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The open-source revolution and schools: when and how to make the switch

October 10, 2011

Technology costs comprise a large portion of many school and district budgets. Of that, one place where many are tempted to save money is in software costs. Software licensing can run, in total, tens of thousands of dollars for even mid-sized districts, including student software, operating systems, and student information systems. The availability of open-source alternatives to popular commercial software has exploded in recent years, and the price point of these packages (most often, free) is very tempting; however, educational institutions considering open-source software packages should enter the situation fully aware of the consequences.

There are some key benefits to adopting open-source software for common tasks besides the cost. Many open-source packages are available for multiple operating systems, including Linux derivatives such as Edubuntu. There are usually no licensing requirements or limitations, making installation on multiple terminals or stand-alone machines simple. Further, open-source projects are often initiated and run by people who are very similar to the intended audience, meaning the design and capabilities are tailored to the needs of users; moreover, many open-source projects are hosted and coordinated in online communities such as SourceForge, where users can communicate directly with project members to make suggestions for future upgrades.

Of course, most of the time, those project members are volunteers, and are under no obligation to help users; most have full-time jobs of their own and work on open-source projects in their free time. As such, a key drawback to adopting open-source software is the lack of customer service. Even if there is a conflict between an open-source product and a commercial product, the commercial vendor is unlikely to provide support.

Larger organizations with more capacity for developing or hiring programmers have an added advantage. Open-source software is customizable to someone that can understand and modify the code. The interface and capabilities of an open-source package could be modified for very specific applications entirely internally, without the need for gaining permission from or contracting with a vendor. This, of course, requires a dedicated IT department with sufficiently skilled programmers. The cost of maintaining such labor, or the opportunity cost of forgoing reliable customer service, may drive some organizations to decide that the cost of commercial software is worth the added benefits.

Specifically for schools, the decision to adopt open-source tools depends on the resources available and the use of the tool. For software to support instruction, a sufficiently skilled teacher may be all that is required. As the purpose of the tool becomes more central to operation and less redundant or flexible, more resources for support and troubleshooting are necessary. Open-source student information systems or enterprise systems are available, but schools should have programmers on site or on retainer to configure, update, and repair the system.

Further information is available at k12opentech.org, including a list of benefits and discussions of more specific tools and functions, and k12opensource.org. A more general discussion and resource list for adopting open-source software compiled by Moon and Baker is available at redhat.com.

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