Emergence of open technologies and open-source alternatives makes customizing school software a reality
By Corey Murray, Senior Editor, eSchool NewsAiming to customize their solutions to meet the individual needs of teachers and students, a growing number of school systems are ushering in a new breed of school software that relies on open technologies--whether it's open-source software on their servers and desktops, or so-called Web 2.0 services available free of charge online. Economics and advancements in technology are fueling this latest trend in school software, proponents of the movement say--but it's also about customization, and the desire to employ a variety of solutions as users see fit.
December 15, 2006—At the Plano Independent School District in Texas, Associate Superintendent for Technology and Academic Services Jim Hirsch is preparing for the future.
At a time when the internet, once strictly an informational resource, is being transformed into a virtual hub of web-based services and applications--giving users viable alternatives to expensive, proprietary school software applications--Hirsch has been traveling the country, talking to colleagues and painting a picture of what he sees as the next evolution in educational technology.
Within five years, Hirsch predicts, not a single desktop in this 52,000-student school system in metropolitan Dallas will carry the image of a proprietary school software program. Gone will be the familiar Microsoft applications and desktop icons that over the years have become synonymous with document creation. In their place will be a suite of lesser-known, but equally capable alternatives--or, what Hirsch likes to call "open technologies."
Though some might see his plans as ambitious, Hirsch is hardly alone in his dreams. Plano ISD is part of a fast-growing cadre of school districts across the country actively exploring the use of free web-based services and open-source school software alternatives.
Last summer, the state of Indiana announced a plan to deploy more than 24,000 computers with Linux operating systems in its schools. At the time, the project--called inAccess--represented the largest single distribution of Linux-based technology in U.S. K-12 schools (see story: Desktop Linux rolls into Indiana). Experts estimate the deployment could expand to more than 170,000 desktops across the state by the end of this year.
Educators also are awaiting the arrival of former MIT Media Lab Director Nicholas Negroponte's $100 laptop. Built on an open-source platform that is a scaled-down version of Linux, the machines are being touted as a low-cost, one-to-one computing solution for children in developing nations. Negroponte, who demonstrated the machines at the National Education Computing Conference in San Diego this past summer, already has inked deals to supply the machines to education ministries in several third-world countries, though he says U.S. schools will have to wait at least another year before they can expect to get their hands on the computers. (Watch the seven-minute news clip, "$100 laptop ... Billion-dollar idea")
Experts say the technologies, built on a platform that promotes collaboration among users and encourages schools to share and modify applications to meet students' needs, embody the spirit of innovation and sharing they say is essential to upgrading school computing for the next century.
Though industry watchers say it's unrealistic to think schools eventually will abandon proprietary software products in favor of open alternatives, the thinking among many district technology coordinators is that, as the market for open technologies in education expands, schools will enjoy the luxury of shopping for solutions aligned with students' and teachers' specific needs--regardless of platform.
An open mind
Not unlike many of his colleagues, Hirsch points to the internet as evidence that new options for teaching and learning are quickly becoming a reality for schools.
During the National School Boards Association's annual T+L Conference in Dallas in November, Hirsch spoke on the topic at a forum for school technology officers.
Sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), the event was created to promote CoSN's K-12 Open Technologies Initiative. The program and corresponding web site--www.k12opentech.org--is intended to support the adoption and integration of open technologies and open-source applications in K-12 schools worldwide.
"The question that needs to be asked is, 'What makes the most sense for the environment that we're in?'" explained Hirsch in a recent interview with eSchool News.
Not long ago, Hirsch said, the consensus in many district IT shops was that proprietary software applications such as Microsoft's popular Office suite and others were the way to go. After all, it made sense. Despite the high cost of licensing fees and service contracts, the products, built and owned by leading software vendors, had been created to work seamlessly with the Windows operating system (OS)--still the preferred OS in more than 90 percent of U.S. school districts.
Economics and improvements in technology are changing that notion. But it's also more than that. As new requirements for reporting and learning were ushered in under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and education advocates nationwide issued a call for more individualized instruction, a fresh perspective has emerged in schools. Rather than rely on proprietary software applications built for the masses, schools might do better to consider more customizable approaches created on an open platform, many believe.
Unlike proprietary software solutions that come shipped in boxes with complex license agreements attached, open technologies--the vast majority of which are downloadable over the internet at no cost--give schools the freedom to mix and match tools based on the needs of students and faculty, proponents of the movement say. What's more, many of them are available sans licensing agreement, which means schools can use them wherever and however they want, free of charge.
"This is where the power of personalization really comes to fruition," explained Hirsch. "It's difficult to have a strictly proprietary system that fits the needs of the individual customer."
In Plano, educators and technicians already are experimenting with the benefits of open technologies.
Like many school districts across the country, Plano uses open-source web servers on its back end. Where the front-end user experience in schools today remains dominated by familiar proprietary solutions, school technology directors have long been experimenting with open-source technologies powered by free operating systems such as Linux on the back end. Open technologies such as the Apache web server from the open-source Apache Software Foundation have been viewed as a viable and, in some cases, preferred alternative to proprietary, Windows-based servers.
School technicians who use open-source servers claim they are more versatile, easier to upgrade, cheaper, and just as secure as any proprietary solution on the market.
These benefits are part of the reason why school district CTOs convened in Dallas in November: If open technologies already are providing schools with these benefits on the back end, couldn't they do the same for teachers and students in the classroom, too?
Hirsch certainly thinks so. Currently, his district is working with a U.K.-based firm called Editure to create an educational portal that will feature a whole suite of customizable solutions for use by teachers and students. Using an open-source model, Hirsch said, the portal would query the district's different informational databases, automatically pulling up learning resources, grading information, and other school-related applications based on a set of personal preferences and restrictions assigned to the individual, whether it's a teacher, a student, or an administrator.
Because the applications themselves are all platform-neutral, he says, they make it possible for a wide variety of programs to pull information from the same data stream, automatically populating a range of resources with up-to-the-minute information culled from the district's data warehouse.
For example, a teacher could have access to his or her master schedule, created automatically with information from the district's central database. Likewise, students who access the portal would see only information relevant to their classes; administrators might have access to test scores; parents might pull up information pertaining to their children; and so on. Curriculum planners also would likely be digital.
By choosing tools that can run under any architecture, regardless of platform, Hirsch says schools are able to achieve another level of versatility that, prior to the evolution of open technologies in schools, would have been impossible.
"You can have these sort of free-flowing areas that talk to servers on their own," explained Hirsch. Such a benefit might allow schools to run applications that feature Spanish and English resources on a single page, for example. "To have that all on one screen, living together, would be quite a feat," acknowledged Hirsch.
"Blending is the key," he added. Many open technologies allow technicians to tinker with the source code, enabling them to integrate technologies faster and more efficiently, without waiting for the latest version or upgrade.
"The word that comes to mind in the discussion of open technologies is freedom," wrote Hirsch in a recent presentation he gave on the topic. "Freedom to use, modify, and redistribute with few licensing restrictions."
Not all open technologies provide as much freedom as others, however. Some applications, explained Hirsch, although built on an open platform, technically are still proprietary.
For instance, Zoho Office, an alternative to Microsoft Office, is downloadable for free over the internet, but doesn't give users the ability to change or modify its source code. Google's new Docs and Spreadsheets tool is a similar technology currently used in schools.
Zoho Office and Google Docs and Spreadsheets are part of an emerging suite of options, more commonly called Web 2.0 technologies or web-based services. Driven by the same philosophy of sharing and collaboration that has fueled the expansion of open-source software in schools, these technologies stand to alter forever the role that software plays in education, their advocates say (see "A paradigm shift for school software?").
Rather than purchase expensive, proprietary software packages that must be loaded individually onto desktop and laptop machines, the thinking behind Web 2.0 technologies is that applications instead can be run directly over the internet.
Ted Lymer is CMO of Lumen Software, a Kansas City, Mo.-based firm that offers proprietary software applications based on an open architecture to K-12 schools.
Powered by a secure, web-based model, these applications offer everything from resources for managing special-education plans to online student information systems.
Lymer said the evolution from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 has changed the internet's role in society. Once a resource for locating information, the web now plays the role of contributor, providing services and other tools designed to help people do their jobs better, he said.
Like Hirsch, Lymer believes open technologies are the future of school computing.
"The problem that we've had up until this point was that everything had been isolated," explained Lymer in an interview with eSchool News. "Everything was part of its own stack ... its own silo." Now, with Web 2.0, he says, several applications can run together seamlessly, using information from a single data stream.
Though his company is enjoying success today, Lymer said there was a time when business didn't come so easy. When the firm started pitching the benefits of open technologies to schools several years ago, he said, most educators, and even many IT directors, were unreceptive.
"It was like hitting a brick wall," explained Lymer. Not enough clients were familiar with open technologies to understand their benefits. Even a lot of IT people still were unsure.
These days, he says, more schools are opening up to the idea.
Proponents of the movement say the advantage for schools is threefold: First, the web-based model enables schools to access several tools free of charge, over the internet; second, an open architecture, coupled with online connectivity, enables users to collaborate and share information more freely; and third, by placing the applications on the web, service providers can significantly reduce the processing burden on remote machines, effectively enabling schools to access the same high-quality content using lower-cost computers.
School technology leaders who spoke with eSchool News acknowledged that Web 2.0 technologies might significantly alter the future of proprietary software applications in education, but many stopped short of affirming Hirsch's prediction that these next-generation tools might eventually replace the need for stand-alone software programs in schools.
Where the array of applications and products accessible via the internet are attractive, educators say there is one potential drawback with Web 2.0 that cannot be ignored. Because web-based services are distributed over the internet, skeptics say issues such as poor bandwidth and any interruptions in internet service could prove catastrophic for schools where backup plans aren't in place.
"I know fully well that if a server goes down and you are relying on that server, then you're dead in the water," said Denny Delafield, director of technology for Pasco School District No. 1 in Pasco, Wash.
Delafield said his district, which currently uses a few open-source applications on the back end, remains open to the idea of open technologies, but isn't in a position yet to abandon its proprietary applications.
"Our saturation level right now is not that high," said Pasco network specialist Kevin Stiles. Though the district employs a few open technologies on its front end, too, including Moodle--a customizable, open-source course management system--Stiles said it likely would have to go through a lengthy review and approval process before making any drastic changes to its current interface.
"On the user side, our people understand what they have been exposed to in the past, and that is what they want," said Stiles.
Andy Hall, technology director for Mexico Public Schools #59 in Missouri, says pushback, especially in small school districts, is not uncommon.
Rather than replace established, proprietary technologies with fledgling, open technologies, Hall prefers to offer open applications as an alternative to proprietary tools. If a teacher or faculty member already is accustomed to Microsoft Office, for example, the district wouldn't necessarily mandate a transition to an alternative solution like WordPress, but it might encourage it, he said.
"We advocate it as an alternative," Hall said of open technologies in his district, adding, "We want to offer the best tools available that we can give to our users."
Professional development is another issue schools must contend with.
"You should never underestimate the importance of training--of getting your users comfortable," said Plano's Hirsch.
Whether it's training technicians who have spent their entire careers working in a Windows-based environment, convincing administrators that information stored on open systems can be secured, or acquainting teachers with new front-end tools, schools today have a variety of online and face-to-face training resources at their disposal--all of which are designed with a single goal in mind: Making the transition from proprietary to open technologies as painless as possible.
Peter Woodward is director of strategic partners for Centeris Corp. His company, headquartered in Bellevue, Wash., sells a product called Likewise that enables technology directors to run Linux-based servers in a traditional Windows environment.
Woodward says one of the company's goals "is to get rid of inhibitions around adopting Linux."
By creating a user interface that works with Linux, but mirrors a traditional Windows environment, Woodward said, technology coordinators with little knowledge of how back-end Linux applications work can begin to migrate servers and other functions to open-source alternatives.
"We are not taking the message to market that says you have to replace all your switches and servers," said Woodward. "What we're saying is, let us help you do your jobs better."
Despite the myriad of resources at their disposal, many technology coordinators question whether making the switch to open technologies would be more trouble than it's worth.
"We've been using Microsoft products for years, so people are familiar with them," said Steve Beatty, chief information officer for the Rockwood School District in Wildwood, Mo.
While the allure of low upfront costs makes open-source applications an attractive option, he said, the amount of time, money, and effort it would take to retrain staff on a new platform probably would end up costing more than most people realize.
Features and functions also are important, Beatty said. If schools are going to switch to open source, Beatty doesn't want educators to feel as if they're getting a scaled-down alternative to a better product. The applications have to be comparable.
Whatever path a district chooses, experts say, the decision should be based on the comfort level faculty and staff exhibit with the technology.
But will it save us money?
While it's true that several open-source applications are available free of charge and can be acquired without licensing fees, educators who spoke with eSchool News say the jury is still out on whether open technologies will translate into a substantial long-term cost savings for schools.
Take Web 2.0 technologies, for example. While many of the services are free to download and schools can use lower-cost machines to run certain applications, critics say this doesn't take into account the fact that districts opting to use web-based services in lieu of purchasing new equipment also have to contend with the challenges presented by aging machines.
"When you continue to extend the life of any piece of equipment, you inevitably make certain compromises," acknowledged Hirsch. For instance, if you're trying to download an image or a video, you're still dependent on the speed and processing power of the local machine.
Even if a school could save money up front by using older computers to run web-based applications, or possibly putting off refresh cycles for one--maybe two--years, technology directors might be forced to hire another technician to help keep old machines running longer--a job that would siphon both time and money away from other projects.
What's more, experts say, schools that don't have a Linux expert on staff still have to make allowances in their yearly budgets for service contracts and other maintenance-related issues.
In order to push more Linux-based operating systems into schools, Mexico's Hall said, many open-source service providers will offer tech support and other services free of charge as part of some kind of promotional deal. Unfortunately, he noted, that doesn't mean these same services will remain free in the future.
Still, Hall says, Mexico is proof that schools can save with open source. With the money he saves per year on licensing fees and other costs frequently associated with proprietary technologies, Hall estimates he has enough money left over in his budget to update or refresh an additional computer lab, or approximately 26 machines, across his district each school year.
As schools continue to weigh the potential benefits of open technologies, many of the nation's leading technology firms are updating their products to work with Linux-based applications.
Perhaps the most significant of these announcements came in November, when software giant Microsoft Corp. joined with Novell Inc. in a pledge to improve interoperability between its suite of proprietary Windows-based products and Novell's brand of SUSE Linux open-source offerings.
After years of bickering about the supposed benefits of proprietary operating systems when compared with open alternatives and vice versa, it appears the two companies have at last set aside their differences.
To hear Microsoft tell it, the world's largest proprietary software vendor has always been a friend to Linux.
In an interview with eSchool News, Anthony Salcito, general manager of U.S. education for Microsoft, said the company is an ardent supporter of cross-platform integration in schools.
"From our perspective, there is a very healthy trend going on in education," said Salcito. Where schools used to fret about connectivity and access, about having the right hardware in place to get faculty, students, and staff online, today the focus really is on learning--and how technology, when used effectively, can foster change.
Under the deal, the two companies will work together to boost interoperability of Microsoft and Linux applications in several areas, including software virtualization, document compatibility, and web server management. Microsoft also said it would certify Novell's version of Linux to ensure it doesn't infringe on existing industry patents and that it would recommend Novell to customers seeking to build cross-platform architectures, while continuing to support applications by other open-source providers as well.
Representatives from both companies agreed the future of educational computing lies in some blend of cross-platform integration and customization.
"A lot of schools are looking at what proprietary systems are costing them these days and saying, 'You know what, it's just too expensive,'" said David Brower, global education marketing manager for Novell. "Novell and Microsoft got together and said we want to make things work together."
Salcito called the collaboration Microsoft's "defining value proposition" and said that, while schools want the ability to run applications that are platform-independent, they also want applications to run on a back end that is robust, efficient, and--ultimately--secure.
You don't necessarily get that accountability from straight open-source products, he said.
"One of things that make [open source] viable and attractive to a lot of folks also is one of the things that makes it risky," he explained. "Customers want software that they can trust, that is accountable, but is interoperable as well."
By working to establish better interoperability between open-source and proprietary applications, he said, schools now can have the best of both worlds.
Microsoft and Novell aren't the only companies making headlines, however.
Earlier this year, Oracle Corp., the California-based software company that makes enterprise solutions for businesses and higher-education institutions, as well as some K-12 school districts, announced plans to work with the Sakai Foundation, maker of an open-source online learning and collaboration tool used by schools, to further develop the product's source code. Employed by universities, research institutions, and even some K-12 schools, Sakai provides an applications framework and suite of corresponding tools for teachers, students, and researchers. Schools reportedly use the product for a myriad of educational and administrative tasks. Among its many features, the program offers the ability to save and archive network eMail, send out announcements, hold online chats, manage assignments, build and maintain electronic grade books, create individual and class reports, and more.
By becoming a commercial affiliate with Sakai, Oracle will work with a team of university researchers and other Sakai Community members to build out the product and ensure that it integrates well with Oracle's own databases and enterprise solutions.
Said Curtiss Barnes, education industry lead for product strategy with Oracle: "When I speak with our customers about the Sakai project, it is increasingly clear that this community can bring about a sea change in the use of IT for academic and research enterprises."
Barnes said he hopes Oracle's work with Sakai "will help move the discussion from course delivery to pedagogy, from content to the management of learning outcomes, and from disparate systems to improved processes for managing curricula, research projects, and accreditation."
Oracle's partnership with Sakai came just a few months in advance of the company's launch of Unbreakable Linux, a support program for Linux users built to compete with RedHat Linux and other open-source service providers. At the OracleWorld conference in San Francisco this past fall, Oracle also said it would support Red Hat Linux for less money than Red Hat charges for the same service.
IBM is another company that is sinking considerable time and effort into the exploration of open technologies.
With an eye toward expanding the adoption and understanding of Linux-based applications, Big Blue has launched the IBM Academic Initiative Linux program, joining with colleges and universities to create partnerships and skill-building courses around the use of open technologies in schools. As part of the program, IBM sponsors the creation of Linux hubs on participating college campuses, then solicits proposals from members who want to further the use of virtual Linux at their respective institutions.
At the same time that IBM's foray into open source appears to be picking up steam, its high-profile lawsuit with the SCO Group, the Utah-based company that accused IBM of illegally contributing several lines of proprietary software code to developers of the Linux kernel, appears to be winding down.
Originally, SCO, which acquired the rights to the Unix operating system in 1969 from AT&T Bell Labs, accused IBM of leaking the code--which Big Blue used in the creation of its Unix-based AIX operating system--to the open-source community. SCO said portions of the proprietary code could be found in the Linux kernel and blamed IBM for sharing it, arguing its exposure would unfairly hasten the demise of Unix-based operating systems--a move that potentially might put SCO and companies like it out of business.
For its part, IBM fought the claims, arguing that it owned the source code to its AIX system outright. In late November, a federal judge threw out 187 of SCO's 294 claims against IBM when attorneys for SCO refused to provide IBM with proof of the lines of code in question. There are reportedly more than 5.7 million lines of code in the existing Linux kernel. Experts say the lawsuit, which originally asked IBM for damages of more than $5 billion, likely will drag on in the form of hearings for several months--but any fines levied against IBM would be nominal, they believe.
Chip maker Intel Corp., known for the processors it installs in computers, also reportedly is experimenting with the idea of web-based services.
At the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco in November, the company held a news conference in which it announced the release of SuiteTwo, a combination of Web 2.0 services that apparently will give corporations, small businesses, and other entities the ability to create common social-networking and web-publishing tools, including customized blogs and wikis, among other features.
In talks with eSchool News, school technology directors interested in pursuing Linux in their schools said the increase in interest and competition from the public sector is an encouraging development.
A perfect blend
Back in Plano, Hirsch says he's forever on the lookout for new technologies capable of meeting the needs of today's always-on, information society.
As a next step, Hirsch says he is looking into how open technologies can be used in conjunction with cell phones, PSPs, and other portable devices to connect with students on the go.
"You have to think about being adaptable," said Hirsch. "I don't just want to connect with these kids in schools, I want connect with them outside the local Starbuck's, or wherever they are."
Open technology options for schools
There are hundreds of open applications that schools can use for everything from productivity tools to course management; here are some of the most popular options ...
December 15, 2006—There are hundreds of open applications that schools can use for everything from productivity tools to course management; here are some of the most popular options:
The Apache Software Foundation--Best known for its suite of open-source web servers, Apache is described as an organization that provides support for the Apache community of open-source software projects. According to the foundation's web site, Apache projects are characterized by a collaborative, consensus-based development process, an open and pragmatic software license, and a desire to create high-quality software that leads the way in its field.
Creative Commons (CC)--An open consortium of artists that provides free tools for authors, scientists, artists, and educators "to easily mark their creative work with the freedoms they want it to carry." Like open technologies, Creative Commons promotes the sharing of art through collaboration and encourages authors and artists to use their own discretion in how their works are used on the internet, and elsewhere. "We're a nonprofit organization," states CC on its web site. "Everything we do--including the software we create--is free."
Curriki--A global online education and learning community, Curriki is an organization dedicated to improving education by empowering teachers, students, and parents with universal access to free and open curricula. The organization reportedly is building the first and only internet site for a complete, open course of instruction and assessment for K-12 schools. Founded by Sun Microsystems in 2004, Curriki now operates as an independent nonprofit.
Google Docs & Spreadsheets--A free, web-based word processing and spreadsheet program that keeps documents current and lets the people you choose update files from their own computers. You can, for example, coordinate your student group's homework assignments, access your family to-do list from work or home, or collaborate with remote colleagues on a new business plan, according to a description of the product on Google's web site. For more, visit www.google.com and type in Google Docs.
Firefox--Built by the open-source Mozilla Foundation, Firefox is an alternative, open-source web browser meant to compete with Microsoft's popular Internet Explorer. The latest version, Firefox 2, is downloadable free of charge over the internet and contains features such a tabbed browsing and a new spell-check feature for use with blogs and web-based eMail programs.
Linux--A free Unix-type operating system originally created by Linus Torvalds with the assistance of developers around the world. Developed under the General Public License, or GNU, the source code for Linux is freely available to everyone.
Moodle--A free, open-source course management system (CMS). Developers say the software was designed "using sound pedagogical principles" to help educators create effective online learning communities. Users can download and use it on any computer. The resource reportedly is scalable from a single-teacher site to a 50,000-student university.
Nvu (pronounced N-view)--A complete web-authoring suite for Linux users built to rival leading Windows-based programs as FrontPage and Dreamweaver. Developers say the goal was to give users with absolutely no knowledge of HTML the ability to build a manage web pages using open source software.
OpenOffice.org--A multiplatform and multilingual office suite and an open-source project. Compatible with all other major office suites, the product is free to download, use, and distribute, according to the web site.
GIMP, or GNU Image Manipulation Program--A freely distributed piece of software for such tasks as photo retouching, image composition, and image authoring. It works on many operating systems, in many languages, and is used in some schools as an alternative to proprietary programs like Adobe's Photoshop.
The Sakai Project--Produces an online collaboration and learning environment for schools. Many users of Sakai deploy it to support teaching and learning, ad-hoc group collaboration, support for portfolios, and research collaboration, developers say. Sakai is a free and open-source product that is built and maintained by the Sakai Community. Sakai's development model is called "Community Source," because many of the developers creating Sakai are drawn from the "community" of organizations that have adopted and are using Sakai, the web site says.
Tux Paint--A free, award-winning drawing program for children ages 3 to 12. It combines an easy-to-use interface, sound effects, and an encouraging cartoon mascot who guides children as they use the program, according to the web site.
WordPress--A state-of-the-art personal publishing platform with a focus on aesthetics, web standards, and usability. It reportedly is designed to help users work with blogging software.
Wikipedia--The largest encyclopedia on the internet is a free resource that allows users to post and edit factual entries on just about any topic imaginable. Users can create their own entries, add to existing topics, or simply browse the site for reference information. Developers like to refer to the site as a constant "work-in-progress."
Zoho Virtual Office--An alternative to Microsoft's Office suite. The product, downloadable for free over the internet, contains a range of productivity and publishing tools, including resources for document creation, web sharing, online calendaring, instant messages, tasks and reports, announcements, and more.