Jun 19, 2007

Jay Pfaffman, an instructional technology professor from the University of Tenessee recently wrote an excellent piece which appeared on the LinuxInsider site entitled, It's Time to Consider Open Source Software. As can be expected, this generated a fair amount of debate and comment on the CETPA (California Education Technology Professionals Association) listserv, which revealed a surprisingly prevalent perspective that using open source software somehow equates to "switching" or replacing existing applications only.

I believe it's important to emphasize to all education technology people (or anyone else, for that matter) that they should not view open source simply as a cheap replacement for something else. There is no need or requirement to switch any core application, business process, etc., if one's organization is unprepared to do so or finds it otherwise unnecessary. However, when an opportunity or initiative is in play, then open source should absolutely be in the mix for consideration. The arguments against doing so simply don't hold up to any sort of honest evaluation.

Inevitably, some will respond with something like, "but [open source program] isn't as good/easy to use/[fill in the blank] as [commercial program]" and, "we won't be teaching students how to use the tools they will be using in the 'real world'" (you know, that nebulous place that exists primarily in our imagination, based on our personal assumptions and past experience rather than reality.) I would argue that the notion that a commercial program is somehow easier/better than the open source alternative is often rooted in a familiarity with the product, and completely misses the point. What we're talking about is skills and fundamentals, not features and products. A student who learns to retouch images in the GIMP, for example, will easily be able to transfer those skills to Adobe Photoshop - the fundamentals are the same. Can the GIMP do everything that Photoshop can? No (the reverse could be argued for some functions.) Can the GIMP do more than enough to teach students the fundamentals of photo retouching and provide them with the tools to do so effectively? Absolutely. Do the students benefit from more available resources for this function, as well as the availability of the program both at home and at school? No question.

There should be a change in our approach to software, which is facilitated by the opportunities of open-source. Rather than the traditional response to a teacher request to try something new, which usually entails, "here is how much that will cost, let me know when you have the money" or worse, "I'm sorry but we only support the following [fill in the number] programs on our computers,"

largely because our technology decisions are based primarily on the needs of the IT department, rather than that of the learning environment, since, after all, the deciding factor in most ed tech decisions is what IT thinks it can do, at the expense of learning and creativity - but don't get me started down that path...

we need to look for all the ways we might be able to meet that need/interest. At a fundamental level, we should strive to resist our incessant need to control every fine detail of what can and can't be done in our classrooms, and our belief that we must support every program that our teachers use, or deny them access to it. Teachers are resourceful, if you let them be, and will find ways to use technology in ways you can't even imagine. And best of all, they love to share, which means others will learn from them and communities of practice will naturally form.

Many believe that this represents a loss of security, which in turn reduces stability, and makes such an approach, while purportedly feasible for a small organization, impossible in a large network. While I agree that security is important, there must be a balance between security and flexibility. The measure of success for an IT department should not be how well the network runs or how stable the platform is, although these are important. The measure should be, "am I empowering or impeding my teachers and students' ability to enhance education through technology" and "what are some of the innovative ways my people are using technology to change children's lives." I've heard the big network/small network argument many times in my 11 years here at Saugus, which is by no means a small network (17 physical sites, 11,000 students, 2000 staff,) and it always boils down to a sheepish, "we just can't keep things running if we let people have control." What we need to do is attack that with, "what tools can I implement to enable as much flexibility as possible in the classroom."

So then the argument is, "the tools may be out there, but we can't afford them," which brings the argument full circle: use open source tools. For example: if a teacher or student mucks up their computer, why not enable them to reimage it themselves using an open source tool like PING? They simply insert a boot CD (or press a key at bootup to activate a PXE boot) and are presented with a list of machine images available for application. They look at their computer, see that it's an HP DX2200 on the label, select it from the list, and in 10 minutes they are back in business. How about remote control for the support staff? Can't afford it you say? Yes you can - use VNC on all your workstations. When that teacher has a problem, you jump on, look into it, solve it, and go back to reading your comics. Software distribution? Kixtart. The list goes on and on.

The answer here is not to increase security or tighten control, it's to improve the efficiency of the IT department by empowering both the IT staff AND the teachers to deal with those every day stability blockers. Will less control create more problems? Yes. But we're not in this business to make our jobs easier, we're here to improve education. This is not a business with a finite set of tasks available to its employees, it's an environment where exploration and learning are held in the highest regard.

It's fundamentally a philosophical issue. My personal view is that we are in need of a cultural change in ed tech and, arguably, the entire leadership structure above it, for they are as much in need of a clear understanding of the implications and measures of a successful ed tech program as we are. My hope is that an increase in conversations such as this might just generate a philosophical shift, because, after all, "shift happens."

When considering open source, the real question each of us needs to ask is, "what would my people do with more readily available technology resources that are unencumbered by license restrictions?" Why not hand out some Open CDs (http://www.theopencd.org) and find out?! I think you'll be surprised by the creativity of your teaching staff, and their ability to leverage the resources to improve learning.


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  1. Nice writeup. Good blog in general...

  2. Well, teaching open source to the student is better. They say that Linux is not a friendly user unlike windows, but with Linux student can be more skillful, I did not say that with Windows students cannot become skillful. What I'm trying to say is with Windows for you to be able to have this is you need to pay for its license. Unlike Linux is for free.

    Like what the articles says: "What we're talking about is skills and fundamentals, not features and products." I agree with this. If you buy Windows O.S, even pirated or not. Some program applications are not there. For example Burner, Photoshop, MS Office and etc., you need to buy another installer for these unlike Linux you can have all those things for free. Once you install LINUX O.S you already have it. You don't need to use you money again!!!

  3. VNC has made "just in time" tech support possible for us. Especially when a student inadvertently does something to the workstation that would shut down its use for hours/days otherwise.
    We even had a networked printer that was jammed with too many print requests from multiple computers where the problem was resolved with the use of VNC.

  4. Your article hits the proverbial nail right on the head. I certainly can relate to what you have written and that I as a former educational IT staff do know that open source has a place in education. However, my experience with those academics I worked with is that they have been "Windowized", and in many cases are unwilling to even consider open source as a sound investment when instructing students. At one point I was able to persuade those empowered to review the course curriculum for Basic Linux. Surprisingly, it passed and the course was offered for the Spring term. Although my name was listed as the instructor, I was told that I could not teach the course simply because of some obscure policy at the College I was at, so another was tapped to teach the course and that I would substitute. Sad to say that the one teaching the Basic Linux class was stuck in Security mode, and never left that at all during the course of the Spring term. The class "bombed". The skills that those 25 students could have learned was squandered because I was not allowed to teach those students what Linux is about and why open source is my choice over the other OS and applications. Once again your article is excellent.

  5. Just like stepping into a uncertain environment in the real world, teachers are often at odds with changing what they know especially when they are not totally comfortable with technology in the first place.
    We need to encourage teachers to explore the varied uses of Open Source software. For those stuck in the commercial versions of document processing and presentation, there must be some supportive staff development.
    Students pick up new software easily, they adjust to new things. Most teachers have not changed the way they teach to accommodate the way students learn.
    Just handing and Open CD to the average teacher is not going to illicit enthusiasm. I saw an entire group of teachers surprised that there was a program like Tux Paint and were thrilled to play with it in a training situation where integration was the key. And the best part was that it was free.
    As we make more use of Open Source, in order to get that "buy-in" from both teachers and administrators, we must support the learning curve of the teachers, and maybe the administrators also.
    Great article as always.

  6. Just a quick question...if all of your workstations have VNC, what happens when the kids hack in and start remote controlling all over creation?

    Sometimes, a little bit of control is a good thing.

  7. Well, they'd have to get the password, so I suppose it would be the same thing that would happen if they got any other password, now wouldn't it? If you are particularly concerned about packet sniffing, there's also TightVNC.

  8. A question (really a question, not a troll)...does each workstation have a different password? If so, with thousands of workstations in some school networks, that would be a pain. If not, does a single compromise of the VNC password give the student the "keys to the kingdom"?

  9. As with any system, you'd have to plan for that. In our case, they all have the same password. If it were to be compromised, it is quite east to change on a large scale through login scripts. You could also develop a password system based on workstation name, asset tag, etc. These details would have to be addressed in any remote control system, open source or proprietary.

  10. Thanks for your answer. For us, the change by login script would not be fast enough. We're looking at SMS as a solution. I'm a big VNC fan from way back, but we just couldn't make it work from a security standpoint.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.

  11. Did a little more research and discovered UltraVNC at http://www.uvnc.com, which allows for Windows domain authentication, access groups, etc. I believe that this would meet your requirements.

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