Saturday, April 29, 2006

Open Source in Education: The Coming Tidal Wave

I just finished reading the Futurelab report "Open Education: The Potential of Open Source Approaches for Education." It was one of a number of reports on Open Source software in education that I had downloaded to my computer and planned to read through quickly when I had time, expecting to find just another positive appraisal of Open Source software in some specific educational program. Instead, I found myself captivated, taking a couple of hours to carefully read every word and take notes.

This report is a must-read.

Most discussions of Open Source software for education focus on what I'll call the "first wave:" the cost-savings to schools of using Open Source programs that provide comparable functionality to commercial or proprietary software, both for use in the classroom (e.g., OpenOffice productivity suite) or for school infrastructure (e.g., Apache web server). This will save schools money, and will also allow students to use the same programs at home without the financial burden or having to purchase commercial software. I believe that this first wave will be of tremendous benefit while not requiring any dramatic changes in how schools operate.

I can also see that there will be a "second wave" of influence from the Open Source movement: the awareness of and dissemination of teaching material, inspired by the licensing methodologies of the Open Source movement, and made possible by the incredible connectedness that the Internet provides. Educational institutions, publishers, and teachers will share and collaborate on teaching materials and methods. I am not a teacher, but I would imagine that this is already happening to a great degree informally, but will continue to be formalized and will grow.

But it is the "third wave" that intrigues me, and which I think could bring about the most explosive, exciting changes to how we think about education. Open Source software is built through a peer-production system, and the influence of this methodology could bring incredibly positive benefits to the world of education. Imagine: students who work on collaborative projects that utilize and build on the technologies of the Open Source movement, but also contribute back to those same resources. As schools begin to use tools that have been created by individuals from all over the world (think of Wikipedia), students will naturally become builders themselves because that is how these Open Source or Open Technologies work--they ask for, and encourage, the users to become contributors. From knowledge-bases to actual software applications, think of the excitement of not only learning about something, but becoming a contributor. I can imagine incredible possibilities: a student who helps modify a database accounting program for a local homeless shelter, a study group that focuses on a significant historical event and looks at online source documents to detail one particular aspect of that event, or a class that works to create online documentation for a new programming language.

One small story may help to demonstrate how exciting and motivating this can be. As a family history buff, some years ago I received an email from a woman asking if I had ever heard of a Kate Hargadon (my same last name) who had been the traveling companion of her grandmother on the Titanic. This intrigued me, so searched the web to find that all the Titanic websites had information on a young woman, spelled "Kate Hagardon," 17, from Ballysodare, Co Sligo, Ireland who boarded the Titanic at Queenstown and who died in the sinking. Because all of the members of the "Hargadon" family trace back to County Sligo in Ireland, it seemed possible to me that "Hagardon" was actually mis-transcribed from "Hargadon." I wrote the Irish Titanic Historical Society, who had someone look up the original passenger manifest, and found that "Kate Hargardon" was in fact "Kate Hargadon." All of the historical sites were informed, and for many years every mention of "Kate Hargadon" carried a footnote acknowledging me as the "historian" who had discovered this.

You can imagine how much fun that was for me. And, truth be told, it wasn't anything earth-shattering, but it was me being involved in history in a very real and tangible way, and making a concrete contribution. This is the kind of excitement that I imagine that the "third wave" of Open Source will bring to education. I believe it will mark the beginning of a wonderful period of learning and contributing for students.

TechMission List of Free and Open Source Favorites

TechMission (www.TechMission.org) supports Christian community computer centers in their effort to provide access, skills and relationships needed to succeed in the information age. They recently sent a list of Free and Open Source Software that they are planning to put on in a distributable CD to go with refurbished computers. The list categories are: Office, Project Management, Net Safety, Computer Utilities, Graphics, Internet, Multimedia, and Educational.

Office

Name: Open Office
Website: http://www.openoffice.org/
Description: OpenOffice.org is a multiplatform and multilingual office
suite and an open-source project. Compatible with all other major office
suites, the product is free to download, use, and distribute.

Name: Abi Word
Website: http://www.abisource.com/
Description: AbiWord is a free word processing program similar to
Microsoft® Word. It is suitable for a wide variety of word processing tasks.

Name: PDF creator
Website: http://sourceforge.net/projects/pdfcreator/,
http://sector7g.wurzel6.de/pdfcreator/index_en.htm
Description: PDFCreator easily creates PDFs from any Windows program. Use
it like a printer in Word, StarCalc or any other Windows application

Name: TurboCASH Accounting
Website: http://www.turbocash.co.za/,
http://sourceforge.net/projects/turbocash,
Description: TurboCASH Accounting, entry level Delphi, Windows Accounting
package for single users, small networks and distributed networks.
Accommodates developer scripts, local plug-in and multi language
translation.

Name: Thunderbird
Website: http://www.mozilla.com/thunderbird/
Description: Thunderbird delivers. Enjoy safe, fast, and easy email, with
intelligent spam filters, quick message search, and customizable views

Name: Primo PDF
Website: http://www.primopdf.com/
Description: Convert to PDF from any application by simply 'printing' to
the PrimoPDF® printer - it couldn't be easier! Within minutes, you can
create high-quality PDFs by converting from Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and
virtually any other printable file type..

Name: Organizers Database
Website: http://organizersdb.org/home
Description: A database program designed for Non-profits.

Name: eBase
Website: http://www.ebase.org/
Description: ebase is a complete nonprofit database solution. With it’s
comprehensive feature set, ebase can help you manage donors, prospects,
volunteers, activists, email lists and more – all in one place
Project Management

Name: Open Workbench
Website: http://www.openworkbench.org/
Description: Open Workbench is an open source Windows-based desktop
application that provides robust project scheduling and management
functionality and is free to distribute throughout the enterprise. When
users need to move beyond desktop scheduling to a workgroup, division or
enterprise-wide solution, they can upgrade to CA's Clarity™ system, a
project and portfolio management system that offers bidirectional
integration with Open Workbench.

Name: Free Mind
Website: http://freemind.sourceforge.net/wiki/index.php/Main_Page
Description: FreeMind is a premier free mind mapping software written in
Java. The recent development has hopefully turned it into high productivity
tool. We are proud that the operation and navigation of FreeMind is faster
than that of MindManager because of one-click "fold / unfold" and "follow
link" operations.

Net safety

Name: We-Blocker
Website: http://www.weblocker.com/
Description: Free Software to block inappropriate material

Name: X3Watch
Website: http://www.x3church.com/x3watch/
Description: X3watch is an accountability software program helping with
online integrity. Whenever you browse the Internet and access a site which
may contain questionable material, the program will save the site name on
your computer in a hidden folder. A person of your choice (an accountability
partner) will receive an email containing all possible questionable sites
you may have visited within the month. This information is meant to
encourage open and honest conversation between friends and help us all be
more accountable.

Name: Ad-aware
Website: http://www.lavasoftusa.com/software/adaware/
Description: Ad-Aware Personal provides advanced protection from known
data-mining, aggressive advertising, Trojans, dialers, malware, browser
hijackers, and tracking components

Name: AVG-Link
Website: http://free.grisoft.com/doc/1
Description: Free Anti-Virus Program

Name: TUKI
Website: http://tuki.com/
Description: Web browser designed for children. Has parental controls and
designed for children.

Name: Dan’s Guardian
Website: http://dansguardian.org/
Description: DansGuardian is an award winning Open Source web content
filter which currently runs on Linux, FreeBSD, OpenBSD, NetBSD, Mac OS X,
HP-UX, and Solaris. It filters the actual content of pages based on many
methods including phrase matching, PICS filtering and URL filtering. It does
not purely filter based on a banned list of sites like lesser totally
commercial filters.

Name: Accountability Pal
Website: http://sourceforge.net/projects/accpal/
Description: Accountability Pal monitors your network and keeps track of who
is using the Internet and what they are viewing, downloading, uploading,
etc. It emails a report of each user's activity to the person/people you
specify. Great for parents and businesses.
Computer Utilities

Name: Video LAN Client
Website: http://www.videolan.org/
Description: VLC is a free cross-platform media player.

Name: 7-Zip
Website: http://www.7-zip.org/, http://sourceforge.net/projects/sevenzip/
Description: 7-Zip is a file archiver with the high compression ratio. The
program supports 7z, ZIP, CAB, RAR, ARJ, LZH, CHM, GZIP, BZIP2, Z, TAR,
CPIO, RPM and DEB formats. Compression ratio in the new 7z format is 30-50%
better than ratio in ZIP format

Name: Smoothwall
Website: http://smoothwall.org/
Description: SmoothWall is a best-of-breed Internet firewall/router,
designed to run on commodity hardware, and to give an easy-to-use
administration interface to those using it.

Name: Clonezilla
Website: http://clonezilla.sourceforge.net/
Description: To clone a system, you might be familiar with the commercial
package Norton Ghost®, or the opensource solution Partition Image. However,
it takes time to massively clone system to many computers. You may be
familiar with the commercial package Symantec Ghost Corporate Edition® with
multicasting. Now, Clonezilla is the opensource clone system (OCS) with
unicasting and multicasting. With DRBL and network boot enabled client
computers, the only thing you have to prepare is a Clonezilla server, and
you do not have to prepare a bootable CD or floppy with Partition Image for
every client computer.

Name: Rootkit Revealer
Website: http://www.sysinternals.com/Utilities/RootkitRevealer.html
Description: RootkitRevealer is an advanced rootkit detection utility. It
runs on Windows NT 4 and higher and its output lists Registry and file
system API discrepancies that may indicate the presence of a user-mode or
kernel-mode rootkit. RootkitRevealer successfully detects all persistent
rootkits published at www.rootkit.com, including AFX, Vanquish and
HackerDefender (note: RootkitRevealer is not intended to detect rootkits
like Fu that don't attempt to hide their files or registry keys). If you use
it to identify the presence of a rootkit please let us know!

Name: Knoppix-Link
Website: http://www.knoppix.org/
Description: KNOPPIX is a bootable CD or DVD with a collection of GNU/Linux
software, automatic hardware detection, and support for many graphics cards,
sound cards, SCSI and USB devices and other peripherals. KNOPPIX can be used
as a productive Linux desktop, educational CD, rescue system, or adapted and
used as a platform for commercial software product demos. It is not
necessary to install anything on a hard disk. Due to on-the-fly
decompression, the CD can have up to 2 GB of executable software installed
on it. (over 8 GB on the DVD "Maxi" edition). This has tools to fix
computers Linux and other computers as well.

Graphics:

Name: The Gimp
Website: http://www.gimp.org/
Description: GIMP is the GNU Image Manipulation Program. It is a freely
distributed piece of software for such tasks as photo retouching, image
composition and image authoring. It works on many operating systems, in many
languages.

Name: Blender
Website: http://www.blender.org/
Description: Blender is the open source software for 3D modeling, animation,
rendering, post-production, interactive creation and playback.

Name:Povray 3.5
Website: http://www.povray.org/
Description: The Persistence of Vision Raytracer is a high-quality, totally
free tool for creating stunning three-dimensional graphics. It is available
in official versions for Windows, Mac OS/Mac OS X and i86 Linux.

Internet

Name: FireFox
Website: http://www.mozilla.com/firefox/
Description: The award-winning open source Web browser. Browse the Web with
confidence - Firefox protects you from viruses, spyware and pop-ups. Enjoy
improvements to performance, ease of use and privacy.

Name: Beonex
Website: www.beonex.com
Description: Beonex (0.8.2) is a full-featured web-browser and email/news
client targeted at end-users—both individuals at home and companies of all
sizes. It is based on Mozilla source code, which in turn is based on the
Netscape Communicator code

Name: Mozilla Suite
Website: http://www.mozilla.org/products/mozilla1.x/
Description: Web-browser, advanced e-mail and newsgroup client, IRC chat
client, and HTML editing made simple -- all your Internet needs in one
application.

Name: GAIM
Website: http://gaim.sourceforge.net/
Description: A multi-protocol instant messaging (IM) client

Name: GNU Privacy Guard
Website: http://www.gnupg.org/
Description: An encryption program.

Name: Filezilla
Website: http://sourceforge.net/projects/filezilla/
Description: FileZilla is a fast FTP and SFTP client for Windows with a lot
of features.

Multimedia

Name: Audacity
Website: http://audacity.sourceforge.net/
Description: Audacity is free, open source software for recording and
editing sounds. It is available for Mac OS X, Microsoft Windows, GNU/Linux,
and other operating systems

Name: Video LAN Client
Website: http://www.videolan.org/
Description: VLC is a free cross-platform media player.

Name: CD-DA X-Tractor
Website: http://xtractor.sourceforge.net/
Description: CD-DA X-Tractor, a CD ripper for 32-bit Windows platforms. It
features intelligent jitter correction, internet CDDB support, on-the-fly
MP3 encoding via BladeEnc or Lame_enc.

Name: Csound
Website: http://sourceforge.net/projects/csound/
Description: Csound is a sound and music synthesis system, providing
facilities for composition and performance over a wide range of platforms.
It is not restricted to any style of music, having been used for many years
in at least classical, pop, techno, ambient..

Educational

Name: Tux Typing
Website: http://tuxtype.sourceforge.net/
Description: Tux Typing is an educational typing tutor for children. It
features several different types of game play, at a variety of difficulty
levels.

Name: Tux Paint
Website: http://www.newbreedsoftware.com/tuxpaint/
Description: A drawing program for young children with sound effects, a
cartoon character, and fun 'rubber stamp'/'sticker book' pictures

Name: Childsplay
Website: http://childsplay.sourceforge.net/
Description: Childsplay is a 'suite' of educational games for young
children. It's written in Python and uses the SDL-libraries to make it more
games-like then, for instance, gcompris. The aim is to be educational and at
the same time be fun to play

Name: Celestia
Website: http://celestia.sourceforge.net/
Description: Celestia is real-time 3D space simulation which lets you travel
through our solar system and to over 100,000 stars in our neighborhood.

Name: Flashcards 3.0
Website: http://rawilson.net/shareware/index.html
Description: I put this together for my kids to practice their basic math
facts. It's a simple flashcard program that covers addition, subtraction,
multiplication and division. You can select any one of the operations to
practice on, or have the program mix them up. Though the default is 10,
facts up to 100 are selectable. Version 3.0 includes the ability to practice
fractions. A timer or a clock runs in the background, and a count of
correct/incorrect answers is displayed. This program is freeware. Enjoy.

Name: Read Please
Website: http://www.readplease.com/
Description: Reads any onscreen text in any of four voices

Name: Certification Genie
Website: http://in.tech.yahoo.com/010721/94/11n8x.html
Description: These are free, fully functional MCSE Track practice exams
with over 500 questions, including scenarios, exhibits, and detailed
explanations. This is the only program you need to fully prepare yourself
for the MCSE NT 4.0 exams. It includes Networking Essentials, NT
Workstation, Server, Enterprise, TCP/IP, and IIS 4.0.
Note: You must register at the website to get the serial number to unlock
this exam.

Name: Exam II
Website: http://www.deltafarms.com/setup.exe
Description: A program for designing and administering exams. It can also
be used by a student for preparing for practice exams.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Case Study: Linux Thin-client Laptop Cart

From Daniel Howard (dhhoward@comcast.net):

Folks, a while back I built a rolling laptop cart for old laptops we had at the school that were pretty useless trying to run Windows, but work wonderfully as thin clients. With 12 laptop stations adding to the existing 5-9 thin clients in each classroom, we can provide a class with an instant 1:1 ratio for activities like creative writing, research, etc. Unlike most laptop carts, this one has removable shelves to put the laptops on so kids need only pull up a chair and start working. Since the laptops are thin clients, they stay on all the time, so transition from one group to another merely requires logging off one account and logging on another. It used to take 10-15 minutes to roll the cart into a room, distribute the laptops to students, boot them, and get connected to the wireless network, now when a class signs up for access to the cart for an hour, the students are on the cart working for at least 58 minutes of that hour. The laptops are all hard wired to a K12LTSP server on the cart with UPS battery backup, and there is a printer on the cart.

The cart has been a huge success. It's now placed in a wide section of a hallway with ample room for it, and classes on that floor share the cart; the principal reports that kids are on the cart every time she's looked at it.

Based on that success, we're building two more carts for similar floors, and what has dawned on us is that this is a fantastic way to transition cost effectively to a 1:1 ratio in the school. With 5-9 clients and a 12 station laptop cart outside in the hallway nearby, shared by only a handful of classes (as opposed to the entire school), the teachers get a 1:1 ratio available to them every day.

I'm posting this info not only because I want to share our experiences, but because it's a new (or return to an old) paradigm: the distributed computer clusters model. By distributing clusters of servers and thin clients, we move quickly to a daily 1:1 ratio for the entire school. We hear every day about the two extremes (computer lab and handful of PCs in each class vs. 1:1 ratio in entire grades or entire school). Our model is in between these two cases, and is much more cost and space effective than trying to put a 1:1 ratio in each class overnight, and faster than merely gradually increasing the number of PCs in each class. Until we move to all LCD monitors and diskless mini ITX thin clients, we simply could not put all those PCs in a classroom, nor would we have sufficient electrical power for that many CRTs and conventional PCs.

On another related note, we have found that the difference between having 1-2 working PCs per class and at least 5 PCs per class is huge: having 1-2 working PCs per class is almost like having none, the teachers didn't regularly incorporate the technology into their instruction. But with at least 5, the teachers are now all creating 'centers' based on the PCs, where at least a third of their students get to work on the PCs for up to two hours every day without having to go to the computer lab. It's been a seachange in how our teachers are using technology, and some teachers are already reporting performance and motivational benefits of K12LTSP and more PCs. The youngest grade teachers are raving about GCompris and Child's Play.

I got interested in this whole 1:1 ratio thing over the weekend, and found the following links for those also interested, first is a Massachusetts school that put laptops in front of every higher grade student:

http://www.portical.org/Presentations/bebell/


Summary slide:
What did we learn from exploring ?
• Technology Used More Frequently in 1:1 settings
• Higher motivation and engagement in 1:1 settings
• Computers became students’ primary writing tool in 1:1 settings
• Differences in classroom structure
• Differences in home computer use for 1:1 students

We've seen all of these effects at Brandon except that we haven't explored how home PC use may be changing, and have also seen improved student performance directly linked to more PCs.

Also, here's a consortium on 1:1 evaluations:

http://ubiqcomputing.org/eval_mat_framework.html

Good templates for surveys, evaluations, etc. on impact of technology on instruction.

Regards,
Daniel

Case Study: An Elementary School Uses Linux Thin Client

By Mary Jo Spencer, Technology Coordinator, Stratham Memorial School

*****************************************************************************************************************************

I know there are not many Elementary folks working with K12LTSP - that is one reason why the word needs to get out.

I think often the general word is that the main reason to use Linux Thin Clients is that it is cheap. This tends to be a total turn-off to teachers who infer that this is the old "Try to make do with junk..." or for the Elementary School folks the "Give the little kids the hand-me-downs from the middle and high schools.

Yes, cost is a factor but the real selling point is that of freedom... Freedom from limited access, Freedom from students losing files, Freedom from recurrent breakdowns/viruses/spyware, Freedom from being limited to the software programs that your school has purchased, Freedom from being bound inside the walls of your classroom and school.

I do have to say that I was not enthused with the K12package from the beginning. It took me quite some time to understand what a marvel this K12LTSP package really is. My brain still has trouble understanding how it can be that you take a server with processors that are just a bit faster than some XP machines we have, put K12LTSP Linux software on the server, and hitch tens of clients to the server and they run essentially as fast at the XP machines. The first time I was shown the K12LTSP package it was based on a single PC as a server and thus was very slow and unwieldy. The second time a real server was used but it was an older model so the thin clients were still slow. It wasn't until I had a real K12LTSP server connected at my school to play around with that I started to see the light...

People also need to understand that it doesn't need to be all Linux or nothing... We still have Windows machines. Grades 3-5 teachers still have at least one Windows machine for their use in their classrooms and access to Windows laptops for their classes. The primary student accounts for grades 3-5 are in K12LTSP but I have just set up Samba so that students can access their Linux home folders from Windows. Since we have Star Office set up on the Windows machines the students can work on their files no matter which machines they are using. Starting with Open Source software on Windows allows a much easier migration to K12ltsp. The grades K-2 classes are still working with Windows but will probably switch to Thin Clients for writing projects next year.

I think the main problem with K12LTSP is getting so many folks out of their comfort zone but the payoff is big time... Embracing K12LTSP also enables classes to tap into the myriad of educational resources on the net. One thing that greatly assisted our thin client program is that this year the SAU required all teachers who give homework to have updated homework pages. Rather than go with Homework Now or other commercial ventures, our teachers were taught how to use Star Office/Open Office to make webpages. It works fine - not all the bells and whistles of the dedicated web software but it built on their basic word processing skills, got them used to this new office suite, and then provided a ready avenue for extending these efforts to classroom websites filled with Internet links and to the use of internet-based curricular units. Sure, not everyone jumped at this opportunity but a few did and have pulled many other folks along... And the students are benefiting greatly.

I do have to admit on my part it has been quite a bit of work especially since I am still teaching classes essentially full time to boot. I think there needs to be more info available as integrated cookbook guides to moving to open source software and K12LTSP especially for elementary schools. The K12 package is not really well set up for elementary schools. Our students are forbidden to use Google but the stock K12 package blazes Google all over the place in Firefox... Yes you can change it but the first impression has been made...

So how do we make this a seller????? I don't know ... We need to help more elementary folks get started and open their minds to the possibilities... Maybe focusing on the opportunities that all this affords rather than getting stuck on platforms etc... Speed, Ease of Use, Roving Desktops, Tapping into Internet resources... Successful student use of technology... Elementary schools serve as the foundations for learning... It is important that students see technology for its use as a fantastic resource for learning not just as another video game platform...

But we're still not quite up to that "gotta have it" stage... NCLB doesn't help either - it tends to have schools looking for quick fixes rather than real innovations...

Cheers, Mary Jo

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Open Source Lab Plans for NECC 2006 in San Diego

We've just finalized the speakers schedule for the Open Source lab at the National Educational Computing Conference 2006 in San Diego. Very exciting.

We'll have 15 hour-long sessions that will be held in a lab setting with 25 computers, with some GREAT speakers:

David Thornburg: "When Best is Free: An Educator's Guide to Open Source"
Michelle Moore: "Use Your Noodle, Learn Moodle: An Open Source Learning Management System" (3 sessions - boy is she popular!)
Will Richardson: "Learning With Blogs: Bringing the Read/Write Web Into the Classroom"
Jeffrey Elkner: "A Tour of Ubuntu with Free CD"
Jenny Horn: "Hello World: Starting at the Very Beginning with PHP"
Bryant Patten: "Open Source Technology: Why Teachers Should Care"
Tim Frichtel: "Great Web sites with Open Source Content Management Systems"
Steve Hargadon: "K12LTSP: Low-cost, Stable, and Reliable Computer Labs"
Chris Walsh: "Content is STILL King: FREE Blogging & Content Management Systems"
James Klein: "Creating Communities with Open Source Tools"
Tom Hoffman: "SchoolTool: a Free, Open Source SIS and Calendaring System"
Vernon Ceder: "Computer Programming for Everybody: Teaching Programming with Python"

We'll also have a "birds of a feather" meeting on Open Source software in K12 schools, to be followed by a proposed dinner event with those interested in talking about the future of Open Source software in Education.

In addition to the Open Source lab, we'll have a "Playground" area with 6 booths to showcase different Open Source technologies real-time. Currently planned are booths for:

SchoolTool & CanDo 2006 (A FREE, Web-Based, Competency Tracker)
Ubuntu & Fedora Core
Moodle & Moodle e-portfolio
Open Office & Firefox
Gimp
Asterisk & Mambo/Joomla

Mike Huffman from Indiana has also said that he will be attending, and we're going to try and find a venue for his participation as well--many of us are very interested in an update on the Indiana ACCESS program!

"Skolelinux" Report - Thin Client in 234 Norwegian Schools

http://developer.skolelinux.no/artikler/2006-04-02-debconf6.pdf

This is a 17-page condensed English version of a 65 page report by the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research about the use of free software in Norway's schools. In Norway, a version of Linux called Skolelinux has been created that is quite clever. Skolelinux uses Debian and a single-CD installation concept which allows one to install either a "main server," a "thin-client server," a client machine, or a standalone version for home use--all from the same CD.

While the technical details (and cost analyses) here are a little difficult to understand, due mostly to translation issues, the conclusions are significant. All told there are 234 schools using this system in Norway, with 33,000 client machines, and 101,000 pupils and teachers participating. And from what I can tell, the costs per computer appear to be less than half the cost of Windows by direct comparison with the City of Oslo, which runs both Skolelinux and Windows.

"The main conclusion is that no pedagogic, technical, or economical objections [to] using free software in schools [remain] valid."

Fair Comparison of Microsoft Office and Open Office

TechSoup.org recently published a comparison by Idealware of Microsoft Office and Open Office here.

Acknowledging that a full comparison was outside the scope of their intent, they focus on word processing, spreadsheet use, and email and calendar (which is not technically in Open Office, but Idealware substitutes two other Open Source programs: Thunderbird for email and Sunbird for calendar).

This is an article that doesn't draw conclusions for you, but pretty clearly spells out the differences in the two products, while giving a good overview of what Open Source software is. Even though the article is geared toward U.S.-based non-profit groups, who can obtain Microsoft Office for "free or almost free," they still find much to promote in the Open Source model.

The article concludes with: "Personally, we like and use just about every piece of software mentioned in this article. You might want to consider installing both office suites to allow your users a choice. Personally, we like having choices."

I think Open Office for schools makes a lot of sense for a couple of reasons that the article doesn't mention.

  1. Microsoft Office is not "free or almost free" for schools, and even though significantly discounted, does represent a substantial cost to schools. If Open Office is comparable to Microsoft Office, many schools will find that the savings make it worth switching.
  2. Open Office can be freely given to students to take home and put on their home computers. Especially for low-income families, this provides a significant bridge between their schoolwork and what they can accomplish at home.
  3. I'm old enough that there wasn't "word processing" when I was in high school (good old typing class!), but I've used many different word processors in my life, including some online ones now (ZohoWriter and Writely). If we are teaching "word processing" instead of the clerical skill of using a particular word processor, then there is an educational argument toward using alternative products that perform comparably.
Of course, I understand that many teachers have developed specific curricula around Microsoft Office, and may not feel they have the option to switch. But certainly, for free, it's worth a test drive at least. Probably the easiest way to test the most popular Open Source programs that run on Windows is to download the OpenCD, available here.