Adam Gifford: Open source route frees the mind

The Education Ministry negotiates with Microsoft, but Albany Senior High School have chosen to opt out. Photo / Getty Images
The Education Ministry negotiates with Microsoft, but Albany Senior High School have chosen to opt out. Photo / Getty Images

One thing holding back the greater adoption of free software in this country is free software.

Schools could use Linux and other open source technologies, but the Education Ministry very kindly negotiates on their behalf with Microsoft for a licence covering all New Zealand state and integrated schools.

It's a gift that Albany Senior High School, which opened last year, looked at and rejected.

Instead it has a policy of going open source wherever possible, using Ubuntu Linux on the desktop, the Mandriva server and applications such as OpenOffice, content manager Moodle, Mahara for student portfolios, and Koha for its library catalogue.

"We could have free Microsoft software provided by the ministry if we wanted it but we went back to first principles," says deputy principal Mark Osborne.

"As a brand-new school, we looked at our vision and values and asked whether proprietary software would help or hinder us in achieving those."

The school's values includes fairness, openness, honesty and trust; making families part of the learning community; encouraging curiosity and enquiry, creativity and innovation; and contributing to local and global communities.

Osborne says proprietary software was seen as negative for anytime learning and family involvement.

"A site licence covers the software in the school, but if the student wants to carry on working at home, someone's got to pay for a licence.

"If you use an open source tool, you can install it on as many computers as you want anywhere you want."

While some families may be able to afford software such as Photoshop for home use, Osborne says the school doesn't want to create a community where some have and some have not in a digital sense.

It's also more ethical. "In many schools, teachers turn a blind eye to illegal copying and that's not a good thing," he says.

Osborne says open source graphics software is particularly powerful, with programmes such as Gimp, Scribe, and Blender 3D giving students pretty much everything they need to make pictures or films.

Gimp, for example, has most of the features of Photoshop, and allows students to open or save Photoshop files. "The best thing about open source is amount of software we can expose our students to. The premier package for video editing is Final Cut Pro and we still have licences and Macs in the school for that, but we also have four different Linux video editing programs, from an entry level one to a complicated one.

"Because it's not costing us anything for licensing we can have all four, and students can start on the entry level and work through," Osborne says.

He says using a variety of software teaches students flexibility - and in many ways is easier than using the commercial packages.

"The funny thing about proprietary software is the upgrade treadmill, so Office 2003 won't open files in Office 2007 because they want you to upgrade.

"Open Office will open all the others. The menus may not be identical, but students today barely register they are using different programs."

He's not impressed by arguments that proprietary software is the de facto standard. "I remember when WordPerfect was the standard. By the time our students finish their schooling, certainly their tertiary education, the software they are using now will be obsolete. It is more important to teach them to be flexible and to solve problems."

So far students have helped build the school a video server out of open source components - sort of a private YouTube.

"When they struck a problem they would go home, load up the software and troubleshoot at home. There is no way they could do that if it meant having to get a copy of Microsoft Enterprise Server on their home computer."

Students aren't given administrative access to the school network, but the Unix-based system allows the school to give students access to a virtual server when they need a sandbox to play in.

Osborne says the school has one full-time technician to support the 250 devices and 450 users.

The school is in growth mode and expects to have about 1400 students in the next five to seven years.

"We have an n-series wireless network, so students can use any device to connect.

"We recognise personal devices are the way to go, and see a time when schools no longer supply hardware," he says.

"Rather than specifying a device, we allow them to bring something they are comfortable with."

Using Ubuntu Linux as the desktop operating system means its hardware refresh cycle is five years rather than the normal three.

"We probably save a six-figure sum each year on hardware and software."

Most of its applications, including email, are web-based.

Osborne says as students move into Year 12 the school intends to start offering higher-level computer science and information systems, so those students with the aptitude to get under the hood can get the skills to do so.

"It's a big flip from studying computers as a consumer to being a producer. Most schools just study at the consumer level," Osborne says.

* adamgifford5@gmail.com

- On the web: theopensourceschool.blogspot.com

- NZ Herald

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