Sunday, August 16, 2009

Three Things Schools Need to Think About with Regard to 'Free'

Reader Teach_J brings up some important points about going the 'free' route in ed tech. I'll try to touch on each of his three very valid concerns.
I think you forgot about three other major stumbling blocks to using open source. 1) IT Resistance - most IT departments are wedded to Microsoft products. It is what they know. They don't have any experience or background in Linux or using Open Source software. They will fight tooth and nail to stay in their comfort zone.

I recognize this resistance to change and here's what I've got to say about it: Why do we push teachers to jump into the 21st century, but we don't require it of our tech folks? I realize there are many many tech folks out there working in schools to do great things and to utilize the resources of Open Source, Web 2.0, and Social Tech. But what about all the folks who are beholden to MS Office? I say just as we make it an expectation that teachers will integrate current tech into their teaching, we should also make it an expectation that tech officers will integrate new thinking about open solutions into their work. And there's always another way to change this paradigm: make your tech hires based upon the candidates' proficiencies with Open Source and Social Tech; change the culture by changing your hiring qualifications.

2) Licensing - many Open Source or "free" software products are only open and free to the general public. Institutions, even public ones like schools, are expected to license the software just like Microsoft's stuff. It may be cheaper, but it is not always free as in free beer.

I understand that this is often the case, so it's important to tread carefully and to know exactly what it is that you need and want from the tech you are seeking. At my school, we recently encountered a situation where it looks like we're not going to be able to support MS SharePoint as we've done for the last several years. What to do? Well, chances are we're going to go with Google Apps for Education which is totally free. The package includes email, sites, and all the office-style programs we could want; so why pay good money for the MS alternative? (I've used Google Apps exclusively over the last few years for office, presentation, and archiving, but this would be my first foray into using it school-wide. I'd love to hear from some folks who have about the pros and cons of their experience.)

3) Training - just like the IT dept., the faculty and staff of a school district is already heavily invested in using Microsoft products. They have probably even had training from their school district in Office, etc. Few teachers will want to repeat that with "new" software packages. And going back to #1, it is the IT dept. that will have to develop the training, since there are few ready to go, off the shelf resources for Open Source.

I've heard this argument three times in the last four days. I think one of the nice things about many open platforms is the ease-of-use. Nobody who's ever used MS Office is really going to have a problem using Open Office or Google Docs. Nobody (I'm talking amateurs like me and most of my teacher friends) who's tried to create a web page using Dreamweaver will balk at using a free drag-and-drop program like Weebly to create a class page. There's really very little 'training' in anything a teacher would ever need to do in a classroom. Instead of 'training', try modeling a few uses of Google Earth, or Jing, or Diigo to your teachers and then let them decide how and what they'd like to experiment with.

Maybe I missed a memo, but it really doesn't seem all that hard.


  1. Another factor that comes into play when talking about OSS and IT departments is tech support. You may pay ridiculous amounts of money to get MS Office licenses, but you also have a guarantee of support from Microsoft if and when problems arise, and same goes for other paid software. There is no such gurantee from OSS, and even if there is a community surrounding the software that is willing to provide support, that is often not enough to convince an organization to go that route. I think these fears can certainly be overblown, but they are also not w/o justification.

    BTW, bummed I missed the STE Conference...sadly I was too busy w/ work to go.

  2. I sincerely believe that the whole notion of open source is antathema to knowledge monopolies.....and schools up until about 5000 days ago have always been knowledge monopolies. It is always about control! Everything else is a red herring.

  3. You're battling IT department inertia. You're also battling veteran teachers who maybe came into computers a few years ago and learned MS products. While they were willing to take THAT jump, they may be less likely to take yet another (even if it is only a small skip).

  4. I piloted google apps for our IT department with two English classes last semester in my high school. This year we're going school wide. IT is open and supportive of using open source. Now it's teaching the teachers how to use google apps. I'll let you now how it goes...

  5. Just because I read books doesn't mean that I should be telling people how to teach literature courses. Likewise, just because people have wifi and laptops at home doesn't mean they understand how to run a highly used data center with high uptime requirements. In either case it would probably be better for us to sit down over coffee, a beer or some chicken wings and try to seek understanding of where the other person is coming from.

    For me, this post highlights a paradigm that many an IT employee in education understands, and that is that faculty drastically underestimate the amount of time and effort it takes to maintain an enterprise quality system. For the record, its a lot harder to hire a quality sys admin for open source than for Windows and also a lot more expensive. And please don't just say, "but the savings of software licenses make up for the salary difference". If you did a total cost of ownership analysis you would know that it isn't that simplistic.

    I suppose that by now you wouldn't guess that I am an open source guy. Well, I am. I've replaced large enterprise (Nortel) phone systems with open source (Asterisk, sipx). If there is one system that is scary to go unsupported on, its the phones. You've got 911 and other security and safety problems. When the Internet goes dead people get annoyed. When the phones go dead, people get fired.

    So let me turn this argument on its ear a little. The reason that open source doesn't take off more is that end users are generally unwilling to put up with the slightly more downtime that is possible with unsupported open source. Sometimes an upgrade will introduce a new problem with a feature, sometimes you have to wait for a patch from the community and sometimes you are communicating via a listserv with other folks trying to get things straightened out. Even a really good Linux admin will get stuck on problems and need to go to the community for support. Support from the community takes more time than a call to Microsoft (thought it is much cheaper).

    When a system is down and faculty are upset, they are usually ok with "Microsoft is working on it" or "we've got a call into the vendor and they are logged into our system right now trying to get things straightened out." They normally are not ok with, "I'm just really struggling to get this freaking thing to compile, but I've emailed my friend in Bolivia and I'm waiting for his reply".

    If people would chill out just a little and bring their expectations down from five nines (99.999% uptime, all but five minutes a year) it would be a workable solution. Technology has created such high demands for perfection and instant gratification that IT admins are in a catch-22. You can't spend the money for 24x7x365 support, but you're expected to provide just as good of service. These unreasonable demands are what is driving my friends and I to bail on the IT industry, it is just too stressful of an existence.

    I'm all for teacher innovation, I'm all for using collaboratively developed software that holds to the open source model. My job is to get people to use technology in their instruction. We just need people to understand the trade off and to understand that an hour or two of downtime each academic year is worth the money we didn't send to Microsoft.


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