant RSS news feeds

    4. Discussion/mailing lists by subject and year

    5. Lesson plan libraries and other course material

    6. Relevant tutorials and howtos

    7. Regularly maintained links and cross-linking

    8. Funding sources and programs, available grants etc.

    9. Experimental programs - study results, conclusions, participant comments.

    10. Classroom design - ambient noise levels, equipment noise levels.

  4. Security & Privacy: It has always seemed to us that information security, authentication and privacy in schools is fraught with unique problems especially where direct student on-line capture and storage of information is being contemplated. How do you provide an acceptable privacy scheme for an 8 year old? Maybe you can't. Seems to us that breakthroughs in raw administrative efficiency could stumble badly unless these issues are thoroughly explored and documented.

Open Source has enormous potential in the educational sector. But is has to address education first.

Problems, comments, suggestions, corrections (including broken links) or something to add? Please take the time from a busy life to 'mail us' (at top of screen), the webmaster (below) or info-support at zytrax. You will have a warm inner glow for the rest of the day.

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