November 2007

Open source and education

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Open source in education

The Open Source Software/Free Software (OSS/FS) or FLOSS or FOSS is a recent phenomenon  which has revolutionised the software industry. It is not a silver bullet and might not be right to use in every situation. OSS is not better just because it is free, complies with open standards, implements the latest pedagogical fad or works well in experimental environments. In fact OSS must satisfy the needs of students, educators administrators and communities better than proprietary software. The integration of OSS into instruction is a priority at many organisations in the education market. The community is facing two main challenges in developing OSS for the education market.

(i)  To build learning environments, which is much better than using a proprietary software

(ii) To improve the standard of living of the communities in developing countries

The integration of open source software into instruction is a priority at many organisations in the education market

The challenge is to use OSS to deploy learning environments, which are better than proprietary software. OSS must satisfy the requirements of the education market compared to what the proprietary software does. According to Blackboard (2004), the key competitive factors in the education market are:

  • Base of reference clients
  • Functional breadth and depth of solution offered
  • Ease of use
  • Complexity of installation and upgrade
  • Client service
  • Availability of third-party application and content add-ons
  • Total cost of ownership  

OSS offers a potential to provide a better standard of living to many people in the world. The high-cost of licensing software is the main issue today. OSS eliminates licensing fees, which reduces the cost of imports for developing nations. Instead of paying to import software, which may not fit into local needs, money can go into paying local talent to service and evolve the OSS. With the OSS, school can take more control on their computer resources and manage IT future. Some of the biggest benefits are as follows:

  • Lower total cost of ownership (TCO)
  • Greater learning of concepts rather than products
  • Lower costs for students' home systems
  • Customisation
  • Works well on older hardware

Mitsubishi Research Institute of Japan conducted an online study entitled 'Free/Libre/OSS Asian Developers Online Survey' to determine places from where respondents have learned OSS/FS. The study was prepared in Asian Languages (Traditional/Simplified Chinese, Korean, Thai, and English for other countries), which shows that 13.5 percent respondents have qualification about OSS/FS. The study shows that around 26 percent respondents studied OSS/FS development in college.  Interestingly, the number of people who were from science and engineering-related fields (11.3 percent) was greater than the number who of people who were from information-related fields (9.8 percent). This shows that people from IT background have learned OSS/FS development by themselves.

Open Source initiatives in Asia

Open source code is now used by over 70 per cent of software developers in Asia, according to new report revealed by Evans Data Corporation. According to the report, 70 percent of the respondents were using open source modules in their applications, while 19 percent respondents were not and 10 percent respondents did not know about Free OSS. The survey was conducted throughout Asia Pacific, including China, India, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

In a recent initiative of the southern Indian state of Kerela, more than 15 lakh Kerala school children have given their practical exams in IT on their personal computers running on special Linux version. IT@School project of Kerala of the State Education Department has developed an operating system based on the Linux version Ubuntu. The system called IT@School GNU Linux Version 3.0 was distributed to 2,832 high schools of the state. The children of class 8, 9 and 10 have used around 30,000 PCs to do their quarterly practical examinations in IT. The project has created a whole ecosystem of computer-aided tools for self-paced learning, online testing, instant evaluation, marks generation and so on.  In this movement,  Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya has released NepaLinux 2.0 DVD, which comprises both the GNOME and KDE Desktop Environments on August 17, 2007. Earlier, owing to space and other technical constraints, the two desktop environments had been packaged in two different CDs and hence had to be installed in two different hard drive partitions.

Now with the release of the DVD, an user may actually install both of these environments and according to his/ her choice, s/he can select any of the preferred environments with their personal data and the file systems remaining unaltered in terms of location.

Open Source initiatives in Africa

Despite its natural hazards and high priorities, Africa can investigate how to better use the opportunities presented by the emergence of Free and OSS in the context of limited financial resources and capacities. OSS is helping African countries leapfrog into the information age through reduced costs, less dependency on imported technology and its ability to be customised to local languages. The use of OSS in Uganda started in the early 90's with the introduction of Linux and  FreeBSD by two techies who traveled across the country. In a movement towards OSS, Uganda Martyrs University initiated two projects to improve accessibility of OSS in 2002. In the project, the University was aiming to replace all proprietary software at the University campus. In achieving this goal, the University has replaced 95 percent proprietary software with OSS both in the front-end server and back-end server. In 2003, the South African cabinet of ministers had approved the Government OSS strategy. Various private organisation and government officials across the continent, countries like Kenya, Uganda, Namibia, and Senegal, are pushing state agencies in adopting Linux and OSS. In June 2003, Nigeria has also got into the act with three organisations, SchoolNet Nigeria, the Federal Ministry of Education and the Education Tax fund.

These three organisations have provided 35 Nigerian high-schools with Internet capability and other educational technologies based on Linux. In a recent initiative, both Nigeria and Uganda have joined the Linux Professional Institute (LPI), the worldwide promoters of Linux and open source technologies based in Toronto, Canada. Now, both the countries will introduce the LPI programme into the high-schools and university curriculum to boost, educate  and empower the whole younger generation about OSS.

Initiatives in Latin America

In the context of Open Source, the E-LANE project in Latin America integrates solid applications, which are already is used in the context of e-Learning, as an open software e-Learning platform. E-LANE project is an innovative way of teaching methodology, which integrates course content from some of the most prestigious educational institutions in Europe and Latin America and provide them as low-cost educational material to society. The project aims to make its impact on academic level as well as non-academic level. In order to achieve its goal, the project is organised into several sub-projects with concrete interrelated objectives. Based on open source e-Learning platform, the platform is ready for distribution. The platform has a client/server architecture and imposes minimum requirements on the client side. The different sub-systems upon which platform is based are following:
PostgreSQL Database: An open-source heavy-duty database server. Its presence has increased significantly in recent years and so its reliability (PostgreSQL.org)

AOLServer: An industry-strength open-source web server containing a highly integrated TCL interpreter. The scalability and performance of this server has been proven in numerous scenarios
OpenACS: An open-source comprehensive library of web functions that allows for fast deployment of web functionality. This tool has a very active community continuously improving its content. This tool has a modular structure where the functionality is captured (Openacs.org)

LRN: A modular package to be deployed within OpenACS that implements an eLearning environment (Dotlrn.org)

In an another initiative, the Brazil government has switched  300,000 computers to Linux. While Peru is supporting 'Free access to public information by a citizen, Permanence of public data, and the Security of the State and citizens.

Conclusion

In terms of reliability and performance, OSS/FS has significant market share in many markets. OSS/FS software has far better  security, perhaps due to the world-wide review. Organisations are taking more practical approach towards open source as now more than 100 organisation are using Open Source library system, including Australian National University, Cambridge University, Cornell University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Library, University of Glasgow, University of Ghent, University of Kansas, University of Toronto, University of Rochester, and University of Washington. Few educational organizations like Free University of Brussels, Dublin City University and Online Polytechnic of New Zealand have replaced their proprietary and in-house systems for open source systems.   

References

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