Fwd: Free/Open Source Software discussion

Bob Jolliffe bobjolliffe at gmail.com
Tue Jul 13 13:45:59 BST 2010


Picking up on the it-in-schools discussion, I just want to share with
you this email I sent to Minister Eamon Ryan last year in response to
some questions he had asked about best practice of FOSS in schools.
Some of it makes me squirm reading back over it but I'll share it
unadulterated - maybe there is some food for thought.

I think reading the "ICT in schools report" is a really good starting
point in understanding the state of computing in Irish schools and I
would recommend anyone interested in making a plan in this area to
start there.  In general I was quite horrified at the complete lack of
support that there is for most teachers and their computer setups.

There is also quite a thorough and frank report on the Shuttleworth
Foundation initiated TuxLabs project in South Africa
(http://www.shuttleworthfoundation.org/the-tuxlab-project/) which is
full of lots of reflections, experiences and lessons.  I know many of
the people who were (and some still are) involved in that project and
there really is a lot to learn.

Bringing FOSS solutions into schools is far more challenging than it
might first appear, but I remain convinced that it can and should be

One of the realizations of the TuxLabs project - and I am sure also
the Camara folk - is that you can't just drop boxes into schools,
whether they have windoze or linux on them - and expect to see
positive and sustainable outcomes.  I think what the tuxlabs project
did right was to initiate a sort of school-readiness phase where
conditions were placed on schools being supported - eg. they needed to
have some sort of school ICT policy or vision in place.  I think
that's really important - that teachers, principals, pupils and
parents understand what they want to use the computers for, how best
to do that, what the limitations are etc.  The outcome of this kind of
discussion is in the end more valuable than the hardware they might

There does seem to be quite a lot of interest in this business of free
software in schools from other quarters as well - eg. OpenIreland,
some at IBM as well as quite a few of the technical folk within
HEANET.  I wonder what the best way would be to get some momentum
going in terms of bringing all of these together?  My suggestion to
the minister about organising a seminar fell on deaf ears - this was
the week that Dell announced it was pulling the plug in Limerick and
suddenly the powers that be seemed to become quite afraid of
disturbing Microsoft which was a shame :-).

Anyway please feel free to jump up and down on my thoughts - like
everyone else I am still feeling around for a good strategy.


---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Bob Jolliffe <bobjolliffe at gmail.com>
Date: 16 January 2009 17:06
Subject: Free/Open Source Software discussion
To: Suzanne.Duke at dcenr.gov.ie
Cc: Ronan Byrne <ronan.byrne at heanet.ie>

Hello Suzanne

It was good to meet with yourself and the minister last Friday.  There
were two strands of conversation which I thought it might be
worthwhile following up on: the first is best practice with FOSS in
education and the other is a brief few points on FOSS and the
Information Society.

(1) Best practice with FOSS in education
Unfortunately there are probably more poor examples of ICT in
education than there are good ones.  FOSS deployment in schools is not
always an exception here.  Its fair to say that many FOSS-in-schools
projects have repeated the same mistakes as proprietary-in-schools
projects.  It is best to understand first about what are the
educational problems you are trying to solve and opportunities you are
trying exploit, before jumping straight into the merits or otherwise
of software paradigms and choices.

We have a good (relatively) recent starting point in Ireland with the
"ICT in Schools Report" having been released by the Inspectorate.
 I have made a few comments based on this report and made some
additional observations around procurement which should be a serious
concern.  Of the many issues raised in the Inspectorate report, three
stand out as being particularIy relevant:

(a) old computers and the replacement/disposal of them.  It is
estimated that the whole ICT in schools initiative will be disposing
of 10 000 computers per year
 Measuring the cost of such replacement and disposal requires
environmental economic skills which I don't have, but suffice to say
that it is significant.  We know that using FOSS we can get increased
lifespan from these computers - even the much older ones can be
re-purposed  (for example linux based kiosk type machines in the

(b) Irish language support.  There was a concern raised in the
Inspectorate report that the integration of ICTs into the teaching of
Irish was a neglected area in most schools.  Again there are
significant opportunities here.  Some of the major FOSS applications
such as the Firefox browser, Openoffice and the popular Gnome and KDE
desktops are all available with Irish user interfaces.  I believe the
same is true of many other FOSS applications such as the Moodle
learning management system.  It is possible to provide a fairly
complete computing environment, at no cost, which reinforces and
recognizes the importance of Irish in the school curriculum.  All of
these projects are currently volunteer driven.  There are also
significant opportunities to involve pupils in FOSS localisation and
translation projects.  I have some personal experience of doing this
with primary pupils and Southern African languages.  There are
tremendous learning outcomes to be had, both in terms of deep language
learning (finding words for technical concepts can be hard) as well as
learning about the applications themselves.  Its also fun and

(c) maintenance and technical support.  Linux based desktops lend
themselves to remote software configuration and updates without the
need for any additional programs or software licences.  There have
been a number of studies which have shown that larger numbers of such
systems can be supported by fewer technicians more effectively than
proprietary alternatives.  One issue which seems not to have surfaced
in the report but which is an increasing concern for organisations
generally is that of Software Asset Management.  It seems clear that,
given the already stretched resources of school ICT co-ordinators to
manage their environments, they will be ill-equipped to address this
additional administrative burden.  Again the advantages of FOSS are
obvious:  in particular there are fewer (if any) licences to manage.

Besides the potential of FOSS itself, it is also worth noting the
range of FOSS practices which have found themselves under the broad
umbrella of Open Learning.  The availability of open digital content
for example, is being heavily exploited by teachers.  It is important
that the educational and cultural value of such content commons are
recognised and that their existence is encouraged and protected -
particualrly in the context of an increasingly powerful content
industry.  The collaborative models with which these repositories of
learning material are maintained borrows significantly from the
culture of FOSS projects.  The practice of users as creators and
co-developers, rather than simple consumers, has also been transposed
in interesting ways into teaching and learning practices.

One of the emerging best practices in considering how to exploit FOSS
in the public sector at large is to address issues around procurement
which may present unnecessary and artificial barriers.  Whereas it
would be wrong to disadvantage or discriminate against proprietary
vendors, it is also critical to ensure that FOSS alternatives are
being given a fair opportunity to compete.  The recently announced PC
Framework [http://www.ncte.ie/media/School_PC_Framework_Nov08.pdf] is
a very particular concern in this regard.  According to this framework
suppliers are required to provide: "Standard Operating System
installed is Microsoft Windows XP Pro".  Schools wishing to take
advantage of this framework are effectively obliged to purchase an
operating system licence from a single vendor.  This is plainly
anti-competitive and possibly in breach of EU regulations.  Direct
procurement agreements have come under considerable scrutiny of late.
The most recent example is from Greece
[http://www.ffii.gr/ms-gov-agreement-en], which happens incidentally
to involve a company based in Ireland.  The translated press release

"According to the DG (Internal Market of the European commission), the
agreement between the Greek government and Microsoft, which was signed
in 1 February 2006 and approved by the Parliament in 29 January 2008,
seems to be a direct commissioning of procurement to Microsoft,
without fulfillment of the related conditions that are provided for by
the European Directive 2004/18 "on the coordination of procedures for
the award of public works contracts, public supply contracts and
public service contracts".  Whereas one feels a strong urge to
challenge such practice, it might make more sense first to demonstrate
the existence of real value in alternatives [see my suggestion at the

The PC Framework and other information and "advice" provided by the
NCTE would seem at best to mostly ignore the existence of FOSS
alternatives and at worst systematically favour software from a single
vendor.  This is in contrast to Becta in the UK, for example, which
this year created a Software for Educational Institutions Framework
agreement, which includes a supplier of FOSS based desktop solutions.

(2)  FOSS and the Information Society
The Tunis commitment made at the World Summit on the Information
Society, attended by representatives of 174 states, including Ireland,
makes explicit (and careful) reference to FOSS:
"29. Our conviction is that governments, the private sector, civil
society, the scientific and academic community, and users can utilize
various technologies and licensing models, including those developed
under proprietary schemes and those developed under open-source and
free modalities, in accordance with their interests and with the need
to have reliable services and implement effective programmes for their
people. Taking into account the importance of proprietary software in
the markets of the countries, we reiterate the need to encourage and
foster collaborative development, interoperative platforms and free
and open-source software, in ways that reflect the possibilities of
different software models, notably for education, science and digital
inclusion programmes."

The promotion of FOSS in education has clearly been recognized as an
Information Society issue.  Indeed many of the major FOSS in schools
deployments such as the ambitious project in Brazil and the
RTE-Extremadura project in western Spain, are framed as information
society projects.  If the minister would like to promote the use of
FOSS, it might well be that he has some mandate to do so in the
Information Society context.

A recent study of the impact of FOSS on the EU economy (exec summary
attached) shows that the software commons has considerable and
quantifiable value.  That same commons provides a fertile ground for
new startups and SMEs.  As the economic downturn has deepened, the
predictions of industry watchers seem fairly unanimous: industry
spending on and market penetration of FOSS is likely to increase
through 2009.  The argument that is frequently given, that children
should be educated on real-world (ie Microsoft) software, is
increasingly shaky.  Quite apart from the fact that educators should
be focusing on understanding and cognitive development rather than
state-funded vendor training, it is becoming increasingly the case
that by not providing Irish learners (and teachers) exposure to the
broader range of FOSS and proprietary platforms, we are limiting their
opportunities to innovate and create the future.  This seems to be
very much an information society concern as reflected in the Tunis

Some suggestions for a way forward:
(1) be sure to emphasise the role of FOSS in the Information Strategy
(2) the provision of broadband into schools opens up many
possibilities of offering open source educational services within the
context of this project.  I understand the Moodle learning management
system is already offered as a web based service, but there are others
such as web based school admin systems, school library management
(koha), through to basic file and document management which can add
significant value to the connection.  Shifting such services out of
the school into "the cloud" can significantly address some of the
technical management problems experienced in schools.  FOSS makes this
very feasible.
(3) it might be valuable to host some kind of seminar on the new
possibilities of FOSS in Schools which are brought about by the
Broadband Connectivity project.  Keeping this context provides some
justification for exploring this area.  There is considerable FOSS
expertise and goodwill in the Irish FOSS community (the Irish Free
Software Organisation, Irish Linux User Group, Irish Ubuntu community,
various tertiary institutions and large and small companies) to
partner in such an endeavour.  It would also provide an opportunity to
bring in practitioners from other countries which have substantial
schools deployment to showcase their work and share their experiences.
 It would be important to invite the NCTE to participate as well as
Microsoft - perhaps to demonstrate some of their new interoperability
systems and approaches.

Hope these thoughts are useful.  A bit more than I had in mind so I
will stop here.

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