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Open Schools to Open Source

Right now the Philadelphia public school system is being tortured by Microsoft. Acting on an anonymous tip, the software monopolist is making the Philadelphia system go through a lengthy and expensive audit of every computer in all 264 schools within the impoverished school system. Apparently, Microsoft heard that a teacher had illegally copied a Microsoft application onto a school computer. So now the school system must inventory every application on every computer in the system and produce proof of valid licenses for everything.

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Right now the Philadelphia public school system is being tortured by Microsoft. Acting on an anonymous tip, the software monopolist is making the Philadelphia system go through a lengthy and expensive audit of every computer in all 264 schools within the impoverished school system. Apparently, Microsoft heard that a teacher had illegally copied a Microsoft application onto a school computer. So now the school system must inventory every application on every computer in the system and produce proof of valid licenses for everything.

If the Philadelphia schools had chosen open source software, my company and others would have encouraged them to make as many free copies as they needed. The schools would have saved millions of dollars and hundreds of hours of inventory work.

This unfortunate incident is only the latest evidence of an ongoing crisis in computing and technical training in our schools.

Despite all the computer equipment and software that companies have donated to schools over the past 20 years, students are still graduating with inadequate technical skills — technical in this case being synonymous with computing. The job market demands more skills and sophistication, while at the same time school budgets are shrinking. It’s getting harder to provide the technical skills that will be the foundation of the success of our economy in the 21st century.

If computer and software companies have donated mountains of equipment and applications over the years, how can things be getting worse?

I believe the problem is the underlying philosophy with which technology companies approach our schools. They’ve treated education as a marketplace, not as a responsibility. They think, “Hook the kids today on our applications and they’ll stay with us forever. They’ll have to — we’re the only source for upgrades and fixes.”

When a proprietary software company sells a school its wares (often at an attractive discount), the school system must return to that vendor for upgrades, bug fixes, and service. Even if the school staff or students possess the technical skills to repair, customize, or improve the software, they can’t. The restrictive licenses that encumber proprietary software make it a crime to do anything with it but use it.

I want to be clear in stating the problem: by extending their lock on the educational system, the proprietary software vendors have restricted choice, institutionalized inefficiency, and imposed artificially high prices (even after discounts) that hurt taxpayers. Your taxes are paying for the pricing practices of a proprietary monopoly.

This can quickly eat up school budgets, and there’s not much of a budget to begin with. In the U.S. public school system the average annual technology budget per pupil is $104. In my home state of North Carolina, which is wrestling with a serious budget deficit, it’s even worse: $15.98 per pupil per year. That will buy about one quarter of one Windows license upgrade, or a couple of boxes of floppy disks. This certainly is not the level of commitment it takes to prepare students to fill the one million high-paying technology jobs that are currently unfilled.

More depressing evidence exists in other states’ education budgets. Think of the impact on technical education as Ohio wrestles with an $850 million deficit. Alabama had to cut $300 million out of its education budget. New Jersey, by law, must first spend in the poorest school districts. That’s an admirable approach, but it will require $1.3 billion in additional spending in a state that is already facing a deficit. Clearly, we have to make a major change in the way we approach and fund public technical education; this starts with breaking the traditional ways in which schools spend their meager computing budgets.

So, what should we do? We should open up our school systems to the benefits of open source software (full disclosure: that’s the business I’m in). Some countries have already done this.

In Mexico, the government’s Scholar Net program is working towards creating 140,000 computer labs in schools throughout the nation. The ambitious project, scheduled for completion in 2003, uses Linux as the operating system for these school computers. The director of the program estimates that software for each lab would cost $885 if equipped with proprietary Windows, compared to $50 with Linux.

In South Africa, the Zingasa Comprehensive School in Umtata, an impoverished part of the country, has created a computer learning center with old 386-based computers running Linux. Unlike Windows, Linux runs very well on 386 systems. Now every student in the high school takes Computer Studies as their seventh course. Linux is also playing a key role as South Africa moves to network 28,000 schools around the country.

In France, under the guidance of the Minister of Education’s Centre National de Documentation Pedagogique program, 350 primary and secondary schools in the Grenoble academic district are accessing the Internet through inexpensive Linux servers.

In the United States, admirable groups such as K12 Linux and the Linux in Schools Project are working hard to stretch education dollars with open source software. These are volunteer groups, however, without government support and without the resources to overcome the marketing machinery and lobbyists of proprietary software vendors.

If current efforts are insufficient, then how can we solve the growing technical education problem? I propose the creation of an Open Source Education Corporation modeled after the Civilian Corps of Engineers. I envision public educators and local school boards working together to improve the quality of local technical education at a much lower cost, bypassing the proprietary, high-cost vendors. This will not require new government spending. In fact, it will reduce spending through a much more efficient use of the money that is already earmarked for technical education.

Initially, I envision four primary undertakings for this organization:

1. Open up the spending process to welcome open source software:

Most requests for proposals (RFPs) for educational computing spending are heavily skewed towards the proprietary vendors. Many actually specify Windows software. This means that from the start, the bidding process excludes the products that could provide equal or better utility at a far lower price. If school systems and boards of education made just this simple change –include open source software in their RFPs — taxpayers could save hundreds of millions of dollars.

2. Target the neediest schools:

I’m on the board of a predominantly African-American, under-funded college in North Carolina. The students are bright, eager, full of ideas, and ready to help improve our nation. However, they’re hindered by an inadequate computing education. The first target for the Open Source Education Corporation should be poor schools in poor areas. Paradoxically, the fact that these schools have such meager computing environments will help them benefit from open source.

3. Create an open source hardware exchange:

Few people realize that proprietary software licenses are tied to the computer system. If you upgrade an old 386-based PC with a newer one, then donate the old PC to a school, that school must pay another licensing fee to Microsoft so that they can legally run the copy of Windows you left on it (your license transferred to the new PC you bought). Your gift costs the school money and inconvenience. However, if the school strips Windows off the machine and loads Linux instead, they give new life to a computer, get software that runs well on that machine, and pay nothing. An Open Source Education Corporation online exchange could match donated computers to schools that need them and help the schools get the Linux software to make them run.

4. Create and share educational applications:

By freely sharing innovations, participants in the Open Source Education Corporation could create new applications, instantly distributing them through the Internet to any school that wants them, free of charge. This will greatly reduce spending on proprietary applications while enabling students to be innovative and creative.

Open source software promotes the free distribution of technology. It encourages innovation and sharing. It promotes intellectual freedom as students work to make the software ever better and then spreads the results to other schools — legally. And with open source software, school systems can pick from a wide range of vendors; they’re not locked in. If a school system doesn’t like Red Hat Linux, there are plenty of Linux suppliers who would love to supply them. Innovation and competition — sounds like capitalism, doesn’t it?

Our failure as a nation to adequately prepare people for the challenges of the 21st century will catch up with us. Already we see the economic clout created by very well-trained technologists from China, India, Ireland, South Korea, and many other nations. However, through open source software we have the tools today to improve technical education, encourage innovation, enhance our competitiveness, and save money all at the same time.

If you would like more information about what open source can do for education, please see http://www.redhat.com/opensourcenow/.


Matthew J. Szulik is CEO of Red Hat, Inc. He can be reached at matthew@ redhat.com.

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