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learning.now: at the crossroads of Internet culture & education with host Andy Carvin

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What’s the Fuss About FOSS?
Part 2: A Chat with David Thornburg

In my last post, I discussed the basics of free and open source software (FOSS). Now I’m going to turn to award-winning author and edtech advocate David Thornburg to offer an educational perspective. David is the founder of the Thornburg Center for Professional Development and the author of many books, including Campfires in Cyberspace and The New Basics: Education and the Future of Work in the Telematic Age. His latest book is When the Best is Free: An Educator’s Perspective on Open Source Software.

Andy Carvin: Why did you decide to write about open source software?

David Thornburg: There were several factors that caused me to explore this topic now. First, I had been doing more with Linux on the desktop as a result of Indiana’s initiative, and noticed that several powerful open source applications were available cross-platform, making the topic valuable for people using any of the big three operating systems (Windows, Linux, and Macintosh.) I decided to focus my energy on those titles that worked on all these operating systems since this reduced the barrier for educators to start exploring alternatives to expensive proprietary software.

The second reason I decided to explore this topic now is that educational technology funding is under constant attack, especially at the federal level, and this means that truly “free” (as in no cost) software takes on new importance, especially as schools are moving toward one-to-one programs for which software licenses could break the bank.

AC: Could you say a bit more about the Indiana initiative? I’m guessing many of my readers won’t be familiar with it.

DT: Mike Huffman and his team wanted to bring computers to every high school student in the state. The cost of doing this with a proprietary operating system and software was prohibitive, and desktop versions of Linux (e.g., Linspire) were starting to appear, so he made a bold proposal to move in this direction. Indiana is working with the high schools now, transforming about 5 classrooms per school each year, with the plan to get everyone set up very soon as they reach 100%. At that point, expect Indiana to move the project into the middle schools!

While the initial motivation may have been total cost of ownership, there are other good reasons for schools to move in this direction, especially system reliability. The only downside is that there are some proprietary titles that aren’t yet ported to Linux, and these titles may justify (for awhile) keeping other OS’s alive in schools. Note that there is no reason for commercial vendors to avoid creating Linux versions of their software. I have several commercial titles running on my Linux machine. While the OS and some commodity applications might be free, users should expect that they will be paying licenses for specialized titles just as they do with software today. That said, by using free open source software when possible, it leaves more in the budget for the commercial titles you want to buy. Vendors also need to realize that if they don’t port their applications to Linux soon, someone may choose to create free open source software with similar functionality which will not only eliminate a potential revenue stream for titles on the Linux platform, but may hurt them in other platforms as well if the open source equivalents are ported to Windows and Macintosh computers (as is frequently the case).

AC: You’ve stated that around 80% of activities currently conducted on classroom computers could be done with open source software. Could you elaborate on this?

DT: Most schools I visit have children creating documents, presentations, and web sites. They also create and edit images and sounds. This cluster of activities reflects at least 80% of the creative computer use in the hands of most children, and all this can be done with professional grade open source software. My own software use relies heavily on Open Office, NVU (web site creation), GIMP (image editing), Audacity (sound editing) and a handful of other tools.

AC: Do you distinguish between open source (ie, software in which the underlying code is open and available for tinkering) and the free software movement (ie, Richard Stallman’s work on how people should be free to use software in any way they choose)?

DT: Well, yes. I bend the rules a bit by including a few titles that do not make their source code public at this time. Stallman is clear on the definition of open source, and on the nature of the GPL license. This is his right, and I respect his work. At the same time, software like Cmap (a powerful concept mapping tool designed by Joseph Novak, now affiliated with the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition) does not have its source code available to the general population (yet). The same goes for NetLogo, developed by Uri Wilenski’s team at Northwestern University. These are two amazingly powerful tools (cross platform) that should be part of every educator’s toolkit. They are both free of charge, but technically not open source. Given that most teachers are not inclined to wade through source code themselves, I felt an obligation to include titles like these as a service to educators, even if they don’t fit Stallman’s criteria. The utility of the titles was more important to me than the purity of the underlying source code philosophy.

Aside from cross-platform compatibility, I chose great titles that teachers are free to put on as many computers as they want, including those in student’s homes. This freedom is critical since proprietary software vendors naturally will fight to protect their copyrights and their revenue streams. The titles that interest me most are those that encourage (or at least allow) sharing, even if the source code is not open.

AC: What open source tools are potentially the most useful as far as the average teacher is concerned?

DT: From the teacher’s perspective, Open Office (or Star Office, if you want) is a true workhorse. For everything from document creation, to spreadsheets, presentation slides, and just about anything else in the “office suite” domain, Open Office 2 does a stellar job. The formula generator is a godsend for math teachers. My book explores many other titles as well, but the real utility of software comes from the application of these tools in the hands of teachers and students. I’m a huge fan of inquiry-driven project-based learning, and my title list was selected to support this modality. That said, most of the tools I explored can be used in almost any educational environment from lecture-based delivery to pure constructivism.

AC: Are there certain educational tasks, in your mind, where open source is lacking? In other words, are there any software gaps that still need to be filled by new open source software?

DT: There are some gaps that will take awhile to fill: Curricula-specific titles are in short supply, for example. On the creative side, there are some tools I’d like to see to facilitate digital storytelling, for example. I expect that, over time, we’ll see more and more excellent open source titles for education. Again, one of the important criteria (for a few more years) is the ability of a title to be available across platforms. You can’t run Garage Band on Windows, and you can’t run ProShow Gold on a Mac. These two commercial titles are amazingly powerful, but only run on one platform at this time. The nice thing about open source software is that it is generally written in such a way as to support porting to other platforms.

The reason I think we’re going to see more great software in this category is because of the growing popularity of Linux on the student desktop. Already mandated in other countries, Linux is making inroads here in the US, led by Indiana who is currently rolling out 300,000 Linux computers into high school classrooms. This critical mass will not only encourage commercial software companies to port their software, but will encourage open source developers to craft great titles that run on all platforms. With the potential impact of the MIT “$100 laptop” or the Intel Eduwise computer (both running Linux), we expect 2006 to be a transition year.

Commercial developers can play a significant role in this domain, or they can ignore it at their peril. For example, Adobe has an Acrobat Reader for Linux, but does not have a version of Acrobat for this platform. After years of neglect, this has been addressed in Open Source software like Scribus which brings the power of Acrobat to Linux users for free. In my view, Adobe left money on the table with their decision to ignore that market. It reminds me of what happened when Unisys decided to enforce their copyright on GIF image compression after it had already become the defacto standard for certain types of web images. As a result, the development community bypassed the copyright by moving to a new (and better) compression scheme, PNG. The point is that educational software is a wide open market of opportunities, and it is on the cusp of some major shifts. Existing developers ignore the power of this movement at their peril.

AC: Have you observed any progress in the development of free/open source tools for blogging and podcasting? For example, many educators experimenting with blogging use commercial tools like Blogger, even though their feature set is pretty limited and can’t be customized too much.

DT: While I don’t have firsthand experience with open source blogging tools, Audacity is a popular sound editor for podcasting, and podcasting sessions at open source conferences are amazingly popular. NVU is a great web authoring tool in the open source family that facilitates the creation and posting of sites of all kinds.

AC: What do you think of Moodle, the open source course management tool? It’s been getting a lot of attention over the last year.

DT: Moodle is interesting at several levels. First, it is well-supported as a tool for online course design. Second, the designers are fans of constructivist approaches to education, and this is reflected in some of the features of Moodle. The challenge of this (and other online courseware packages) is that the course creator needs to work closely with the technology folks to have everything working smoothly on the server. This is just the nature of the beast, and has nothing to do with whether the underlying software is open source.

AC: Have you seen many schools adopting Edubuntu, the education version of the Ubuntu linux distribution?

DT: Edubuntu is growing in recognition. I use it every day and take delight in the fact that it is the only wide-spread operating system package designed specifically for K-12 education. No one else can make that claim — not Apple, not Microsoft — only Edubuntu. Version 6.06 is extremely smooth and comes preloaded with a large number of titles (many of which are explored in my book). The Ubuntu team is actively expanding the list of supported titles. Upgrades are automatic, an amazing array of USB devices are plug and play, etc. This last part is non-trivial. When you get a new digital camera, the packaged CD is amazingly unlikely to have Linux drivers. Even so, when I plugged my new Olympus camera into my Edubuntu computer, it asked if I wanted the pictures transferred to my internal hard drive. Very slick.

Now, add to this the fact that there is absolutely no charge for the system, and that it has active global support, and can be installed in an amazingly large number of languages, Edubuntu is the brightest spot on my radar screen today. Not bad for a company started by a South African headquartered on the Isle of Man.

AC: So is open source simply a matter of helping schools save money, or is there more to it than that?

DT: There is no question that moving commodity software titles to open source equivalents can save a lot of money. I recently visited a state that spends $500 per seat on software licenses, and every single title they purchased has a free open source equivalent. The financial impact can be huge. To start with, this frees schools to invest more on staff development and curricular integration of technology. And, in the era of declining technology budgets, saving money is important.

The real power, though, comes from the quality of the software, not its price. The titles I use on a daily basis are kept in good repair on a continuous basis. A variety of wiki’s and other online resources help with everything from installation to application of the tools, and the user community is eager to help other users who have needs. Even closed source titles like NetLogo have a very active listserv where users share insights and help each other solve problems. These support groups are made from a global collection of users, reinforcing that even the support is decentralized.

There are still some who say that anything you get for free must have bugs, and open source is a recipe for disaster. If this software was buggy, why do you suppose the Red Storm supercomputer at Sandia Labs is running on Linux? If open source is a recipe for disaster, why is the Wikipedia nearly as accurate as the Encyclopaedia Brittanica? The anti-open source rants are the dying gasps of some companies who see customers as wallets, not as educators and students deserving of the very best we have to offer.

Filed under : Cool Tools


Howdy! Great interview! I wrote a brief reflection at:

Take care,
Miguel Guhlin
Around the Corner - MGuhlin.net

Its great to hear that someone with national name recognition like David Thronburg is promoting of FOSS. His points about the opportunities for commercial software publishers are salient.

Andy, these two columns were a great introduction to the topic for educators. I will be sharing them with many colleagues. Thanks.

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