Exploring Open-Source for Schools

By Katie Ash — June 29, 2009 2 min read
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This morning, I attended a NECC panel discussion about the state of open-source software in education, moderated by Steve Hargadon, who is the director of the Washington-based Consortium for School Networking’s K-12 Open Technologies Initiative. There were quite a few interesting perspectives there—some from district tech administrators, some from advocacy groups. Most of them seemed optimistic about where open-source is going in education while agreeing that there is much more potential to be tapped.

One split that emerged in the panel was whether a truly successful open-source implementation was one that went completely unnoticed by teachers and students, or whether tech administrators should be vocal about moving to open-source platforms or software. Having that shift go unnoticed, some panelists argued, points to a smooth transition with no problems. But by ignoring the change from commercial software to open-source, educators could be passing up an educational opportunity for both teachers and students, said others.

Randy Orwin, the director of technology at Bainbridge Island School District in Washington state, asserts that his district saves about $125,000 annually by using open-source software such as Moodle and Open Office. Switching from Microsoft Office to Open Office alone saves the district $60,000 per year, said Orwin, and that extra money was then able to be re-invested in ed-tech professional development.

Another point that came up in the session was that it is much easier to start with open-source software or platforms rather than try to transition from commercial software to its open-source equivalent. Orwin explained that implementing Moodle into his district was much easier than transitioning from Microsoft Office to Open Office, since teachers were already familiar with Microsoft Office and then had to adjust to the differences in Open Office. That transition was almost four years in the making, he said. On average, it takes about three years before educators begin to truly understand the benefits of moving to open-source software, said Hargadon.

Despite the progress that has been made toward including open-source software in education, schools are only tapping about 5 percent of the potential that open-source can offer, estimated Bryant Patten, the executive director of the National Center for Open Source and Education. Part of the reason is because open-source software is still not on the radar of many educators and education administrators, said panelists, and another reason is because tech administrators are afraid to be held accountable for any problems that may arise from a transition from commercial to open-source software.

To learn more about open-source software, what advantages it can bring to a district, and what challenges it can present, there are a couple of Web sites you can visit: Schools4Tomorrow, COSN’s Open Technologies Initiative, and And if you’re at NECC, check out the Open Source Playground outside room 152B.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.