August 20, 2002

Study aims to measure benefit of Open Source software on schools

-By Grant Gross -
Nearly lost among the plethora of corporate news coming out of the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo last week was the announcement of a pilot program that organizers hope will eventually lead to wide-scale adoption of Open Source software by public schools.
Last Tuesday, the Open-Source Software Institute announced it was joining a couple of Mississippi education
institutions to sponsor a Ph.D-level study on the viability of using Open Source software in public schools.

Organizers, which include the North Mississippi Education Consortium and the University of Mississippi's School of Education, believe the study will show cost savings and other benefits of using Open Source software in schools, where budgets are often tight.

John Weathersby, OSSI founder and chairman, says the goal of the study is for it to be a "logical and practical" guide for schools looking at Open Source software as an alternative. "I keep going back to practicality, because I think that's extremely important," Weathersby says. "Technology for technology's sake is not worth a lot to me, but technology that's applied, that's where the true value comes in."

Weathersby says he hopes the study will focus on specific areas -- such as literacy skills, math skills, visual arts, databases and Internet browsing -- where Open Source can replace other software.

"We believe that Open Source solutions represent a practical, viable way to
save our schools money and increase their computing efficiency," he adds. "Not to
explore and leverage this technology for the benefit of our school system
is, in my opinion, civilly negligent."

Study author Don Schillinger, an instructor and Ph.D. student at the Old Miss School of Education, expects the study will come up with solid numbers on the cost benefits and other reasons to use Open Source software. "We'd really like to help the schools implement some solutions that might save them quite a bit of money," he says. "It's our hope that they can take the money they might spend on technology and give them at least as good or better technology and put the extra money back into the schools.

"We're running on a real tight budget here in the state of Mississippi," he adds.

Schillinger says he also plans to look at other benefits, such as security and scalability. "If we can run some of these solutions on machines that aren't as technologically advanced as most of us use -- some of these classrooms have some very old machines -- if we can run the software and run it securely, we can give students who might otherwise not have the opportunity an opportunity to use some of this software," he says.

The study organizers stress that they aren't trying to completely replace proprietary software in schools, just study the viability of Open Source software. Although Schillinger and Weathersby expect the study to show that Open Source software can provide benefits in a school setting, they also both say they're keeping an open mind about what the results will tell them. Schillinger says he expects the study to point out some problems with Open Source software in schools.

"Let's do a real study, let's find real results," Weathersby says. "I don't want it just to be hype. We need some real concrete results to come from it. I expect some good things, and I expect some shortcomings, and let's just see how it'll turn out. I think this will really benefit the educational system."

One issue that Schillinger will focus on is compatibility between Open Source software and proprietary packages that schools are using. "If it's not compatible, then we've got a big problem," he says. "Can we fix it and make it work? Schools can't just throw away all the proprietary software they're using."

Schillinger says he'll go where the results lead him. "If it doesn't work, I still get a good research project out of it," he says. "I'd really be upset because the whole idea is to help schools. I don't expect it to be 100% compatible -- that'd be a dream. But if we can show 90% compatibility and a tremendous cost savings, a lot of people would go for that."

To test a handful of schools, the study organizers plan to put together a package of Open Source tools for schools that can be customized for individual schools' needs, and the group has a commitment from the Gnome Foundation and several other organizations to help with any programming that may be needed to customize Open Source software for schools.

But the study isn't meant to compete with other Open Source school software projects. Weathersby's OSSI has joined the Schoolforge coalition of Open Source school projects and will draw on that group for software packages.

"We want to make it as intuitive, as easy and as seamless as possible for them to have the opportunity to choose a free and Open Source solution," Weathersby says. "It's great that the technology is just as good as, if not better than, proprietary systems. But if people can't use it, if they can't become acclimated to it quickly and rather seamlessly, then it becomes prohibitive. We're trying to smooth over those rough spots."

The idea for the study came when Schillinger and Weathersby got into a discussion about technology and Open Source at a charity golf tournament. They began talking about Schillinger's work on technology curriculums, and they began brainstorming on how to do a study that would measure the benefit of Open Source software in schools.

Schillinger's goal is to start a pilot program in six computer labs, three that will be test subjects for Open Source software and three that will be control subjects. He says several schools are already interested in participating, and a few other states have already expressed interest in the study. No one has committed as of yet.

Weathersby says the students are the ultimate consumers for the project, and he predicts that they won't notice much difference between Open Source software and what they were using before.

"Kids don't care what operating system they're using, and they shouldn't," he says. "They want to learn and they need to be given the opportunity to interact with computers. If we can do it through Open Source and Free Software that also provides cost savings and increases efficiency, then that's progress."


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