Radio Interview: Open Source Software in the Classroom

The following are notes from the radio interview with PlainsFM on November 2, 2009 about open source software in educationThe recording of the interview is available in MP3 format

As an IT teacher at a secondary school what prompted you to start using open source software with students?

The initial reason was simply cost. I needed to deliver a course that covered a wide range of skills and technologies with very little budget for software so we started using open source tools like Gimp, Inkscape, and Blender.

It quickly became obvious that I could change direction with the course pretty quickly depending on the students because of the low cost using open source tools so it became an integral part of the course development.

So other than the cost what sort of benefits did you find?

The freedom we had as a class was the key benefit I think. I was free to alter the course content very quickly simply by introducing different projects for students to work through, to the point I had students designing their own projects and choosing the tools they needed for the job. Students were also free to focus on tools they liked while building new skills and were also free to take the tools home if they wanted to work on their own projects.

If I had been using proprietary software that cost us I would have felt compelled to use them in the course effectively limiting the students to a small subset of tools and opportunities.

The learning opportunities that came out of open source software were also important for the course. The legal and ethical issues around open source with respect to copyright, licensing and the community were gold for some of the Technology assessments. Students could compare open source tools with proprietary tools and make judgments about which were better for the job at hand. At the senior level we were also able to start looking at the licenses behind open source software they they were using. That was great as there are the legal licenses and then the community written 'friendly versions' that worked well for students (and teachers) trying to understand them. All great stuff in a secondary classroom.

It was also interesting to note that ideas like 'piracy' and authentication of software licenses became a non-issue in the IT classroom and as we moved to Ubuntu Linux for the desktop it became much easier for students to install software as they needed it and viruses were simply not a concern for us.

Were there any challenges using open source software within a school?

There were challenges ...  a lot of them actually that sometimes threatened my sanity.

The big challenges were mostly with perceptions of open source.

It took time to break the students down to focus on the job and not the tool. They were so used to learning tools and specific skills they were often unable to focus on a bigger picture and complete a project.

Brand loyalty and bias was hard to break. The "Windows or Mac" focus of schools and the internal IT support marginalised our use of Linux and I constantly heard things like "Adobe Photoshop is the 'industry standard" so it's not effective to teach other tools". I still laugh a bit when I hear the idea of an "industry standard" tool. My attitude was, and still is that students need to learn how to manipulate images (or whatever) and then use whatever tools they have at hand to do it well.

No Cost = No Value was another challenge to break through. There was a real perception that open source tools that are freely available could not possibly be as good as proprietary (and expensive) tools. My background as a web designer helped break that down with students who quickly realised the tools were fine and most of the skill came down to technique and experience. I had some great 3D modelling come out of my Year 11 class using Blender, the free 3D modelling/animation tool. There were some pretty amazing budding graphic designers in there as well all using Gimp and Inkscape. Value in education really has nothing to do with financial cost.

Did you find much support for the use of open source software?

Within the school it was pretty limited as the focus was very much on the Microsoft operating systems and office tools. We also had a few Apple Mac suites for the 'art and graphic design' students learning Adobe Photoshop and Maya. The IT folks were busy enough with those systems so I was pretty much left to my own devices, which I'll admit was actually quite good in some respects.

There is a lot of wider community support for the tools and a lot of tutorials and resources for students to hunt out, which was much more powerful than me telling them everything. I often repackaged tutorials I had found on the web so they fit the course requirements and then released them for others to use. The more teachers that share resources under an open or creative commons license the more support there will be.

The open source community in NZ is also pretty supportive. The Computing College course I ran for Year 13s was a finalist in the NZ Open Source awards for a couple of years which helped the perception of the course within the school. Things like that really help teachers by adding credibility and generally raising morale.