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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.