Why Aren't More Schools Using Free, Open Tools?

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The promise of using technology in school technology has been to give students more control over their learning, while helping teachers provide tailored instruction to individual student needs. "Personalized learning" has been the common rhetoric driving most one-to-one device initiatives.

The stated goal is to make learning more of an individual experience, but many schools have chosen to implement technology programs in fairly regimented ways -- for lots of different reasons. Many schools want all students to have the same kind of device, with the same apps pre-downloaded. Students often have little choice over which tools they can use on their devices. Even for online research, many schools filter out useful websites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, making it harder and more restrictive.

Schools have many reasons for wanting to systematize the technology in schools: to ensure equity for all students, the ability of IT department to support the devices, and to comply with federal laws. Most schools are working with limited technology budgets and IT directors are trying to decide how to get the most out of those limited dollars. At the same time, they’re being bombarded by tech vendors, feeling pressure to keep up with new changes.

Though all these reasons make sense in context, this focus on controlling devices may also be undermining the goal of helping students to become independent learners. Are schools missing a key element of the technology revolution in schools, a moment for real change, by locking down computing systems and by default ensuring students remain tech-users, not creators?

A PIRATE ISLAND DISTRICT

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A district in Pennsylvania is flying in the face of the trend towards closed systems, instead choosing open source devices and software whenever possible. “We sometimes feel like a pirate island because this is unusual,” said Charlie Reisinger, technology director for Penn Manor School District in Pennsylvania.

The district recently gave all 1,700 high school students laptops running Ubuntu operating systems, an easy-to-use version of the open source product Linux. Reisinger estimates that going with an open-source operating system has saved the district $360,000 in just the first year of the program and his dedication to Linux machines has saved closer to $750,000 over the ten years he’s been with the district.

“The difference is with a device such as this, it’s unlocked and kids have administrative level accounts on their laptops,” Reisinger said. “So where our formal instruction ends, their new learning can begin because they have control over the device.” Students can download and load anything they want -- and Reisinger even encourages them to do so. He’s not worried about them breaking the system because of its flexibility and wants them to learn from mistakes, if they do.

Reisinger is baffled by the behavior of districts like Los Angeles, which rolled out a one-to-one iPad program and then revoked student privileges when kids figured out how to navigate around district filters. “On the one hand we’re handing kids amazing learning devices, perhaps one of the most amazing inventions of the past 100 years, but yet we’re saying don’t learn about it, we don’t want you to understand how it works,” Reisinger said.

Treating devices that way makes students and teachers dependent on programmers for their needs, rather than letting them learn what’s under the hood. Penn Manor teachers assign work on devices to help kids meet learning standards just like teachers everywhere else, but they also have more options to let the kids explore safely.

“While we have the 'must do' layer, there’s also that little bit of subversion here, giving kids that little bit of creativity and maybe a ray of hope,” Reisinger said. “I want them to learn that learning is not all about what someone else preordains for you. It’s OK to tinker and play with things.” Penn Manor is as beholden to performing well on state tests as any other school district and its teachers make sure to cover curriculum, even using a few third party software programs to provide remedial help.

But Reisinger says in addition to the advantage students have by just having access to their own laptops, students are becoming curious about the world of computing. “We’re seeing these little sprouts of discovery and problem solving that they never would have been about to do if we’d given them a locked down device,” Reisinger said.

STUDENTS DESIGN CLASSROOM SOLUTIONS

When Penn Manor was rolling out its one-to-one high school laptop program in January, a core group of students who had already showed an interest in computer science played an integral role. A few juniors and seniors who had been interning with the IT department over the summers helped configure laptops and served as support to their peers on hardware issues. They essentially became part of the IT team.

“What we did a little differently is we structured the help desk into an actual course, so they could do this type of work,” Reisinger said. Schools often have students staff this kind of help desk before or after school, but Reisinger felt that making it a class would legitimize the effort and make the students a part of his team. Students are even designing programming solutions to problems that arise in class.

Teachers were complaining that they wanted a simple way to share files and links within the classroom, like a private Twitter app. Rather than having IT professionals respond to the request, Reisinger’s students programmed a solution that they call Paper Plane. ”Those kids have code up on GitHub [a site for open-source code] right now that they’re sharing out,” Reisinger said. Students also designed the help ticketing software that their peers use to request IT support.

Reisinger is aware that his computer science interns don’t represent the whole student body and that not every student is taking advantage of their open devices to become programmers. But a few are. “Every district has talent like that,” he said. The systems just have to support them to let those talents shine.

IS OPEN MORE DIFFICULT TO SUPPORT?

A lot of people are scared away from open-source software or operating systems like Linux because of the belief that they are harder for teachers and students to use, and are more challenging to support. Reisinger hasn’t found that to be true for his district. “If you look at the learning opportunities in the free and open source community there is so much out there and the community is incredibly friendly,” he said. He gave students and teachers a 10-minute tutorial to their Ubuntu devices and that was all they needed.

Reisinger thinks a bigger reason people don’t go open-source is that the devices and software aren’t as shiny and exciting as iPads or Chromebooks. “Schools are sometimes so afraid to try things that are outside the box because they’ll be met with fierce criticism,” Reisinger said. “It’s tough to follow a path that hasn’t’ been well trodden.”

Aside from the cost savings Penn Manor has found by using open-source software whenever possible the district also owns all its student data, so recent concerns regarding third party providers and privacy are less of an issue. “We have control of our destiny this way,” Reisinger said.

Penn Manor uses open-source solutions like Moodle and WordPress, companies that have built their businesses on providing support rather than on tracking data. The district is also able to customize the software, a service many schools complain they can’t get from third party providers. “If we need to make tweaks to it, we own it, it lives on our servers and we can make changes we need,” Reisinger said.

It’s also very expensive to change providers once a school has chosen one because all a school’s data is in that system and it can’t be easily removed and transferred. That puts districts in the difficult position of being married to the first vendor they choose.

WHY DON’T MORE DISTRICTS GO OPEN?

There could be a lot of reasons more districts aren’t following the Penn Manor path. In many cases districts haven’t even heard of the open-source options available. In others, there’s a perception that getting something for free inherently means it will be a worse product.

In other places, giving students the most expensive, shiniest device might be a point of pride. “We wanted our students to have the best of the best,” said Dr. Darryl Adams, Superintendent of Coachella Valley Unified School District. This is a very poor district. Every child gets free and reduced priced lunch and yet voters passed a $42 million bond in 2012 to provide technology to schools. In the eyes of this district’s students, Apple products are the best.

“They’re very proud,” Adams said. “There are two other districts in the valley that are more affluent, but they don’t have what our kids have.” The district also chose iPads because it liked Apple’s iLife products and wanted teachers to have access to the app store with its many education resources. “We felt like the benefits outweighed the cost,” Adams said. “We wanted something more systematic.”

Hillview Middle School in the much more affluent Menlo Park School District had similar reasons for choosing iPads. “Currently, and things are changing, the iPad education app store is far more advanced, mature, bugless and ubiquitous than the others,” said Eric Burmeister, principal of Hillview Middle School. At his school all app downloads have to be approved and initiated by the IT department, so all the devices have the same resources on them. The central system knows immediately if a student has tampered with any of the internet filter settings or tried to download something.

Burmeister said he chose tablets instead of laptops because he felt the touch screen was intuitive to students and the devices could do just as much as laptops in terms of video editing and other creation tools.

Yet another district, Oakland Unified, chose Chromebooks, deciding that the most important resource for students is the internet and the many programs and applications found there. Relying on the internet allows schools to make individual decisions about when and where to spend money on other online tools.

“Don’t pay for anything until you’ve gone to one end of the internet and back and decided that it either doesn’t exist for free or it doesn’t exist in the way you really need it to in terms of functionality and support,” said Killian Betlach, principal of Elmhurst Community Prep, a Title I school. “There is so much out there.” He’s confident with a strong internet connection his teachers can do a lot to support their student’s learning.

Reisinger understands concerns of other districts, but can’t help thinking they are overlooking powerful, low cost tools in the open community. “There’s so much emphasis on the new and shiny,” he said. “And in some ways we’re going back to the start, letting kids work on computing and programming, it’s not that sexy.” For him, the big differentiators is the freedom to explore and build meaningful products without being cut off from the underlying code.

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“If this program is truly for and about our kids then why would we not want to put them in the drivers seat and make them the engineers?” Reisinger said.

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