Open source and Schools

After reading Peter’s post on this subject I thought I’d weigh in with some thoughts.

In a previous life I worked at a school as a webby-techie sort. This was back in the days before fast internet and the school had serious problems with the speed of the internet with all the children surfing for the same things at the same time. In addition the ISP filtering (and this article isn’t going to discuss whether filtering is good or bad) was fairly rudimentary.

Being a fairly adventurous sort I snagged an old machine and installed Squid (a GPL licenced caching web proxy with filtering support) on it. The school then changed the proxy settings of all PCs to go through the new proxy and we gained a slightly faster system for frequently visited sites, and had the means to block other sites totally.

Once the system had proved how valuable it was, the school decided it needed something better than a random old PC to handle the web cache. Rather than buy a more fit for purpose machine for me to repeat my installation, they promptly paid through the nose for a black-box solution from RM. After basic investigation it turned out that this black-box solution was running nothing other than Squid. The school however had more confidence in a commercially obtained solution than some free thing downloaded and installed in-house.

It is this sort of “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM equipment” mentality that seriously hampers the take-up of free and open source software (FOSS) within schools. To some extent this isn’t surprising. The people making the decisions aren’t usually technical experts, and want to make a decision that they think won’t backfire on them.

What we need are trustworthy organisations to advise and guide schools away from closed proprietary systems and towards open source, and to do so consistently rather than give mixed messages. Maybe a focused single perspective on this issue that saved money could have helped BECTA from being closed down. Maybe not.

If you’re FOSS savvy and know how to install and support this sort of thing but you aren’t prepared to get a job in a school doing this (or volunteer many hours of your time) then it is easy (but not necessarily helpful) to look on the problem from the outside and say something must be done.

The real problem is how do we get the relevant expertise into our schools in a sustainable way? For this I really think the government needs to lead, and in a time of financial cuts across the board, I believe real savings can be made by guiding a lot of the public sector over to FOSS.

Featured image Open Science – some rights reserved by gemmerich

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