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Published in Print: March 22, 2006, as Initiative Pushes ‘Open Technologies’

Initiative Pushes ‘Open Technologies’

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A new initiative spearheaded by the Consortium for School Networking aims to raise awareness among schools about so-called “open technologies,” software and computer operating systems with content and applications that have few or no licensing restrictions.

The value of open technologies, their proponents say, is that schools can modify or redistribute the applications or content for free, saving thousands of dollars in copying or licensing costs. ("Software Solution Saves Dollars," Sept. 29, 2004.)

The K-12 Open Technologies Initiative—co-sponsored by the IBM Corp. and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation—kicked off this month at the Washington-based COSN’s annual school networking conference. COSN is a nonprofit organization that provides resources to school district technology workers.

“I think we’ve been seeing worldwide in all sectors, not just education, that open source is really changing the way that technology software and systems are delivered,” Keith R. Krueger, the chief executive officer of COSN, said in an interview.

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“COSN’s talking about a bigger trend,” Mr. Krueger said. “Educators need to think about their networks being more open. That involves open content as well as the network.”

Mr. Krueger cited the online encyclopedia Wikipedia as an example of open content. On Wikipedia, users can modify content or even add entries.

“Anyone can add value to what the product is,” Mr. Krueger said, referring to open content. “Kids and adults learn better when they teach. This is allowing them to take information and put it in their own language.”

‘Element of Risk’

Despite the benefits, many schools and districts have been slow to use open technologies.

“The number-one reason is a lack of awareness,” said James P. Hirsch, the associate superintendent for technology for the 53,300-student Plano, Texas, school district.

Other schools might be averse to using open technologies because there is nothing wrong with their current computer systems, said Mr. Hirsch, who is also on the COSN board.

“Why should I be looking for a different operating system when I’ve got one that’s reliable?” Mr. Hirsch said. “There’s an element of risk that I think would keep school systems from even considering this. Any time you look at a new product or service, it takes you out of your comfort zone.”

The multiyear, $200,000 open technologies initiative—now in what Mr. Krueger calls “the first phase”—also hosted an international symposium on open technologies March 8-9 at the World Bank in Washington. The symposium included speakers such as Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, and Martin Dougiamas, the founder of Moodle, an online, open-source course-management system.

Other plans for the initiative include an online broadcast about open technologies in education, scheduled for April 19 on www.cosn.org and a new Web site that COSN intends to launch this summer.

Although no statistics are available detailing how many districts are using open technologies, Mr. Krueger said that some 15 percent of school computer network servers are using Linux, an open-source operating system.

Still, he cautioned that open technologies are not necessarily meant to completely replace proprietary systems. Rather, he said, the two types of systems can be used in tandem or by the same user for separate functions.

“The idea is really to help educators who are starting to think about open technologies: How can you use this in a learning environment?” he said.

Vol. 25, Issue 28, Page 12

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