Up the open revolution!

8th June 2001 at 01:00
There's a quiet revolution taking place in educational technology, and it's one that could save the Government millions of pounds nationally, and give schools and local authorities far more control over how they use ICT. It's a revolution with a rather mundane name, open source, and it's based on free software, centred around an operating system called Linux. Of course I would say that, as open source is the area that I have chosen to work in after my previous experiences with the Government's National Grid for Learning.

Open source software is not a new idea, indeed prior to the arrival of the personal computer in the late Seventies most software was free. It has a number of key advantages over traditional proprietory software (like Microsoft Windows for example). It is nearly always based on recognised standards and protocols, so there is no technical lock-in to prevent a user upgrading to new versions, or indeed migrating to a different application. This also means that suppliers cannot lock customers into product-specific support contracts; anybody can support open source software.

Far from being little used, if you are using the Internet, you will nearly always be using open source software. For example, 62 per cent of the world's 28 million websites use the Apache server, and to convert a URL (say www.redhat.com) to the numbers the Internet understands ( you will always use bind, the Domain Name System server.

Currently most national and regional procurement processes actually prevent open source solutions being offered, either by asking for specific applications or by excluding on financial grounds those companies offering this type of solution. It is quite common for specific operating systems, like Microsoft Windows 2000, or applications like Adobe Photoshop, to be explicitly specified, rather than specifications to be based on functionality. For example, the Computers for Teachers (CFT) specifications for 2001 do not allow for Linux to be provided as an operating system, and all the supliers will only offer Microsoft Office as the productivity software. A typical entry level machine for CFT would cost pound;650, of which pound;170 would be made up of licensing fees, over 25 per cent of the total.

However, perceptive schools and LEAs, like Powys and Worcestershire, are now starting to adapt open source solutions to make major long-term savings and tailor the ICT to their requirements. It is not a simple market choice between Linux and Microsoft products as is often portrayed in the media. Open source allows teachers to use Microsoft products like Office or Internet Explorer if they want to, but it also makes it possible for alternatives to be used easily.

While open source software is mainstream, online educational content and its delivery mechanisms should be based on open standards, allowing the education community to exchange information freely. However, there must be concerns that the current UK initiatives for online curriculum and e-government are not only developed by the traditional software companies, they are being specified by them as well. Without independent expertise and consultation, it's very likely that the difficulties you get with your desktop and your software will transfer to Windows' "blue screens of death" on the website you want to access.

In order to ensure freedom of access, Red Hat and other open source organisations are keen to provide advice and guidance. In the past this has been the realm of the techie, but it now must be also those responsible for ICT to ensure that users do not have restrictions to access placed in front of them.

Open source is all about freedom of choice. Get what you want, not just what people want to sell to you. "Up the revolution" is a statement that used to get me into trouble, but now I use with it a confident grin.

Malcolm Herbert is director of academic business development with Red Hat and was formerly the head of technology Ramp;D at the British Educational Technology and Communications Agency. Email: mherbert@redhat.com

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