This helps ensure that their ICT systems support their educational vision, and are not unduly driven by what the vendor wants to sell. The best vendors in the marketplace really understand that their interests are best served by providing solutions that positively impact on the institution's needs as opposed to those which are just easy to sell.
It would seem self-evident that FOSS should be very beneficial to schools with regard to value for money, and indeed one of your reports a few years ago confirmed this potential. To date however FOSS has made only modest inroads into the education sector. What do you think is the main reason for this?
SL: I have no doubt about the increasing potential of FOSS. However I think one of the critical limiting issues is that we do not have accurate data on the extent of use of FOSS based products and services so we are not really sure of how and where they are being effectively used.
If we are to increase competition and choice in the marketplace we need to understand where products and services are being used successfully and where they are not. So for example we need better data that lets us understand the FOSS uptake as the desktop operating system, as desktop applications, on school based servers, in internet and email connectivity etc. For each of those segments we need to know what is being done, what the ICT supply side is considering and what Becta needs to do to help that competitive opportunity develop. We have some interesting ideas here and hope to develop a significant debate with the sector later this year.
Also, the regulatory framework needs to be right. At the licensing level, we need to address situations where the marketplace is foreclosed to FOSS, and at the interoperability level we need to make sure that there is a true level playing field. We have been able to address some of these challenges via discussion with the supply side directly, and reach an agreed way forward. In other cases, we have had to call on the competition authorities. So a range of issues to address, but real progress is being made.
Do you think that the differences between FOSS and proprietary software are understood by school buyers, or indeed do you think that this matters in any way at all?
SL: No I do not think such differences are well understood by schools, nor for the most part do I think they need to be. The point at which they do need to be understood is at the point where the school’s statement of requirements is being turned into a technical solution.
For example, when planning new ICT provision, an educational institution might have a requirement that says it wants to assist in reducing the digital divide by being able to legally provide copies of the office productivity software it uses to pupils and parents for no additional cost.