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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.

28 replies on “The Open Source Threat”

Wow, lengthy post mate, very insightful and thought provoking.

Not all commercial stuff is as easy as open-source products to use.

It isn’t about right/wrong/cost/free.

The main message about open source in my opinion is that open source projects grow quicker so if more edu stuff was open source we would have more growth in this area and therefore better software.

You also have to look at the new model that is coming out with services such as Primary Pad which offer a paid hosted model for premium features but release all the code open source too. It’s open source with an up sell model..

One thing that is obvious about the UK is how slow we are at adopting open source, maybe it’s because our IT sector grew at a time where capitalism was ripe and the general consensus was spending money is good. Now spending money is less popular it is time for open source to be grown and to be nurtured.

I can guarantee that having 1000 users and 10 average coders working on a project is better that one awesome coder and 100 users.. It’s all about the feedback loop, the more you listen to your end users the better your service/product is… 🙂

A very interesting post.

It is good to see someone responding sensibly to the OSS in schools argument. To me the thing is not to be for or against OSS or microsoft or whoever but to look at the best tool for the job taking everything into account.

You mention at one point you would like to see a OSS altenative to CC3 /4, as would I (even if just from a ‘could it be done?’ perspective), however I feel the best thing about the CC3 /4 was the support gave to the schools using it and without that support level it is never going to be like for like.

There are some fantastic support companies out there who specialise in OSS, and the example of PrimaryPad from John is perfect for this. I have just not found a model yet for an alternative to CC3/4 based on FOSS. The closest I have seen are from folk like The Cutter Project, who do wonderful stuff on thin clients and Karoshi, fantastic for back-end solutions. I am always hoping to find more … and to have it as consumer friendly as possible … but those I have seen are too much based on a high priest model of all changes must be done through the CLI and with the sacrifice of the appropriate animal.

I am not saying it can’t be done … I just want someone to show me it in action … in a typical primary school … with no change to the costs for IT (complete costs including hardware, licenses, staffing, ext costs from existing solution, costs of training and costs of teachers time due to changing software / resources). I WANT examples I can send round to people … I really do.

I have been listening to this sort of rubbish about open source in UK education for about 10 years now, and you are probably too young to have been there in the beginning. I’m not, I have done it and am insulted by your foundation-less attack on a totally viable alternative. You are doing UK education and our children a dis-service by quoting educational requirements babble. You really are very naive and dangerous!!
To the person above – this is not a sensible reply, it is ill conceived and provides irrelevant arguments, try reading around the subjcet you may find yourself enlightened.

Interesting response. Would you care to do the honour of highlighting particular areas you believe are wrong?
It is nice to be called young though.
If you can give experiences about how you made use of OSS in your justification it would be beneficial too.

I think you should write out (in bullet point format) what you want from a report like this I think it would be interesting to see if anyone can write something up that would delve deeper into this issue. However running several packages at the same time would be a costly venture too as you’ve stated in peoples time. If you give people the choice they’ll stick with what they know so we all know the OSS will be left on the ‘shelf’.

Yes, there is the risk of OSS being left on the shelf when you have multiple packages … but you would get hat if you use two or more commercial / licensed packages … which can and does already happen in schools … often wasting money as the lesser know packages never get used. This isn’t an issue with the technology, but an issue with the curriculum and planning.

@anryatyou What do you believe is dangerous about looking at educational requirements? If your comment about a reply not being sensible is being aimed at my post above, what is not sensible about it?

Personally I don’t believe Tony is saying open source = Bad rather he is asking that all solutions be judged fairly. For myself I have used open source solutions but it being open source was not my deciding factor.

Sorry James I was not aiming my comments at your reply. The reply in question was the blog post. How can he be asking that all solutions be considered fairly when the title of the blog contains the word ‘threat’?
Tony, my experience is through teaching ICT from ks3 to ks5 for 8 years using only open source tools, and being in the Good School’s guide as one of the top 5 subjects at A level for the school I worked in.
I am not speculating when I say open source software works and it saves money – I know!

And I am saying how can other solutions be considered fairly when the report on OSS is flawed. It is the flaws which are the threat and the title is a hook to get people to look at things in a particular way.

Good to hear you are in a fantastic school, doing fantastic things. Feel free to tell us which one it is.

As for me … I might not have as much experience as some when it comes to open source but … I cut my teeth in education at a CTC running Solaris so understand the benefits of *nix systems. My first VLE was rolled out using Bodington and I was amused to be harangued by a Moodle evangelist once (about 7 years ago now) for not using an Open Source system … strange. I have rolled out Darwin Streaming Server as a media server tool, deployed and used Moodle a number of times (the Northants Network for IT Managers and IT Support Providers runs on Moodle and I am looking forward to getting them onto Moodle RC1). I have spoken at Open Source events and been recorded for Open Source Schools. I am an Open Source Evangelist … but I am also a Microsoft Evangelist and an Apple Evangelist and have even been a Serif Evangelist … does that make me a bad person? I will always point people to making a true evaluation of the facts in front of them and make sure that the decision they then take is for the educational benefit of the school. If that is somethig like, ‘by saving money I can have more money in the salaries pot to afford to pay for more experience and higher quality teachers,’ or ‘ethically, the approach from open source and open standards fits in best with the ethos and morals code of the school,’ or even ‘although it costs more money not to use open source we have a very well developed curriculum, based around the existing systems and the change would create a risk of pulling down the quality of what we do, reducing the standards of learning which goes on and ultimately meaning children and young people might be disadvantaged by the change!’

In reality … in the world of compromise … what you are looking at is ‘when we change systems or change the curriculum we need to make sure that open source is considered not only to be a viable alternative but a priority, but only where and when appropriate based on the needs of the school.’

Open source is not bad … poorly managed and poorly chosen open source *is* bad … the same way a poorly managed MS based system is bad. The way people are trying to force and plan the change on some of the scantiest of justifications will lead to bad choices and bad planning, often based around a single person in High Priest mode meaning the schools struggles if and when they leave. Ah … sounds exactly like the argument about moving to an MS vanilla system instead of sticking with a fully working RM CC3 network. Strange that.

Interesting comment “anryatyou” I assume that was meant to be “angryatyou”?
It’s easy to shout in a public area but if you going to do that please add some substance to that shouting.
I don’t see any value in your comment other then to say someone else is wrong let alone the patronising tone of your comment.
Please enlighten us all.

In the end it should come down to “Is the technology good enough to support learning?”. Mostly FOSS is. If people have spent a fortune on proprietary stuff ok use it, we are where we are. But when in a hole stop digging and just since bad decisions have led to lock-in to expensive to maintain systems doesn’t mean lower cost alternatives are a threat to anyone. Adopt a strategy for change and start with teaching why open standards and systems are important as part of the curriculum. The Royal Society is gathering evidence about what is wrong with ICT in schools. I have put a response with a solution at It is not primarily about FOSS but clearly FOSS could be a major part of the solution.

BTW, DTP with Scribus, MS Publisher – Why?, Search Lulu for International Grades. Covers done in Inkscape body in Writer. Yes we have Scribus and I think MS Publisher somewhere here but I don’t find there are many jobs that Inkscape and Writer can’t manage a lot more simply. What are children likely to DTP in schools that can’t be done easily in that combination? Teach them design principles, how to draw, why its best to use vectors and produce raster images from them. If you stick to open ISO standards you only really need 3 graphics formats. .svg .png and .jpg.

I hate to say this Ian … but I am a bit disappointed. Not with you, what you are doing or your comment … but that fact that I know that you have a true understanding of the education priorities around Open Source … and in spite of me screaming how important education is when making choices … well, you are the first to point out your work and what INGOTs can deliver. It should be the case of if someone asks anyone in the educational Open Source community for an example of where education can clearly be seen to be linked to FOSS then they should point to you straight away … with Miles a very, very close second. It didn’t happen … not on EduGeek, not on twitter and not on OSS.

The report should have had a plethora of educational references (there are many out there, not just through you) and it didn’t.

As I said … disappointing.

As for using Inkscape and Writer … yep, they do the job and the argument against my spouting out about having multiple overlapping applications to ensure transferable skills should have been shot down with that one. I was actually thinking about the use of OOo and Google docs as applications with shared skills when I wrote my response … and there are many others too. There are a number of people who have already collated these examples together in fact and *they* could have been thrown back at me.

Isn’t the business of setting one software solution against another pretty irrelevant to the OSS issue?

To say Scribus is no real alternative to publisher is not really going to get hordes of sandal wearing beardies to the barricades.

The issue of open source to me and probably most users is a matter of just having the choice and for the most part, the incoherent rants of “anryatyou” et al just serve to polarise things.

The fact that children can access OSS packages and experiment with their PC without the licensing complexity of proprietary alternatives is a pretty good argument for exploiting the potential of OSS more effectively.

As for the Dans Guardian thing, bit of an Aunt Sally isn’t it? We have a Becta approved filter and it is still seems to be circumvented by proxy sites. I am confident that it (the filter) makes child exploitation sufficiently difficult in school that it is driven into children’s homes. Hence, educating the children (and maybe their carers is far more important anyway.

As always Brian, the DansGuardian thing is indeed an Aunt Sally … I honestly thought it would be Gary that brought it up first on OpenSourceSchools though I did get pushed quite heavily on EduGeek (well done CyberNerd) … I did mention about the kitemarked software to parental controls but that seemed to pass folks by and I also raised about people just turning the filter off, even on Becta accredited stuff (but the IWF list stays permanently blocked though).

Ok, here is the reality of things. No filter is going to be perfect for a school and people, both pupils and staff, will find ways around it … it is a war of attrition in some cases, and by being draconian you can win on school computers but lose on home or mobile devices. What will work is what I have seen in a few schools. They have a general filter provided by their RBC which covers most things … they may allow though things which other schools make that lovely sucking-through-teeth noise when they hear … but they still rely on the RBC / LA to block the generic categories of pr0n, hate speak, criminal activities, etc … but run their own in house filters which are made more granular by linking in directly with their domain / directory service to ensure correct logging of activities. It also allows for selective targeting of filters (it is worth saying that many RBC / LA provided systems allows this too, but it also relies on making more use of their DS and authentication services). I’ve seen this running with Smoothwall, Censornet, DansGuardian and Web Marshal. It all depends on how much time will be put into configuring and tailoring it to the needs of the school. As I keep pointing out, time is a cost too and some schools are happy to pay for something which saves time.

But it doesn’t just sit there though … they then also have monitoring software … not so that NMs can be the police, but so that staff can be more involved in educating students about the correct use of teh internet the same way they would any other tool (such as a bunsen burner perhaps). Some of these tools are the likes of securus and so on … and I have not come across an open source version yet. Other tools at the classroom monitoring tools such as RM Tutor, AB Tutor Control and VNC. I know some places who have tried VNC in various guises and they have never been able to get the right amount of functionality about it … so, again because it is saving time, or perhaps because it is more educationally beneficial they will cough up the cash for something with more control and functionality. Strangely enough Italc never seems to get enough of a go with these schools. I honestly don’t know why.

In all … yes, the filter will never be enough on it’s own, whether open source or otherwise … and the misuse to which DansGuardian is put to (I have far, far more negative examples of power-mad NMs doing stupid things with it than I have of good examples I am sorry to say) and the lack of some key factors in it (the IWF list as a start) means that it is not a like for like alternative to a Becta Accredited filter. I am not saying DansGuardian cannot be made to be a key part of a whole schools solution, just that it is not like-for-like.

I’ve been toying with an open source solution for one of my Infants because of cost. Once the hardware is bought (which is already a good few grand into a tiny budget) it leaves very little for CALs, server OS, security, and just as important as all of those – being the whole reason for it, educational software.

They have a very cobbled together system, mostly XP Home on various machines that have been bought from outlets with huge reputations such as PC World and Comet. No server, barely any security. They have pretty much nothing now, next to nothing to spend and want the world.

I’m in 2 minds over it. If we go OSS, we have little to lose other than they’ve just purchased a huge software package (Sherston’s mega pack). It could probably work fine using the likes of Wine but would it really be feasible to expect Infant children and staff to manage it – or more to the point be able to ask for help when it goes wrong? Who is on site to support it?

That means buying in more support, probably from my company. I’d be the only one capable of doing it, however my schedule won’t allow that. That would leave everyone in a sticky wicket, probably losing us a school and costing them money in extra support, costing them money to get them trained in it’s usage.
That brings me to the future usage. Like Tony, I’m a huge advocate of giving students access to as many different systems as possible. They’ll all certainly come across PCs, Macs and Linux/Unix based systems in the future whether its at home, work or an ATM in the high street. However I believe that rather like languages, some of that should be left until a little bit later down the curriculum. You can teach an infant to count to 10 in French or German but I wouldn’t expect them to have to do Maths in French for the rest of their time at that school because of an ICT decision.

Yes, there will be complications going from XP to 7 and converting from standalones to a network. Yes, there are licensing costs to consider. But would that cost be any higher than the support of an OSS? I will absolutely happily recommend the use of OpenOffice instead of MSOffice to save £50 a station as it will not detract from the pupil’s education – the joy of Windows (as well as Macs) is a unified interface. They will all know File/Edit/View etc in the toolbar. They’ll already know most of it from home. By the time they leave infant school, they’ll know some things we do not – and we’re supposedly the experts.

I have no doubt you could deliver the curriculum on either system. I have absolutely no doubt that a child of primary age would pick up the skills to use any program or operating system quicker than we can program a VCR. It all boils down to one thing at the end; what is best for the kids now, what will they be able to take with them at the end. What is best for the kids in the future? They’re the important ones in all of this.

This is why it’s taken me 4 months so far to have barely gotten half way through my case studies. I’ll happily go another 4 months if the decision is correct, but it involves more people than just me.

I have on multiple occasions been a ‘oss evangelist’, much like I also evangelise non-oss software (eg. I program nearly exclusively using. .Net technologies now, as it is the best tool for nearly every project I’ve had to complete), but the fact remains that every tool should be chosen according to its benefits. This means taking into account all issues, be they educational benefits, finance, support, user familiarity or whatever.

It is always a balancing act between all the different issues, and every school is different, so one school’s requirements. May vary wildly from anothers.

However, that said, I think a fair few of your points seem a bit off to me, and looking at your history of posts on Edugeek, repeatedly so. You evangelise about educational benefits but seem to consistently brush aside the one thing that constrains schools every day – money. Yes, we need to put teaching and learning first, and yes we should not just consider OSS as free but when you have things like the harnessing technology grant being slashed in half, the threat of up to 25% cuts next year, shrinking pupil numbers, and redundancies both in schools and at LEAs, this isn’t always possible.

To me, having a report based around costs is useful, one based around educational needs is a secondary one at the moment. I’ve been tasked with reducing ICT spend whilst maintaining service levels. The only practical way to do this is by using OSS.

My last comment may have been a little blunt, so I thought I’d clarify.

Its great that you see educational need as the biggest factor in these sort of decisions, but it is an ideal, one that in most schools is unrealistic.

Much like someone buying a car. The decision making process should take into account the driving needs at the top of the list. However, money comes in and forces those needs to be changed and you end up driving a Skoda instead of a Jaguar…

Fair points Tony … and one of the reasons I push for people to concentrate on the educational aspect is that for many years money was the prime focus when looking at IT. You spent money when you had it (often quickly before it ran out, making rash decisions and we can all tell war stories about white elephants) and planning was always short term.

Collectively the move has been towards buying what is needed and what is beneficial … but I can see it all sliding backwards and we will end up 5 or 10 years behind where we should be, never mind where we could be.

I didn’t take you comment as blunt … it was fine and challenging. You may have noticed that that is what I want people to do … challenge me. It seems to be a method which is forcing people justify comments and actions, or even just make them think a bit more carefully instead of making an off the cough remark. I don’t have to sit on the fence anymore so if I see the people are going to fall into their stereotypical responses I will prod them.

As for the Skoda instead of the Jaguar … it is fine to have a Skoda … as long as it is one which will still pull the caravan the way the Jag did / does … just don’t let it end up being a car that can hardly pull a half-full trailer with a few tents in … as you will end up accepting that a half-full trailer (and contents) is all that people deserve.

I suppose it all comes down to time in the end. Some of us have spent a lot of time and effort from way back trying to get people in influential positions to see sense. I think in many ways the boat has been missed. Cloud is taking over with mobile technologies so I think that the Windows/Linux desktop, OOo/MSO debate needs to move on. All are going to be less important in the future.

Great stuff a long standing apologist for FOSS I have got to agree with much you are saying.
The NHS CIO is adamant that they would not contemplate a desktop migration to FOSS due to the overhead of training and compatibility. Sirius PLC (no less) advised Bristol Council likewise, and my experience of the teaching profession concurs with them both.

My fervent wish is for this debate to stop, I have no desire to replace windows 7 with Ubuntu or MS office with Oracle Office with all the pain and no real gain practically or ethically.

I don’t like re training, i like acquiring new skills and taking advantage of new opportunities the FOSS Windows debate seems to be middle aged blokes squabbling over yesterday’s broken models. Betamax v VHS, duh what’s either?

Well I like new learning skills, so I retrained my skills and learned php to help support and develop using Moodle at our school. Some may have even said that this was re training LOL.

I do agree that retraining is a big part of implementing change.

Our school uses a mixture of open source and proprietary software, this creates no issues for staff or learners. I personally find implementing back end systems with OSS is easier. But many pupils in our area do use open office at home, as why pay for commercial software for doing your homework 🙂

Way to many people seem to want to make this a black and white issue. And start chucking FUD in. Shame more schools don’t make up their own mind instead of relying on LA advisors and third party IT consultancies 😉


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