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Last Updated: Friday, 1 July, 2005, 23:08 GMT 00:08 UK
How schools can get free software
school computer room
Schools' computer costs have been rising
The UK government's school computing agency, Becta, has said schools could save costs by switching to what is known as open source software.

In open source software (OSS), the underlying computer code is freely available so users can alter it and publish new versions, to benefit the community.

Leslie Fletcher, chair of governors at Parrs Wood High School in south Manchester and campaigns manager for the UK's Unix and Open Systems User Group, offers a personal perspective on how schools can benefit.

Schools using open source software can develop their information and communication technology (ICT) as they think best, without worrying about software costs and licensing because OSS is usually free.

The software a school needs to keep its computer network running and secure, send and receive e-mail, access the internet, protect users from viruses, spam and unsuitable content and carry out office tasks such as word processing is all available free by using OSS.

It can be downloaded from the internet - free as in "free beer" - and has very liberal licensing terms - free as in "free speech".

Parrs Wood High School has more than 2,000 students and more than 200 staff.

When it moved into new buildings at Easter 2000 spending had to be tightly controlled.

Capital

One of the technical staff, Tim Fletcher, had experience with OSS and convinced the head teacher and governors that it could deliver their vision for ICT in the new school extremely cost- effectively.

Capital was spent on high-speed network equipment and the best available servers, the computers running the system.

Because OSS runs well on old hardware, computers from the old school and cast-offs from local businesses could be deployed in ICT rooms and other classrooms, requiring little additional capital expenditure.

Now Parrs Wood has more than 1,000 computers in school and more than 100 school laptops are on free loan to students who would not otherwise have a computer at home.

All staff, students and governors can, and many do, login to the school network from home - a facility soon be extended to parents and carers.

Microsoft desktops

The OSS enabling this does not cost anything and can be given away by the school without any concern about violating licence terms.

At Parrs Wood OSS is seen not as merely a way of saving money, but rather of spending it more effectively
The majority of Parrs Wood's servers run OSS and use OSS to communicate with desktop computers in classrooms and offices.

What appears on screen - the so-called desktop - for ordinary users is the familiar, paid-for Microsoft Windows.

The software used by staff and students includes the content management system Moodle, which is open source, and Microsoft's Word, Excel and Powerpoint.

Software licences cost Parrs Wood about 30,000 each year, less than half the cost if no OSS were deployed, according to figures in the recent Becta report.

Only recently has the school become satisfied that OSS is now sufficiently well developed to meet classroom and office needs and provides a viable alternative to licensed software.

With governors' support and encouragement, the school is adopting OSS more completely over the next three years, including the eventual replacement of Windows by an OSS desktop, which will be a significant change.

Effectiveness

The gradual transition ratified by governors will enable the school community, including parents, to be made aware of the value which the school places on the freedom to innovate which OSS gives.

Schemes of work will be revised so that students gain an appreciation of the uses and value of ICT which goes beyond competency with a few of today's computer applications.

Staff training will be provided and all those involved kept abreast of developments in OSS and its increasingly widespread use.

At Parrs Wood OSS is seen not as merely a way of saving money, but rather of spending it more effectively.

Paying for capable technical support staff is an essential first step to effective ICT; providing career opportunities maintains the momentum.

Tim is now a member of the school's leadership team, with responsibility for the strategic development of ICT, and manages an experienced team of six technical staff.

Reaching out

Parrs Wood's commitment to OSS has other implications. Its behaviour management system, developed in-house, is to be made available to local high schools by means of an open source licence.

Staff needed to be convinced that this accorded with the school's philosophy of open dissemination of knowledge and information, and the local education authority's historic reluctance to endorse free software had to be overcome.

The OSS business model, in which software is free but support is paid for, has to be explained to other schools.

OSS is so trouble-free and reliable that there is time to look after the ICT networks in a dozen or so local primary schools.

A service-level agreement provides an initial health check, after which a Parrs Wood technician spends half a day each week giving on-site support.

A built-in capability of OSS allows the networks to be managed remotely from Parrs Wood for the rest of the week.

The schools get a service second to none, at a price they can afford. Expertise is shared without any interference from software vendors.

When Manchester needed a new school e-mail system and many of the city's schools needed improved access to the internet, experience at Parrs Wood proved invaluable.

OSS licences allow software to be modified to meet users' requirements - so the software powering the school system was scaled up to a city-wide system.


SEE ALSO:
Schools 'could cut software cost'
18 May 05 |  Education
Open source leaders slam patents
03 Feb 05 |  Technology
Schools spend more on technology
10 Jan 05 |  Education
Can technology help schools?
18 Mar 04 |  Education
25m extra for schools technology
07 Jan 04 |  Education


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