Becta, open source and education: Too little, too late?

Inertia, fear of the unknown and agreements with vendors have lead to slow adoption of open source and free software in UK schools.

Open source may not be the panacea for all these ills, but a truly open and diverse approach to the adoption of open source would allow ongoing collabarative development of tools that fulfill real educational needs in the classroom, and increase the accessibility and affordability of comprehensive computing systems, as well as helping to improve technical literacy in the education system. Education is about understanding how and why things work, and not an exercise in consuming products.

Belatedly, Becta has come to some of the same conclusions, issued a scathing report recommending schools not to "upgrade" to Vista and Office 2007, reformed its purchasing regime to allow participation by open source vendors, and has launched the Schools Open Source Project, designed to actively encourage schools to adopt Linux and open source software solutions. The Schools Open Source Project will give a bidding company the opportunity to spend two years building a community of schools to use and develop open source alternatives to Microsoft software, in the hope that a level playing field can be encouraged for the future development of open source solutions, which provide both better value for money and a wider curriculum of computer-related activities in the classroom.

Notably, Becta has issued a complaint to the European Commission and the UK Office of Fair Trading (OFT), alleging "anti-competitive licensing practices by Microsoft in the schools software marketplace" and "the existence of impediments to effective interoperability in relation to Microsoft's Office 2007 product." Becta has woken up to the reality of the current shortcomings in the education system, and to the fact that there are real alternatives. Some might say too little, too late.

Equality of opportunity

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Other countries have taken a more fulsome approach to the educational possibilities of open source software. In Switzerland, the Geneva Dpartement de l'Instruction Publique (DIP) is moving 70,000 students and 7,000 teachers to a complete open source framework based on Ubuntu over the next three years. Manuel Grandjean, project leader for the migration stated that: "Moving to a complete open source system will cut the IT costs by a third." Replacing Microsoft Office with OpenOffice alone will save approximately 300,000 Swiss Francs a year.

But cost was not the only consideration, according to Grandjean. "We chose open-source software for [its] qualities," he said, because there was "a real convergence" between the foundations of education practiced in DIP and free software that encourages "the sharing and democratisation of knowledge, as well as autonomous acquisition of skills." He also noted that students were able to freely use the same software at home and at school, which "strengthens equality of opportunity."

Brazil's Ministry of Education (MEC) has taken a more radical step, sponsoring its own customised Linux distribution based on Debian GNU/Linux, called Linux Educacional. By the end of this year Linux Educacional will be deployed in 29,000 computer labs using Linux thin client solutions to serve 36 million students, and by the beginning of 2010, these numbers are expected to grow to more than 53,000 labs giving access to 52 million students.

There are obvious advantages in such an approach where a publicly funded central research establishment can coordinate and develop educational software on an unprecedented scale, actively collaborating with developers around the world, producing real returns for relatively small investment, and still undercutting the proprietary options which can't achieve the same kind of reach, but such an approach, to provide "government-funded R&D software by academic research institutes" would probably not conform to the current ideology of the UK public sector, which is to out-source to the private sector.

Similarly, the Republic of Macedonia has begun a "Computer for Every Child" initiative to supply more than 180,000 Edubuntu Linux thin client workstations with the objective of providing a classroom computing device for every child in the school population.of the country, allowing Ivo Ivanovski, Republic of Macedonia's minister for the information society, to note that, with the use of free and open source software, "our education system can provide computer-based education for all school children within the limited financial and infrastructural confines that most institutions face today."

Macedonia's provision of computer access for every child in the school system provides a sobering contrast to Becta's objective for UK schools which allows for "3,000 (88 per cent) secondary schools and 8,700 (50 per cent) primary schools providing access to a personal online learning space" by the end of 2008.

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