Why Open Source will fail schools; I know that’s a silly thing to say but, hopefully, some of you will have been drawn here by the title.
It cannot have escaped your notice that we are in a recession and that finances are tight. It cannot also have escaped your notice that supporters of Open Source software have been shouting loudly that Open Source software can save schools money. Strictly speaking, I guess that should be that Free or Free and Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS
) can help save schools money.
They’re right, of course, using free Open Source software in place of commercial software can save schools money.
Which brings me back to the title of this post. I believe that Open Source software will fail schools if the only reason for deploying it or using it is that it saves money. The purpose of a school is not to save money, the purpose of a school is not to waste money, schools should spend money wisely and account for all expenditure; but even that is not the purpose of a school. The primary purpose of a school is to educate its pupils.
What schools need are the resources to enable it to fulfill its primary purpose. In terms of ICT or technology, that means that schools need the hardware, software and services that are best suited to enable it to deliver effective education to its pupils.
Just because a product is ‘free’ does not mean it is the best product for the job: just because something costs money (a lot of money) does not mean it is the best product for the job. Schools need to be able to judge for themselves which product best fits their need and how much weight to give to different criteria, including cost, when making their choice. In order to do this, I believe that Open Source software should be presented alongside commercial software on an equal basis and on a ‘level playing field’, (something which has rarely happened in the past), so that schools can be better placed to make their choice.
It is my firm belief that at times Open Source software is the better choice; even maybe the only choice. Equally, there are times when a commercial package is the best choice. In the current financial situation I believe the onus is upon suppliers of commercial software to offer their products to schools in the spirit of ‘education’ rather than in the spirit of profiteering.
I believe that Open Source providers have an advantage in that their products can sometimes be tailored more to fit the particular needs of a school and that sometimes developers may be willing to develop new material specifically for schools; this, too would present a challenge to commercial software providers whose ‘bottom line’ is their profits. It is a concern, though, that these advantages of Open Source are not being presented at the forefront but that its supporters are apparently not looking further than the potential financial savings.
So, having drawn some of you to this post by the outrageous headline, what conclusions can be reached at the end? I believe the following conclusions are valid;
- Schools should keep in mind, as a priority, that their primary purpose is to educate and that services and resources should be best employed which support that purpose
- Open Source and commercial products or services should be presented on an equal basis, with all costs, advantages and disadvantages presented openly to schools
- That all suppliers and schools should be prepared to work cooperatively to deploy and develop services that are in the schools’ interests
- That all suppliers should be prepared to offer their products or services in support of education rather than with a view to ‘making a quick profit’.