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Real World: Open Source in Education

Miguel Guhlin (, Director of Instructional Technology for a school district in Texas, shares some of his experience via the EdTech mailing list:

Since we are facing budget crunches (especially in Texas where state legislators are into a 5th special session to figure out funding, and districts are worried that there won’t be any money except federal funds and what was left over from last year), open source software may be our only alternative.

Allow me to share an example of a real school district issue. Three years ago, we developed a high tech, grade 6-8 curriculum that incorporated Macromedia Studio MX. The curriculum focused on information literacy approaches (such as Big6) that focused on problem-solving at higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. We provided Macromedia Studio MX licenses to 15 campuses for around $45K-$50K. We also provided extensive professional development.

In analyzing the work done so far, after 2 years and multiple professional development sessions, campus visits, etc., it’s clear that some teachers are working at the higher levels of Bloom’s. Yet, others are still not moving beyond computer literacy. This is not unusual and I appreciate that it takes time to make the transition from computer literacy to information problem-solving.

But what worries me is that neither teachers or student were using the computer software that we paid so much money for to its full capacity, whether they were teaching information problem-solving or computer literacy. As I look back now, I feel I made the wrong decision. I should have started with open source software FIRST. After all, upgrades on that software are free and we could have saved a LOT more money that could have been used for other purchases.

School districts just do not have the money to keep upgrading year after year, or even waiting two-three years, all their proprietary software. We can’t keep spending loads of dollars in schools, providing the very best when students aren’t even going to use a fraction of the power…let’s be even more blunt about the truth, the software power our students and teachers may actually use may not tap the depths of the open source software we get for “free” much less the proprietary software we go into debt for.

In my district, we’re going to introduce open source options. Here are the options…instead of…

…MS Office, suggest OpenOffice
…Inspiration, suggest Cmap Tools
…Fireworks/Photoshop, suggest THE Graphics Image Manipulation Program (GIMP)

When you consider the cost of these programs–let’s say $99 for Office, Inspiration, Macromedia Studio–and multiply that by the total number of computers in a district (18,000 in mine), imagine the savings. There are also free anti-virus alternatives ( instead of Symantec AntiVirus), the savings increase.

Multiply $99 x 18,000 computers, and we save $1.8 million—now, did you know that my District’s total tech allotment now is $1.2 million for 56K students? Wow, we could double funding for technology if we only took advantage of open source.

Total cost of ownership? What is against open source software initiative in schools? I honestly believe it’s our comfort level. We don’t want to try new tools and would rather continue to pay…we pay for expensive tools but then fail to use all but their most basic features.

Let’s stop believing in proprietary software and put the money back into our children’s education. Asked another way, how many more teachers could we hire with $1.8 million?

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