Monthly Archives: September 2010

The Open Source Threat

I commend Gary Clawson from the North West Grid for Learning for his recent report about how, in these stringent times, the use of Open Source and Open Content can saves schools and LAs significant amounts of money.
There are a number of good summaries and articles on the report already on the Tinterweb, most of which have many additional constructive comments so rather than re-hash the collective back patting which us going on I will instead talk about a series of points I raised about the report on a thread in Edugeek.

The title of this thread is The Open Source Threat because that is what it truly is. A threat … a threat to balanced judgement, a threat to looking at the educational needs and benefits certain software can bring and a threat to the finances of schools and LAs.

Here is where I started pull at the gaps in the report.

A very interesting read … but I would like to raise a few points. In fact I would like to raise a couple of dozen points but to do so in one post would be too much …

1 – I have only seen a few mentions on educational requirements in this paper. I don’t want to see a paper just about money if we are looking long-term (which the paper claims) … I want to see it tied in with what changes will also be needed to the curriculum, the staff training, etc. Otherwise it is as short-sighted as recent cuts from Central Govt, IMNSHO.

2 – There is no mention of the word training in the document at all. Do they think that people can just move from one system to another with no training?

3 – Like for like! I would expect, as at least a starting point, to see a like for like chart … doing a on x is the equivalent of b on y. Yet again I see this opinion that Dansguardian is a like for like replacement forBecta accredited filtering software / provision. It isn’t. Will we ever see like for like in this sort of discussion or are people scared they will fall short? You never know … you may come out on top. I’ve yet to see the full like for like alternative to CC3 or CC4 via open source solutions either.

4 – Figures … sorry Gary. I want to see your figures in a decent appendix so they can be verified and questions / validated / championed. At the moment it doesn’t look very OPEN to me.

5 – FREE!!!!! And there was me thinking that for years we were talking FOSS. FREE and OPEN SOURCE SOFTWARE … but everytime I challenge anyone about free stuff (eg resources from Apple, Microsoft, Serif, etc) I get told that this is not free as it is pandering to the commercial nature of other products.

The ‘institutionalisation’ of licence free applications and digital resources in schools will enable seamless skills transition between Primary and Secondary sectors as well as with the free use of software applications and digital learning resources in the home.

Free applications … oh … you did remember … but why the insistence on the words open source? Are you worried that commercial companies might give away *all* their software to schools and thereby undermine your whole argument?

So … that is where I will be starting my points on this paper.

I must thank a few EduGeek regulars for playing Devil’s Advocate to my comments and those who made me clarify a bit more.

I was challenged about the curriculum and I know for many people that just means the hoops learners jump through from Central Gov’t or from Exam Boards… But I mean it is the structure of how the school is set up for learning to take place, for innovation to grow. For *any* school to move to a different curriculum model takes significant planning and a change of ethos in some cases. I don’t just want a paper saying you can save money… I want a paper pointing out the educational reform that might (and probably will) need to go along side it! If a school makes this move it has to be for completely the right reasons, not purely the almighty pound!

I was castigated for dredging up FUD about training. I hate to say it folk but not all open source stuff is as easy as commercial products to use. Scribus is a lot more work than MS Publisher or Pages … Not as much as InDesign but that is a different level of application. If you move a ‘costly’ VLE to Moodle you will need to retrain staff and learners.
Change involves preparing people for it. I would be shocked to see a Network Manager swap from windows XP and Office 2003 to Windows 7 and Office 2010 without preparing people for it, giving staff a chance to rework resources, etc … So why is the introduction of, or move to, Open Source offerings any different? It isn’t! And there are costs associated with training, either in time or money (or both)!

I was challenged on comparing like for like as the incorrect way of assessing the needs if the school. I can accept some if that apart from the fact for a goodly number of schools the easiest way of seeing what they need is to look at what they already use and to try and understand why. It also has the beneficial result of making them realise that yes, they may be paying over the odds for features they are not using, or it could prod them into using those features at last.
I also raised the point again that some of the suggested Open Source tools are not comparing like for like. DansGuardian is *not* the same as a Becta Accredited Filtering Solution. Sorry folks … it just ain’t. If you took it to the closest model of SmoothWall and DansGuardian … there is significant difference in support, in functionality, of ease of use and of appropriateness in an educational environment. That is *why* they have it as a product. I will continue to shout down anyone who persistently pushes them as the same and I would ask them to stand up in front of a Local Safeguarding Children’s Board and justify themselves for all schools and educational settings.
I am not saying that the model some schools take with managing their safeguarding of learners might not include DansGuardian, and the examples I have seen use it in conjunction with other tools … commercial tools such as Securus and AB Tutor Control. So … Like for like please!

I was challenged about my comment about costs.

I know that it is hard to show … and whilst I may seem harsh to say that the figures are not that clear, but I would like to see the example given for secondary broken down further into specifics … how much for the OS, how much for CALs, how much for the office suite, how much for video / audio editing, how much for image editing, etc. We have already seen that by swapping to Windows 7 there are examples of how this can keep some hardware going a bit longer and this is before we talk about the famous (infamous) lifespan of some Apple Macs (some … yes I know some don’t have this reputation), so if I ask for more detailed comparisons it is understandable. Again … it also comes down to what technology has been chosen by the schools previously and whether we are talking about replacing it with stuff that will deliver the same.

And then we come to the recurring problem I have with some sections of the Open Source community in education. I have said at previous events that the selective ignoring of the word ‘free’ is hypocritical and I stand by that. If a school has already made an investment in commercial systems and they are then able to get free resources or tools which work with their existing investment then it is not costing them additional licenses and they deem it to be free, then what is your problem with it?. Will you all stop this stupid Microsoft and Apple bashing that goes on. What happens when Microsoft give their OS and applications to schools completely for free? No cost at all? Your petty arguments will fall down completely.

At least the reports talks about Open Content … even if it is through the gatekeeper model of the NDRB.

My problem with this is that there are quite a number of good commercial resources out there that people have put time and effort into, so I would expect them to be recommended for it. That might involve money but the Open Content model promotes the recompense as resources from others.
That is fine, but if my resources are better than yours I want more in return. It might be that I spent twice as long creating them …. and here we get to the hidden cost … time. Time costs. Whether you are talking about the time a school might give a teacher to create resources, the time in the evenings and weekends I work on materials or the time taking a teacher away from their classes to prepare materials. So, the Open Content model can work, but it will take time and is not an immediate cost saving. If anything it will cost more to get embedded in your school. And why use NDRB? Why not just share through twitter or contacts made at TeachMeets?

So, the report starts to raise questions but seriously fails to produce significant answers which stand up when prodded, in my opinion.

And this is before I talk about the idea of running both OSS based systems / applications and commercial stuff … side by side so you give the teachers and students choice. Why inflict a single system on them? This now goes into a conversation about transferable skills … and we go full circle to looking at the educational side of things… not just the money.

The Perils and Pitfalls of being ‘The Block’ to learning & teaching

Once again I fall into the role of the fervent defender of the blighted IT Support teams in schools. As much as I enjoyed a good argument (oh no you don’t!) there are times when I feel that the word compromise is missing from the vocabulary of some people.

In a short break from the course I am on at the moment I picked up a tweet to a blog post from our friend Spannerman2.
It makes for good reading and raises an important points about IT and ICT & Computing as subjects, about the lack of subject specialism in teachers of these subjects and about the amount of effort which goes into running (& locking down) a school network.

It does, however, throw stones. I don’t think stone throwing is any good at the moment in education. It just generates a lot of people pointing their fingers and saying, “you are doing it wrong!” without any ideas or support for getting it right.
In conversations on EduGeek.net there have been ideas shared about how you can make things more manageable and flexible on a school network, about how you can give freedom to staff and students, about how to manage situations better and stop the ‘them & us’ perception which can be the stimulus to things getting out of hand when there is the slightest problem.

So here are a few ideas. First we will have the objectives … the school needs computers systems. It needs three types of systems really.

Let us cover the easy one first. We want a system that allows for the running of a school, the day-to-day stuff of administration, the ordering of toilet roll for the toilets, the paying of staff, keeping records on students … you know the sort I mean. It used to be that this network was kept as separate as possible from everything else. It had to be … it holds sensitive data, it needs to have careful controls over who can do what with it … both legally (DPA) and for audit reasons. However, more and more senior leaders have realised that this network holds some really valuable and vital information. Stuff that can make a difference in the way teachers operate in the classroom … and teachers also need to add to this information too. So that means it has to overlap with the other systems in the school. Problem number 1 arises, but we will come back to this one.

System number two is the one used by teaching staff to deliver what they do, day in, day out. Teaching. I don’t want to turn this into a ‘them & us’ post … I never do … and sometimes people have to remember that those most likely to read my blog from the teaching community are those most likely to understand and want to push what tech they have … in fact, the people who are the cream, those who have risen to the top … but try to remember that there are those who can do *some* of the things that you do and are learning fast … but there are also those who struggle … not just with tech, but with classroom management, with change in general … and I am thinking about *all* staff in schools. A single solution is not always the best thing … having one setup for all staff … only giving limited access to doing stuff … but the problem is that at the moment it takes time and investment to give a more flexible system for staff. There are little things which can be done, like giving rights to install software on their laptops, giving more relaxed filtering … perhaps not even ‘filtering’ as such, but just logging what is used on the internet (remember folks … audit trails!) But what happens when a laptop is brought back in to the IT team to be fixed because something they downloaded at home seems to have broken stuff (after they have turned off the anti-virus or stopped it from downloading updates or running scans) … and that is if you are lucky and they don’t just plug it into the network and infect other computers where teachers have also turned off the antivirus too … and so you have to fix their machine. You might need a spare laptop or two so that they still have a machine to use in the classroom (back to investment again) and then there is the time and staff to fix it. Problem 2 appears … planning for the inevitable workload that comes with either building systems to deal with having to fix problems like this or having to do it on a case by case basis.

And so we go on to system 3 … the most problematic because you are having to cover three conflicting needs. The student workstations / laptops. Here you have to think about what software is needed, who gets to choose that software, pay for it, develop resources for teaching using it or even for teaching the software itself (either the skills / concepts or the specific software … that argument is for another day) … and then let us think about that touchy area of classroom management. I don’t like people blaming technology when it is being used as substitute for classroom management … I’ve spoken about how filtering gets abused this way before and the same applies to locking down the desktop, turning off the ability to right-click, where things can be saved … it all boils down to how much disruption in the classroom the teachers can handle, the amount of effort which is needed to fix problems that arise and so on … So we get to Problem 3 … and this *is* aimed at the teachers who might read this blog. COMPROMISE. Oh, that was also aimed at the Techs too.

So what happens when we need these 3 systems to overlap … or even be the same system?

I would love to say that this is a perfect solution out there … but there isn’t. It will *have* to vary from school to school purely due to the nature of each school, the emphasis each school might choose to put on classroom control, on how much investment the school puts into different aspects of IT, what technology gets used, the strength of things like Web 2.0 tools, of VLEs, of email, of using data straight from the MIS … so many factors that *no-one* can give a single system that will suit everyone.

Instead … how about thinking a little more about how you are going to get to where you want to go. I can guarantee that the end system you want cannot be delivered overnight and be usable by everyone without considerable pain … so you are likely to have to do things in steps. These steps have to be done with compromise and I’m going to say my usual mantra … Change Management!

So … let us think about something that gets raised a lot at the moment. The introduction of student owned devices (yes … I know I have avoided mentioning the learners themselves … more below) can be considered in a few stages, some technical, some pedagogical. If you are going to introduce this sort of system then yes, you will have to segregate it from system 1 … the stuff you have to legally protect. A typical way of doing this would be by having a ‘dirty’ wireless network … a separate WLAN that is only used by students, *may* have some restrictions on it … but will give them access to the internet at the bare minimum (even if you choose not to filter then at least log it). You then have to consider how it will be used in the classroom. Will it be used in conjunction with a VLE? Online stuff such as Live@Edu or Google Apps? How will you ensure that the iPad is being used for work and not just to watch stuff on iPlayer? GameCentre? The netbook is not being used to just hog the school internet connection to pull down pirated video or software? Or the laptop used for chatting on IRC, tweeting about what they got up to last night or on facebook poking their mate in the class next door? The same way that it used to be notes on pieces of paper, or ‘interesting’ magazines shared by some of the boys (actually, both of those still happen too) now there is a new range of things to distract the learner …

One way of dealing with this is by using the student wireless network to force the student to log into the school terminal server system (various solutions are available to do this via a website) and so that they can use their own device in the school but with some element of control by the teacher / techie / school.

There is still another way … the idea of privilege, of use versus abuse. And this is where we talk to the learner. They can make some of the best and worst suggestions and decisions you can come across. It might be that they want the system to allow them to do nearly everything, but on the understanding that if it is abused that they get locked down. Hmm … that might even work in conjunction with other polices the school has? Wow … revolutionary concept?

It might be that the desktops are set to be rebuilt each night … so that if the students do mess things up then it is not a problem. It might be that you have systems that go back to a baseline after each log-off. you can do almost anything … but there has to be a reason to do it, it has to be a balance between what is possible, what is practical and what delivers some sort of benefit.

So … there we go … a start … I’ve already prodded a few of the detractors to techies locking things down or wanting to drop working systems to go to Open Source based purely on ethical principle rather than education need or practicality … if they want to change then I want to see a range of options and some sort of roadmap about how to adopt it, both technically and pedagogically. “Just because…” is not a suitable answer. I might want to put studded tyres on my little Smart car just because … you never know, we might get heavy snow tonight … it might become fashionable … it might mean I can drive over an ice rink to drop off James Bond to do a bit of bomb disposal and save the world … or it might tear up a recently resurfaced road … cost me a fortune to buy and get fitted the new tyres.

So … a start … let us see how it goes from here.

And The Story Begins

1st September 2010

And so, the interpid geek sets foot in the hidden undergrowth of looking at how using Windows 7 affects productivity. The startup disk on my MacBookPro is set to my Boot Camp partition, I have made heavy use of my Technet subscription to get pretty much all the MS apps I might want for general business use, and then delved into the blogs from the Microsoft Summer Camp to get all the add-ins and extra apps suggested their (though I think the other folk in the office might soon learn to question my choice of SongSmith!)

I have now also started a page to log the apps I use and try to collate any notes or link to any blog posts. http://grumbledook.com/working-with-windows/

I will not be sticking soleyl with MS based apps, but if I am working in an MS environment then MS apps will be my primary choice until I need to try something different.