December 17, 2003

Teaching educators about free software

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

I was shocked when the middle school principal told me he could not accept free software for his journalism program; that all he was allowed to use was fresh-from-the-box commercial software. "It's school district policy," he said. "We can't even bring software from home now. It's because of the licensing. There are big fines for using unlicensed software. We can't risk it." This was an educated man, a fine teacher and administrator, but he knew nothing about the licensing terms under which Linux, OpenOffice, and many other fine programs are distributed. Neither, apparently, did his superiors in the school district administration. We need to teach them.

The names of the principal, his school, and the school district don't matter. It would be unfair to single them out, since their attitude is the norm rather than the exception, at least in the United States.

I met this man while serving on a Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) committee tasked with deciding which one of 10 schools was going to receive a $10,000 grant to help produce a special school journalism project, hopefully one that would help bring attention to local problems that affected both students and their communities. More than half of the funds requested in the grant applications were for computer hardware and software, with anticipated software expenditures generally exceeding hardware funding requests.

The big software beneficiary of the the grant -- no matter which school receives it -- will not be Microsoft, but Adobe, whose PageMaker, FrameMaker, and Photoshop were the most-requested programs. Even with academic pricing, grant applicants expected to spend at least $1,000 per computer on software, which is more than the cost of a decent desktop computer and 19-inch monitor.

What struck me, as I looked through the grant applications and scanned newspapers and other printed materials these schools were producing, was that they weren't trying to do anything I don't routinely do myself with OpenOffice 1.1, which costs $0.00. None of their photo manipulation needs were extraordinary, and all their current publishing was in black and white, so Photoshop's vaunted ability to make accurate color separations for printing was not needed. And if the rudimentary graphics capability included in OpenOffice wouldn't be adequate, new versions of the GIMP are much more user-friendly than earlier ones; it is now, at least, comparable to Paint Shop Pro for most common uses, including graphics preparation for black and white printing.

Let's not even get into whether schools should convert from Windows to Linux. Windows is "free" in the sense that it's included with almost all computers available from most school districts' authorized suppliers, and trying to convert people currently locked to proprietary software to an entire new operating system may be too large a step to expect at first.

Free software is still comparatively unknown

Any U.S. resident who consistently watches network TV, especially professional sports programs, has at least heard the word "Linux," courtesy of IBM. But there are no ads for free software as a concept. And most people find the idea alien. They aren't against it; they simply have never heard of it. Those of us who read NewsForge or Slashdot regularly, and hang out with friends we've met through Linux Users Groups or IRC, tend to forget that we are not normal. Most people don't debate fine points of GPL enforcement over beer. They don't even know what a GPL is, and if they hear the initials they probably think it has something to do with GPS, as in Ground Positioning Systems, not software licensing.

As you've seen in recent NewsForge stories, neither eBay nor most librarians know that you can freely distribute and redistribute free software until someone comes along and tells them. Why should we expect educators to be different?

Teaching teachers

One big barrier I foresee in teaching teachers -- and school and school district administrators -- about free software is their natural reluctance to teach students to use software that isn't "mainstream." There's no denying the fact that Windows and Windows-based proprietary software are going to be more popular on corporate desktops than Linux and free software for at least another 10 years or so, and educators feel they have an obligation to teach students skills they will be able to use in the "real world" after they graduate.

In graphics Adobe is the undisputed king. You can talk all day about the wonders of GIMP and how Scribus is getting to the point where it rivals Quark in basic functionality, but most ads for newspaper and magazine layout people still ask for Adobe and Quark experience, and employers are going to go on looking for that knowledge for years to come.

I can argue, truthfully, that layout principles are the same no matter what program you use, and that different software shouldn't have any effect on the quality of a publication's appearance, but it is going to take many years to overcome fear of computers as anything besides devices that are used purely by rote, with even tiny changes in configuration made only with great caution. Our major ally here is time. Today's 40-year-old school administrator may not have grown up with a computer in the house, but tomorrow's administrator will almost certainly have had one around since babyhood.

More familiarity with computers in general should lead to more willingness to experiment with new software.

But as we wait for the next generation of computer-familiar school administrators to rise through the education hierarchy, we need to gently work with the current generation to show them how free software can help them get more computer capability per dollar than they are used to getting with proprietary software. We can't tell them, "What you are doing now is wrong, you schlump," even if what they are doing is wrong and, by geek-world standards, they are schlumps. Instead, we must persuade with soft words and kindness. We must demonstrate positives rather than harp on negatives. "Microsoft is evil!" is not an operative statement when convincing school administrators to allow less-expensive alternatives in their classrooms. "Linux can't be affected by any current computer viruses," is a much better persuasive phrase.

The best advocates for open source in education are teachers

The best people to "sell" open source to sysadmins are other sysadmins, and the best people to lobby journalists are other journalists. It is no different with teachers. A teacher who uses open source presumably knows more about how available open source software will benefit his or her colleagues than the rest of us do. Working with administrators may take a slightly different tack, perhaps involving more emphasis on budget than on utility, but an education "insider" will still be able to provide insight someone not in the field will not have.

Even those of us asking school administrators to use open source because we are budget-concerned taxpayers (who should -- but often don't -- have the loudest voice in all government decisions) need to use comments and case studies written by people who have strong education experience.

Here are three fine resources:

Using these three sites as starting places, you can find virtually any kind of "open source in schools" advocacy material imaginable, along with a chance to hook up with experienced advocates and exchange information with them.

If you are a teacher seeking information about Linux and open source, and how they can help your school deliver more computer "bang for the buck," you will find it. If you are not a teacher, you will find plenty of information written by teachers and administrators that can help you learn what's important in school software -- and what's not.

But whether you are an education establishment insider or an outsider trying to help local educators, the big thing to remember is that Mozilla wasn't built in a day. The process of bringing open source to schools is long, slow, and arduous, and you are up against well-financed proprietary software companies that regard school districts as lucrative marketplaces, and will spend oodles of dollars on fancy brochures and presentations to keep their education sinecure going as long as possible.


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