PM Gordon Brown has finally used the word 'cuts' last week with regard to public sector spending. He is determined, in his words, to cut unnecessary spending. M'thinks this must include school ICT unless of course enough money is saved by sacking senior teachers.
We know Gordon's Education Secretary Mr Balls has a long-term Orwellian fantasy whereby ICT is delivered to all schools from a centralised, Cloud-based app-store run by the Cabinet Office.
Such desire for total control probably exceeds even my jaded imagination but with luck he will run out of money and time to realise such a nightmarish vision. Even if you have no qualms about 'Big-State' control you can bet that there would be only a very few chosen vendors allowed to provide state ICT (Capita, Serco, RM, Microsoft would be about right). Down with the Cloud, I say.
So, leaving LaLa land, let's go back into the real world and look at the real savings and freedoms that can come by making use of Free, Open Source Software.
Free, Open Source Software (FOSS) offers schools colleges and the public sector in general enormous savings. These savings are wide ranging. They encompass software purchase and licencing costs, support overheads and energy consumption. If you want to cut spending then you need FOSS.
But before we get carried away we have to realistic as to what can be made FOSS and what cannot.
Too many false dawns and over-ambitious projects have bedevilled FOSS's earlier promise so what follows is a hard-nosed assessment of FOSS's real and important role in education.
We will start with what it cannot do.
What you can't do
Having come successfully to the closing stages of a major open source project in a large school, certain software realities were inescapable.
These realities concern 'untouchable' software. Some software packages have become indispensable to schools. I do not mean this in the sense that they cannot be replaced because of a dastardly labyrinthine plot by their vendors, though these undoubtedly exist, I mean software that cannot be replaced for user-driven reasons.
SIMS and SAGE
The management information software Capita-Sims.net, has an install base of something like 80% of schools and in those schools it is effectively indispensable. Sims.net runs on Windows 2003 Server and its client software requires a Windows desktop..end of story
Okay, there is a browser option for the desktop, but this is one heck of a lock-in...oh, oh they are not planning to put this in the Cloud app store..are they?
Usually, at this point, some bright spark says, 'Open Source software will never make it in schools until someone writes a decent MIS to replace SIMS'. Not only do they fail to say who this 'someone' is, it ignores something called 'people'.
From an HR perspective the embedded experience and skill-base required to use SIMS successfully means that the FOSS MIS version would have to be exactly the same as SIMS or else the retraining overhead (not to mention the resignations) would scupper the entire idea.
Ditto, the accounting package SAGE. SAGE is the defacto SME accounts package, it cannot be replaced with GNU Cash or whatever simply because no-one will know how to use it (see SIMS for the rest)
By this I mean software say that is used for example by Design and Technology or a Science department that has platform-specific drivers. It will have been used in teaching programs for many years and the skills to use it will be embedded in the teaching staff.
The original authors of the software will have been a small company or even an individual. There are simply not the resources/will to port it to all platforms or open source the code.
For example if a department has 5 years of work based on Corel Draw you will have a devil of a job to get them to use the similar vector drawing package Inkscape. Don't under-estimate what happens if you try to take away some good ICT-based work and proffer your 'better idea'.
This all means that for the foreseeable future the above are going to hang around. Therefore schools will need Windows Servers and Windows desktops.
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