Home Education and Open Source Software


Home education is all the rage and for good reasons.

The likes of the Daily Mail have convinced us that state-funded education has returned to all but a feral condition and the Independent school sector having priced itself out of reach is making staff redundant at every level and is to use the phrase of the month 'sweating out'* its ICT resources.

Meanwhile new energy-efficient computers are cheap, and software and information are freely available.

A quick look at a few price indices will give us the 'jump off point' for this article.
Price Inflation

When I started teaching (in an Independent School), I also at the same time bought a maisonette (£25k), a computer (£149) and a car £400. Ok it wasn't the greatest flat, computer or car as I did not have the most fantastic wages as a classroom teacher.

Today my wages would have increased by 300%, the price of the flat has increased 600%, the computer 200%, the equivalent car would have increased by 200% and the school fees (it was an Independent school remember?) wait for it... 1000%! No this is not a typo 1000% (the fees were just under £500 per term then and are just under £5,000 now).

Now you see why Home Education is becoming popular, especially if you believe the tabloids' stories about your 'bog standard comp' (not my words) or Mr Balls on the Today program pointing out that one quarter of UK schools must improve discipline standards.

How can Open Source Software help?

Home education is all very well, especially if the parent is a polymath, but this is not usually the case. More often input from subject-specialists is required. Even the best online 'teach yourself spanish' is a big ask for the home learner. Independent learning is something that is mastered by few and in any case takes a long time to acquire the skills to do so.

Visiting specialised tuition is a well developed market but involves a lot of travel and is very cost ineffective for short durations and long distances. This limits drastically any growth in this area.

However this may all be about to change. Below is a case study for a project that I recently setup for a friend carrying out private tuition in France. She worked for an agency who charged her out at €52 per hour and paid her €20/hr and involved a lot of travel. Take home pay = not much after tax and fuel.

...If only she could teach by video VOIP and all her materials were online organised into a course...

Ta rah, Free Open Source Software to the rescue

Below is a step by step solution:

Firstly get a personal VLE for your stuff:

Step 1 Monday: Go online and order 20 watt Eee Box pc £176 + vat

Step 2 Tuesday: It arrives 9.30 am. Go to office-- netinstall Debian Lenny; type apt-get install Moodle. 10.00 am make coffee and survey PC now with Moodle on PostgreSQL with Apache 2 strutting its stuff.

Step 3: Hack the intro page stick on some logo stuff, take it home and put it behind firewall, fiddle a bit with security and open it to friend's use. 1pm have lunch and browse Moodle from any computer.

Secondly Video VOIP

Step 1: Off to PC World to get Logitech stand mike and web cam (couldn't wait for next day delivery).

Step 2: Downloaded Video VOIP software: Linphone, Ekiga. But we all know everyone else will have Skype so did that too.

Thirdly On Line

Step 1: go home put Eee box behind firewall, punch a few holes in it (the firewall) set up ssh tunnel, leave alone to get on with it.

That's it folks you are ready to teach. Upload your content to your free VLE, make use of the net's free stuff and phone up your students. They need VOIP, broadband, webcam and mike, that's all.

Make sure you use only copyleft and Creative Commons stuff allow the world to sue your content too after all you didn't write Moodle and they are letting you have it for real Open Source free.

Cost? Hardware (web server) ~£200, Software £0, Time: 4 hours.

Benefits: One to one tuition, no travelling, online assessment via VLE, no restrictions on time.

I love mash-ups.

* sweating out = don't buy new computers, make the old ones last longer thereby extending the capital write-down costs from 5 years to say 10 years and in the process produce a paper cost savings and driving UK ICT vendors to the wall.

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