Although this rant is impassioned and detailed it's almost comically misinformed. What's happening in education IT(C) is the imposition of a £45bn corporate cash cow called Building Schools for the Future (BSF) - through which the government is shamefully entering into yet more PFI relationships. The scorched earth Christopher suggests is impossible is already happening as more than 20 local authorities have struck deals with managed IT service suppliers such as RM under BSF. As a consequence local control, flexibility and in-school knowledge about IT services is evaporating. BSF schools will have what the supplier supports (essentially Microsoft) at prices determined by long-term monopoly contracts. The issue of Open Source remains important - Btw it is not true that OS is unknown in education - Moodle.org <moodle.org/>is a good example

Christopher Woods wrote:
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"

http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/nonMSschools/


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 CAD/CAM,
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?

-
Sent via the backstage.bbc.co.uk discussion group.  To unsubscribe, please 
visit http://backstage.bbc.co.uk/archives/2005/01/mailing_list.html.  
Unofficial list archive: http://www.mail-archive.com/backstage@lists.bbc.co.uk/

Reply via email to