May 26, 2005

Detroit high school opens its desktops

Author: Kevin Quiggle

In 2003, John Hansknecht, the director of technology at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy, had a tough decision to make. The school had about a hundred older computers running Microsoft Office 97 and Windows NT, and some kind of upgrade was clearly required. It would have been an easy decision to simply upgrade to Microsoft Office 2000, but that would have required replacing all the computers with more powerful systems -- a large expenditure which could be better spent on other technology needs. Hansknecht had a better idea: OpenOffice.org.The previous year Hansknecht had begun evaluating OpenOffice.org with the assistance of Peter Guenther, the computer applications teacher, and Vondra Abbott, the school librarian. Hansknecht thought that if he could meet the school's requirements with an office suite that worked with both Microsoft Windows and Linux, he could eliminate the cost of Microsoft Office and reduce the need for periodic and expensive hardware upgrades.

However, it was not sufficient that OpenOffice.org was free software; it was also essential that the software meet the school's requirements for quality and functionality. As a college preparatory school with almost a thousand students, U of D Jesuit has a strong commitment to academics, including teaching technology. Any office suite chosen for the school would have to meet the requirements of both students and faculty in terms of stability, functions, and features. Hansknecht would also have to convince the school's Faculty Technology Committee, with both facts and a cost analysis, that OpenOffice.org was a good choice.

The essential facts were these: The school had a total of 158 newer PCs running Microsoft Windows XP, and 110 older PCs running Microsoft Windows NT and Microsoft Office 97. Realistically, upgrading the older PCs to Windows XP would require a complete hardware replacement. As an alternative, Hansknecht thought the older PCs could be converted to Linux terminals using software from the Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP). Although it would be necessary to purchase Linux servers to support LTSP clients, no PC replacements would be required.

The cost analysis was compelling -- the Linux option could be implemented for around $21,000, more than $100,000 less than the Microsoft Windows alternative. The key to enabling the move to Linux, however, was the ability to provide an acceptable office application suite that would run on both Windows XP and Linux. It was impractical for the school to support more than one office application suite, nor was it cost-effective nor beneficial to remove Windows XP from the newer systems.

The functional requirements for an office suite were straightforward: The suite had to include full-featured word processing, spreadsheets with graphs and charts, and presentations. The suite needed to include all of the functions and capabilities being taught in technology classes, be an effective tool for use in school work assignments, and be able to open documents in Microsoft formats for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Ironically, it turned out that OpenOffice.org met the last requirement about as well as Microsoft Office, because the software that students used at home included many older versions of Microsoft Office as well as Microsoft Works, and even Microsoft Office 2000 experienced compatibility issues with other Microsoft office applications.

There was an additional benefit to OpenOffice.org -- because it is free open source software, the school was able to offer the software to all faculty and students. Ultimately, the school provided 30 "library copies" on CD-ROM for students to check out, take home, and install on their own systems.

To support the proposed adoption of OpenOffice.org, Hansknecht presented a cost analysis and implementation plan to the Faculty Technology Committee. He also shared articles and information on OpenOffice.org and the open source philosophy with the faculty and with other decision-makers, to familiarize them with the concepts and benefits of open source software.

Ultimately, Hansknecht's recommendation went to the school's Technology Team, which made a final decision to go ahead in May 2003. With this approval, one of the school computer labs was converted to Linux and OpenOffice.org 1.1 as a pilot test. The lessons learned from the pilot test were used to prepare a complete conversion of all school computers over the summer vacation period (a vacation time for the students, but not for the school technology support staff!).

The school sent notification to the students and their parents advising them of the switch. The school's technology support staff provided orientation sessions to both faculty and students at the beginning of the school year to familiarize them with OpenOffice.org. These 45-minute orientation sessions explained the general layout of the OpenOffice.org suite, discussed key differences between OpenOffice.org and Microsoft Office, and showed users where to find the "Microsoft Office equivalents" for the most commonly used features and functions. Of course, since U of D Jesuit is a school, students were also given classes in the use of OpenOffice.org.

While OpenOffice.org is now used by 100% of the faculty and students in the school (though some administrative staff still uses Microsoft Office due to specific software requirements), students are not required to use OpenOffice.org when working at home. However, a presentation is given to students at the start of every school year to advise them on the use of OpenOffice.org, the availability of free copies, and potential problems of converting from Microsoft Office formats.

Six steps to a successful OSS migration
If you want to follow the U of D Jesuit model for implementing open source software, here are the six key elements to making the plan work.
  1. Start small -- familiarize yourself and a few others with the software.
  2. Do your homework -- prepare a detailed written cost analysis showing the cost and benefits of your plan.
  3. Educate and inform the decision-makers in your organization. Explain to them what the software is, what the benefits are, and why open source is widely accepted and used, and provide a formal cost analysis to support your arguments with hard facts.
  4. Implement a pilot project to train your support staff in preparation for a large scale implementation, and to find and fix any unexpected problems.
  5. Plan and implement a full-scale implementation.
  6. Educate and train the people who will be using the software -- and remember that this is an ongoing process, not a one-time event.

As a practical matter, conversion of documents from Microsoft Office has not been a significant problem, with the exception of some of the more complex PowerPoint files. This has been a concern for some faculty members who have a large number of PowerPoint classroom presentations. Although these presentations could be recreated in OpenOffice.org, faculty members would naturally rather spend their time creating new presentations than recreating existing ones. As a temporary measure, the school has made the free Microsoft PowerPoint viewer software available, although Hansknecht hopes that OpenOffice.org 2.0 will provide improved conversion capabilities and eliminate this interim requirement. The school is evaluating the OpenOffice.org release 2 beta; a decision on whether to implement the upgrade will be made before this summer.

The ability of OpenOffice.org to read and convert Microsoft Office files does not include conversion of macros, but this is not an issue for the school since students and teachers generally do not make significant use of macros. Another minor concern has been the fact that the school uses a "plagiarism prevention" service from Turnitin.com, and the service does not accept files in OpenOffice.org formats. Since OpenOffice.org can save files in Microsoft Office formats, this is merely an annoyance.

U of D Jesuit re-evaluates its implementation of OpenOffice.org at the end of every year. At each re-evaluation, it finds that the project is meeting the school's goals and requirements.

The school has also found some unexpected benefits. Not only has the use of LTSP extended the life of existing hardware, it has actually improved the response time and stability of the systems involved.

Hansknecht does not hesitate to recommend OpenOffice.org to other schools, and he has extended his use of open source software to include the Mozilla browser, GIMP graphics software, Apache Web server, and the Moodle course management system.

The successful adoption of OpenOffice.org at U of D Jesuit did not happen by accident. Thorough planning, hard work, an information campaign, and ongoing support were all required.

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