Last Wednesday I had the pleasure to give a talk about Open source software in Further Education in the UK at a BCS event in Newcastle. One of the questions from the audience was ‘Do you think that the current financial crisis will push for more open source in education?’. Of course, I have no idea. On the one hand, tighter budgets may encourage ICT managers to get out of their comfort zone and try open source to cut costs. But on the other hand, it is known that some closed source vendors (e.g. Microsoft) sell software to educational institutions for a low price, and arguably it would make sense for them even to give it away. It is a legitimate business strategy: get a large user base by giving your product to young people who cannot really afford it anyway, and have them buy it when they go into industry and do not know how to use anything else.
But more interestingly, the above question begets another one. What would be the reasons for educational institutions to adopt open source?. Cost does not seem to be a clear one. Another reason to try open source could be better interoperability, robustness, features, etc. But ICT managers may favour familiarity with the system rather than migrating to a new system, even if it is potentially better from a technical point of view. And not all open source software is technically better than its closed alternatives.
So maybe we should look for the reasons to adopt open source somewhere else. The main characteristic of open source, if done properly, is that it promotes the formation of a community of people who can get involved with the project. This is arguably a good thing in education: engaging students and letting them play with the tools. Open source projects also function as a tutoring environment, where students can learn good practice from more experienced users and developers.
Thus, maybe the main reason for promoting open source in education is that it will help students learn more. But how? In fact, the ‘why’ leads to the ‘how’. If open source is to be successful in education, it cannot be just a matter of policy or, in general, a top-down approach. Its community and playful nature needs to be acknowledged and promoted amongst students, be it through local Linux User Groups (LUGs), creating fun projects (write a computer game in a collaborative way), or joining external projects.