Thursday, October 13, 2005

Open Source In Education

There is a growing movement in education to use open source software over proprietary solutions (Windows) because licencing is a huge expense. So I did a bit of reading on the subject because I have had a few bad experiences with Open Source software and I don't think your average educator could cope.

The only pro is that the software is free. Moving to Open Office seems to be a very good idea for education because Microsoft Office is expensive and Open Office covers everything that most users would want to use. A complete Open Source computing infrastructure however is a mistake without an experienced and motivated IT coordinator.

The current procedure for setting up computer labs is to pay a company to supply computers and then the teaching staff will setup the machines themselves. With Linux this isn't possible because the machines have to be configured, there are no easy setup solutions here, some config file editing is required to get each machine running. And then there are also issues with installing applications because you have to get software that is specific to your Linux distribution and version. I have experience with this and most of the software I have tried to install has failed because I have downloaded the wrong version.

This picture (see below) is me trying to install Mono (Mono will allow you to programme and run .Net applications in Linux when it is done) today. The installer doesn't work, I don't know why and the Help Text is not helping so I gaveup. As a windows user I only see an installer fail when the file is corrupt. Maybe that makes me spoiled, but after trying this I installed it on XP without a single issue (then I findout that the software is far from finished and I can't use it).
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A lot of companies do offer technical support for Linux based networks, but open source communities prefer to offer forum based support for issues and so do not have telephone hotlines for queries or problems. So software does require some trial and error to get installed, setup and used.

This whole issue comes down to commitment on the part of the organisation. If a school wants to save money then Open Source is a good route, but they will have to hire some IT staff to do a lot of legwork because the amount of work required to get a system setup is greater than that of a Windows based network. For some organisations however like Universities the move simply isn't viable because Universities have a commitment to teach students industry software that simply won't run on systems running anything other than Windows.

I have heard people talk about the move to Open Source like somekind of Utopian vision, but the only benefit is that the software has to offer is that it is free. I myself do not see that as very Utopian idea, especially not when I consider the amount of extra stress that it causes the IT staff.