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The Limits of Open Source - Schools Should Adopt Open Source Now

Schools are the next obvious place for open source projects. Public schools are part of government so everything said regarding government pretty much applies to public schools as well. Schools need to understand they will save on licensing costs, on maintenance costs because of increased reliability, on security, and on training costs for both technical staff who support the system and for teachers and administrators who use them.

If you (as a school administrator or teacher) think you need a feature in the latest proprietary (Windows or Macintosh) product, ask how you got your job done ten years ago then ask if the open source counter part to the proprietary product doesn't get you nearly all the functionality you want today, at infinitely lower license fees than the proprietary product. Which represents value to the taxpayer who pays your salary? What new or cut educational programs can be funded with the thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars saved per school district by not paying proprietary license fees?

Besides all the practical advantages similar to other government agencies, schools have a special imperative to move to open source. Schools' job is teaching. Teaching how computers work is one of the most important tasks faced by schools. After the three R's, computers are arguably the most important subject schools have to teach. How computers really work, as opposed to the superficial mechanics of controlling individual applications through the user interface, depends entirely on the programs that run them. These are the operating system, hardware drivers and system utilities that make computers do what they do. These can only be understood via the source code from which they are made.

All Microsoft and Macintosh source code for these essential computer components as well as everything else that Microsoft and Macintosh products do is secret. It's protected by multiple layers of corporate security, employee non-disclosure agreements, patents and copyrights. What one can learn about computers except the mechanics of running a word processor, spread sheet, database, etc. from Microsoft or Macintosh products is very limited. This may be sufficient for most users, but places severe limits on what the talented student who wants to go further, can learn. Expensive proprietary programming language products are available, but even with these the emphasis is on productivity, and the use of tools that tend to hide the underlying details from the user. The wide variety of free and generally simpler, open source programming language tools, make much better teaching tools.

In contrast to proprietary systems, by definition, all source code for all open source products is publicly available and free for inspection and even modification. Every single detail of every operation that can be performed on a computer can be learned by learning the languages and reading the source code on which open source systems are built. All the tools necessary to modify this code, turn it into new working code and build new ways to control computers or just to experiment with what computers can do is included for the free price of open source software. There can be no better learning tool, than complete availability to every piece of code that makes a computer work. No matter what interests a student, whether its the details of how the computer reads and writes hard disks, how a word processor does what it does, or how a CD player or a web server really work, every detail necessary for complete understanding is available for examination and experimentation. The only limits are the student's (and teacher's) abilities and interests.

It's naive to think that just by using open source based computers that students will automatically learn the details just mentioned, but that's not the point here. Like any very complex subject, the very brightest students will need an occasional pointer in the right direction, and others will generally need guidance and a framework for their learning. The point is that both Windows and Macintosh computers intentionally hide as much mid level detail as practical, in the name of ease of learning, and use every legal means available to hide all the low level details from everyone but corporate employees who are bound by non-disclosure agreements. Some mid level detail is accessible on proprietary computers, but this is incomplete. In contrast the open source based computers give users options. Open source computers include GUIs for those who only want to run a word processor or spreadsheet but in contrast to Windows and Macintosh, the open source command line interface makes the entire mid level immediately accessible and understandable via man pages. For those with the skills and desires, all the lowest level details are fully available via complete source code.

Schools have a financial obligation to taxpayers to deliver the best education as efficiently as possible and a moral obligation to students to provide the best education they can and surely not to waste taxpayer money for the purpose of imposing unnecessary and artificial constraints on what a student is allowed to learn. Both Windows and Macintosh systems must do this by their very nature. It's time for schools to begin a systematic and complete migration to open source computing both for classroom computers and for administrative computers.

From the perspective of teaching about computers, open source computers are already far better than proprietary systems. In other areas, there is a wider availability of educational software on Windows and Macintosh platforms. If the schools began a systematic move to Linux, the vendors of educational software would follow. As there is some open source educational software, the proprietary vendors would have to prove their worth. Where a proprietary program was much more expensive but only a little better, schools would need to ask if the price was really worth the difference. By contacting the authors of the open source products, the teachers might convince the software authors to improve the open source programs or the open source authors might even show teachers how to improve the programs themselves to meet their own needs. That's a large part of what open source is about sharing, which is also what much of education is about.

To provide for school's administrative functions, open source needs some changes and development. Schools are not in competition with each other. For those administrative functions that are currently provided by proprietary vertical market (school management) software, schools can and should band together to develop new open source software that meets the needs of schools throughout the country or even the world. Schools everywhere do basically the same things, and good software allows a high degree of customization through configuration options.

If large school districts throughout the country, each provide one or two skilled programmers or technical managers, using the examples of the big open source successes, Linux, Apache, Perl, and others, there is no reason to think that within a year or so, schools shouldn't be able to build better software than any they have had to buy, to actually run the schools. These projects should create the new system using the GPL software license. The GPL insures that the vertical market vendors of school management software, who have exploited schools in the past, by abusing their exclusive ownership of the software systems schools need to operate, can never do so again.

There should be nothing that terrifies Microsoft more than complete and universal adoption of open source by schools. If Microsoft somehow survives that long, a generation of school children who learned on open source operating systems, word processors, spreadsheets, databases, and languages etc., will guarantee the end of Microsoft as a software vendor by the time they become business decision makers.

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