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Professional Opinion

Free and Open Source Software

New programs offer alternatives for districts

I continue to be astounded at the resiliency of school districts throughout the U.S., as they strive to increase access to technology for students and teachers in the face of tight budgets. Nearly every day I encounter yet another district initiating or expanding computer access, such as through one-to-one initiatives. But with the current student/computer ratio in the U.S. hovering around 4:1, at any given time 75 percent of our students still lack access to computers.

Years ago, many predicted that the price of computers would continue to drop as performance increased, and that has indeed been true. But while the cost of large-scale installations can be staggering-for example, Indiana is currently bringing 300,000 computers to high school classrooms-we failed to consider the cost of the software needed to make those computers useful. Over a period where computer power quadrupled and prices dropped by fifty percent, software license costs remained largely unchanged. So even with the substantial discounts given to schools by many vendors, it is not uncommon to find $500 worth of software on each student computer. And if you add specialized programs to the mix, the price of the software can easily climb to a thousand dollars or more. Software can now cost more than the computer it runs on.

Seeking Alternatives

For these reasons I started looking at free and open source software solutions, after seeing Indiana schools move in that direction. The term "open source" refers to software for which the program source code is available for anyone to examine, modify or repair ( and is usually supported by strong user communities. Open source programs typically run on the popular operating systems Windows, Linux and Macintosh and offer additional free features. For example, the Edubuntu version of Linux, targeted to classrooms, installs with several tools including an office suite and a Web browser, and provides access to a large library of additional programs that are also free. The desktop is as intuitive to use as that provided by Windows XP or the Macintosh operating system, and the entire installation costs nothing.

Increased Flexibility

Open source applications can also complement other software products your schools are using, including many of my favorite free resources listed in the sidebar. Furthermore, since there are no per-machine licenses or issues of copyright infringement to worry about, you can distribute copies of the programs to your students and staff. A student who uses Windows at home and a Mac at school, for example, can use the same open source applications in each place.

Many of the most developed open source programs mimic popular software titles with broad applications. For instance, Open Office is compatible with, and addresses the same capabilities as Microsoft Office; GIMP functions like Photoshop, with a few added features; and Audacity is a sound-editing program similar to SoundForge. While it is estimated that open source software can be used in up to 80 percent of the major computer applications used by students, other education-specific programs presently exist only as proprietary products. There are also free high-quality educational programs being developed that work across platforms but for which the source code has not yet been made public, such as Cmap and NetLogo.

Software can now cost more than the computer it runs on.

I use each of these on all three operating systems, and find that questions to the development community are typically answered within a day.

Countering Resistance

The move toward using open source software may encounter resistance from some quarters, and there are a lot of myths in circulation. One of these is that "Free software can't be any good, or else people would charge for it." The fact is that most of the programs are labors of love with global support teams that track down and fix bugs reliably. They are also produced by people who see themselves as part of movements to bring computer-based tools to people who need them, no matter where they are or what they can afford. Another myth is that "new software requires learning curves that waste time." Nearly all the titles I use are as easy to learn as their proprietary counterparts, and massive user communities are in place to provide support.

Your software budget will go much farther if free and open source software alternatives can be added to, and substituted for, the programs you use in your district. Saving money, avoiding copyright lawsuits and increasing portability are compelling reasons to consider open source software, as long as it performs at least as well as commercial products.

David Thornburg,, is a contributing editor to The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate, director of global operations for the Thornburg Center and the author of When the Best Is Free: An Educator's Perspective on Open Source Software.