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Free Software in Education

I attended a very interesting talk last night at MDDA for Manchester Free Software, the subject matter was education and the turnout reflected this. Education seems to impact on everyone, and free software advocates are more passionate about this than most.

The talk was by Richard Rothwell of M6-IT, who has worked in education IT for most of his career and now works with council’s and other schools and organisations to deploy free software. Richard covered two projects in detail, the LTSP thin client deployment he worked on while at Handsworth Grammar School, and the Families On-Line project in Nottingham.

The LTSP (Linux Terminal Server Project) deployment was interesting as it eliminated many of the problems schools have at the moment with daft amounts of money going into maintaining school machines (up to £1200 a year per PC according to Becta) whilst the actual provision of computers is decreasing. Free software allowed Handsworth to reuse all of their old IT equipment (which would have otherwise had to be thrown away) and achieve specialist Maths and Computing Status for the school, for almost no cost. This really highlights the problem that a lot of schools lack a basic understanding of IT, and the fact is that that all the main tasks which schools perform in an IT lesson haven’t changed much over the past decade, yet the specification of the machines and the cost of maintaining them have skyrocketed. It also means that piracy is rife as families cannot afford the expensive Office software at home which is supplied to the schools for a “generous” discount. He also outlined some of the problems that people within a school have with a Free Software deployment, and how these can be avoided.

With Free Software Handsworth Grammar found their PC maintanence costs were now down to <£400 a year per PC and that they could re-distribute all of the software in use within the school to the children at no cost, and at no risk of being accused of piracy. I know that GNU/FSF founder Richard Stallman has some strong views on Free Software use within education, and Richard Rothwell’s work is certainly a brilliant illustration of what can be done with it. (You can read the Full Story of Handsworth here.)

I was also very interested on Richard’s observations on the curriculum software in use within Schools, particularly the story of BBC Jam, a site which provided national curriculum learning content online for students to use, which was shut down last year after the software suppliers complained to the government and the EU that it was damaging their interests. I see no reason why Jam should have been effectively forced to close down, except that it was stopping these suppliers selling their re-hashed software packages through the e-learning credits system. This is a situation I wasn’t aware of before, and will certainly do some further research on.

Many people at the talk raised the issue of programming within schools. Now, even when I was at school we had a BBC Micro and were encouraged to write some code, but nowadays this does not appear to be the case. I was reminded of an article I read by Bill Thompson not long ago where he raised these same issues. Pupils in our schools are now being raised to be consumers and office workers, rather than programmers, and are being taught ‘Microsoft Word’ rather than Word Processing itself. Due to the majority of schools running proprietary software, students wanting to learn more about how the applications on their PC function will be unable to do so, and the UK software industry will certainly suffer over the next few decades because of the lack of skilled programmers. Free Software is a mirror image of this system and encourages kids that want to code to learn this (increasingly) useful skill.

Richard then went on to talk about his work with M6-IT.

Families On-Line is a project that M6-IT have been working on with schools and community organisations to deploy PC’s and internet connections to socially excluded families. The PC’s are recycled, come with Ubuntu installed and are free to families as long as they attend the training on how to use them. The families must attend the training together, and in an area with only an 8% university attendance rate Richard thought this one of the few times the family had actually worked together. They also have a voluntary £5 a month donation scheme should families wish to take part, and this appears to have had a very good take-up.

The topic of central government contracts was raised with the example of the £80 million pound contract announced only this Monday (19’th) for licensing school software. and Becta are running the procurement and it essentially covers off the shelf software for school use, for example, word processing, spreadsheets, databases and image handling. Importantly it does NOT cover software created to deliver the national curriculum. Now I think we can all agree that £80 million is a lot of money to spend on software which could be delivered using free alternatives (such as OpenOffice.Org and GIMP) at a fraction of the £80 million offered in this tender. This contract also needs to be looked into in more detail by the Free Software community to understand it’s full ramifications.

I spoke with Richard briefly in the pub afterwards about his work with Becta and several other topics, all in all a very interesting evening and I’ll be sure to follow up some points with Richard at a later date.

My disclaimer (on my about page) applies on all my posts, but especially this one.


Update, July 2009 – Richard sadly took his own life on Friday 17th July 2009. Tributes (including my own) are listed here.

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