Anthony Doesburg: Students open to new source of knowledge

By Anthony Doesburg

Former Green MP Nandor Tanczos was an open source advocate during his time in Parliament. Photo / Northern Advocate.
Former Green MP Nandor Tanczos was an open source advocate during his time in Parliament. Photo / Northern Advocate.

In tight times like these, the argument for the public sector to adopt cost-saving open-source software is stronger than ever. But interestingly, when one of the newest schools in the country went open-source, money wasn't the main motivation.

Albany Senior High School opened its doors to 240 Year 11 students at the start of the year, putting the sort of software at its disposal that professional animators use. The school's teaching, library and administrative staff, meantime, were given state-of-the-art IT tools.

All of it is open-source - and free - saving an estimated $200,000 over the equivalent proprietary software from the likes of Microsoft. Yet, says Mark Osborne, Albany Senior High's deputy principal and IT co-ordinator, the money's only part of it.

"The financial benefits of open-source are quite secondary to our overall goal, which is to be an open, collaborative community where nobody is shut out of the learning process; nobody is beyond our community."

Former Green MP Nandor Tanczos was one of the few MPs to advocate the use of open-source software. Last year, during a visit to a computer lab running open-source software at Northtec in Whangarei, he claimed that his calls for government departments to consider alternative operating systems were met with "blank faces". And he was critical of a deal done by the Ministry of Education with Microsoft.

Fostering collaboration is a key education goal, Osborne says, so it makes no sense to use software that hinders, rather than helps, the process.

"What we were wanting to do when we were putting the school together was to give the students a broad range of skills and a broad range of tools so they could deepen their understanding of what they were learning and present information in new ways."

The school knew that by shunning the market-leading operating system and word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation software suite - Microsoft's Windows and Office - it was turning its back on the familiar. But Osborne says the choice was an easy one for the school's trustees to make.

"When we started talking about it there was only one way to go. We certainly thought about what we were giving up by walking away from proprietary software ... There are consequences from that. Everybody is familiar with Microsoft so we are going to have to put more time into training and tutorials and things like that. But to be honest, once you actually break it down of knowledge and say there's a moral obligation to not only empower the students within your school but everyone in the world, there's only one decision to make."

Software publishers such as Microsoft and Adobe try to counter open source's cost advantage by offering educational discounts. But Osborne says that misses the point.

"Microsoft standards are proprietary and basically lock out all other standards. Something like Publisher or Microsoft Works has an arcane or bizarre file format that is unintelligible by any other application, let alone a human being who doesn't have that Microsoft licence."

The same goes for Adobe Photoshop - the usual software used for image-editing, Osborne says. Photoshop's standard file format requires users to have a copy of the program to be able to work together on a project.

"We don't want the ability to afford a $1200 Photoshop licence to be a barrier for anybody to collaborate with us."

Once you accept the open-source ethos, there's an enormous catalogue of software to choose from and a willing support community to rely on, he says.

The only stricture placed upon open-source users is that if they modify a program, the changes they make must be made available to the rest of the open-source community.

When Albany Senior High paid a developer $3000 to add features to the Koha library management system the school uses, Osborne was only too happy to let other users share the benefits.

"The really cool feature we developed was an Amazon-style five-star rating system, so we've contributed that back to the Koha community. It's probably the best couple of thousand dollars we've ever spent because it's increased the value of the product and that feature is now available to everyone in the world."

And it's not as if using such software means the school is going out on a limb. Ubuntu Linux and OpenOffice, used instead of Windows and Office, have millions of users. Blender, the school's open-source 3D modelling software, foots it with Maya, the US$3000 ($4469)-plus proprietary equivalent.

New Zealand-developed Koha has thousands of users, Osborne says, while Moodle, the school's course management system, has tens of millions of users and is in more than 100 New Zealand schools.

The Ministry of Education clearly doesn't disapprove, having set up a reference group to guide schools implementing Moodle. Osborne would love the ministry to go much further and mandate open-source use throughout the education system, as other countries have done.

"That would be fantastic," he says.

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