Chris, your points are very interesting, and I wonder if you've been in
touch with the team who are behind Open Labs: Learning?


On Mon, Feb 9, 2009 at 4:12 PM, Christopher Woods

> > Seen this in my mailbox a few times today, sure you will all
> > find this interesting...
> >
> > "We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Make the
> > primary operating system used in state schools free and open source"
> >
> >
> I find this idea appealing but fundamentally flawed. Let me explain why
> this
> concept is a non-starter for all but a few schools.
> I went through this country's education system and am currently in my final
> year at University, so it wasn't such a long time ago ;) It so happens that
> my Dad was the deputy head at the school I went to and he was also the only
> person who managed the school's entire IT infrastructure for a very long
> time. Yes, the school did eventually become a Technology College (thanks in
> part due to his hard work over the time he was there), and with that
> Technology College status they got a lot more money - they eventually got
> one, then two, then several members of dedicated IT staff - but for the
> most
> part it was him steering the boat as such. He did the lion's share of the
> administrative IT work as well, installing and maintaining SIMS, all the
> staff machines, equipment, etc. The bloke working in the Reprographics
> department managed the offset litho printer (yes, they had one!) and the
> photocopiers I think, but that was about it.
> So, during the best part of 14 years he was there for, my Dad oversaw and
> managed installations of, in order, an Acorn network with matching Econet
> system (remember the DINs and T-bars? :D), a gradual move from Acorn to 95
> machines, then to 98 with more and more intricate networking
> infrastructure.
> He had little money and worked with what he had available to him within
> budgetary constraints him local and national suppliers. This meant that, by
> the time the school got proper wedges of funding for IT, the school already
> had a firmly established userbase of Windows 9x machines, gradually making
> the move to 2000 then to XP as time went on.
> Site licenses for educational software are costly, and I would put money on
> the fact that just about all educational software is still written solely
> for the Windows OS. Chicken and the egg scenario here, but if you want
> definitive figures just go to BETT and do some empirical research to find
> out. (I bet I'm right). Also, historical investment in infrastructure
> cannot
> be ignored, and quite often you have scenarios where you build up
> relationships with suppliers and distributors and so can secure good deals
> for all sorts of things. When you have limited manpower and man hours to
> maintain a network used all day every day by hundreds of students and staff
> alike, you can't afford to have 'exotic particles' introduced into even a
> closed loop system. Plus, there are so many other outside influences and
> requirements (right down to the cacheing systems many schools used back
> when
> ISDN was the only reality for connectivity, before the Grids for Learning
> were properly established) that you could not expect to have a system being
> migrated over to some bizarre and funky FOSS alternative OS.
> Aside from the fact that the suite of *de facto* software the students
> would
> use day in and day would need to be the same, in some cases the bloody
> curriculum demanded that particular software be used, so your hands were
> tied. Other times, it was a cost/benefit analysis. Sure, FOSS alternatives
> to "CAD/CAM" were available, I'm sure, but did they work as well as
> play nice with all the hardware the graphics and control tech departments
> had, AND fully support all the old work and files students had created? You
> can't just rip and replace in an educational scenario.
> Given that many schools' IT infrastructure development was so organic and
> self-funded throughout the 90s, they are now in the situation where it is
> almost completely impractical to start from scratch with a FOSS OS and FOSS
> software, making sure that interdependencies aren't broken, networking
> works
> as well (or as expected) as prior to the switch, and students - and staff
> alike - aren't 'de-familiarised' with the setup. With any major transition
> such as an OS move, there's a lot of retraining needed for staff and
> students. When you run to such a tight timeline as most schools do, there
> just aren't enough hours in the day to accomplish this.
> The cost in terms of 1) setting it all up 2) testing it 3) supporting it 4)
> fixing stuff that doesn't work like it should 5) dealing with problems
> related to the transition can just become extortionate, and I would also
> wager that most school IT departments have their hands full enough just
> keeping existing infrastructure going. The only schools that could possibly
> get away with FOSS from the outset are the entirely new builds, because
> there's no legacy there in terms of hardware and software requirements.
> Having said all of this, I am fully supportive of FOSS - and so is my Dad.
> He's currently the IT advisor for education for the county council where he
> now lives, and has been in the role since he left his deputy head's job. He
> takes a great interest in the benefits that FOSS and hardware solutions can
> bring to the education sector, and he definitely considers them on equal
> footing along with proprietary solutions... As long as the levels of
> support, reliability and cross-compatibility are there and at a level
> appropriate to the solution being provided. He's overseen some really
> massive projects in the past few years (including the Virtual Learning
> Environment setup for pupils county-wide, which involves a stupendous
> investment in both centralised infrastructure and software) and he's been
> forced to not always choose FOSS and hardware because on analysis and
> critical comparison, it doesn't provide the best cost benefit.
> I believe the sad fact is that much FOSS isn't as well or reliably
> supported
> where it matters because there just isn't as much money in it. Again,
> chicken and the egg. How as a FOSS company are you going to maintain a
> well-staffed callout team and helpdesk if the software you are providing is
> essentially free? You can't justify far higher support contract charges for
> that reason alone, and schools will either bring the required talent
> in-house or source it locally - and bingo, just like that, your company is
> out of business.
> Transforming a Windows school to an Ubuntu school is nigh on impossible to
> achieve unless you provide a year's warning, gradually phase out use of all
> Windows-only software over the course of the year, implement the massive
> overhaul and platform transition during the holidays and then spend the
> next
> six months to a year supporting users when stuff goes wrong. Most schools
> simply cannot afford to provision those kinds of resources, so they stay
> put
> with what they have, and that's why FOSS will never make significant
> inroads
> into those establishments. It would take something like Governmental
> intervention to impose FOSS and OSes on schools as a mandatory element of
> their funding in order for them to make the change, but it would be so
> disruptive that it would probably be ignored or sidelined by many schools.
> I am not trying to scaremonger or FUD here, it is just my view as someone
> who has gone through the system and grown up alongside the maturation of a
> typical educational IT setup, and who also had the advantage of talking to
> the person who helped to implement a lot of it (and still talks to the
> person who now helps implement policy and infrastructure for an entire
> county's worth of education!) Although perhaps flawed or coloured, I feel
> it's a pragmatic, realistic view.
> Thoughts / opinions? Love to hear them. Maybe I'm a poor deluded misguided
> fool who needs showing the error of my ways?
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Ant Miller

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