Monday, January 25, 2010

Free as in freedom, not as in beer.

Following a couple of presentations about our school at (here and here), there seems to have been an explosion of interesting in what we're doing in the open source space. Articles are being carried on CIO, Slashdot and Computerworld among others and the comments are running hot. A lot of people are interested in hardware, network, infrastructure, virtualisation, cost, return on investment and so on (which is fine) but I'd just like to make sure everyone understands why we're an open source school. And it has nothing to do with IT.

When the establishment leadership team sat down to design the information systems for the school we looked first at what we're trying to achieve; not the budget we had to achieve it. Our vision at ASHS is:

At Albany Senior High School
  • we nurture each other
  • we inspire each other
  • we empower each other

to achieve highly and become good citizens.

In addition to the vision, we have 11 values which include:

  • Families as part of our learning community.
  • Fairness, openess, honesty and trust.
  • Learning together and making decisions together.
  • Curiosity and enquiry, creativity and innovation.
  • Contributing to our local and global communities.
  • Diversity that enriches our learning community.
When we looked at this vision and these values and we thought about the free access to information, experts and tools that was required to achieve them, we quickly began thinking about whether proprietary software would help or hinder us. It's fine if we have site licences for software here at school, but if a student or their family can't afford licencing for all of the applications they need in order to learn, then their ability to use those tools ends when they walk out the school gate. If we use open source applications in our learning, then nothing stops them from installing those applications and using them to learn wherever they choose. A good example is design and photographystudents using Photoshop. We can get a site licence for the software for 5 figures, but if a student wants to continue their learning at home, they need to shell out $200. On their laptop ($200), the local library ($200), Grandma's computer ($200), at their friend's place ($200), Mum's work ($200) and so on. What happens more often is that students illegally copy their software and schools turn a blind eye because they want them to learn.
By the time the cost of this software licencing is applied to office suites, graphical manipulation, video editing, music composition, 3D modelling, space exploration, language learning, mind mapping, flashcards, vector graphics, animation, desktop publishing and programming software, we have a problem. The decision we faced as a school was to use proprietary software and impose a learning tax on our community or to use open source software and give everyone access to a full range of powerful, free learning tools. It's no surprise which way we went. If you're interested in the software we use, there's a summary here.

Open source software also supports the learning of our community (local and global) through an unbeatable business model. Any features we have developed for us, we contribute back to the community, meaning a dollar spent by us literally helps the whole world. If I pay a proprietary software developer to improve their product, they can then sell that to every customer they have, meaning a dollar spent by us can be used to extract another dollar from that company's other customers. They sell the feature we paid for to everyone else. It just doesn't make sense, and I think it's only a matter of time before the open source business model makes serious headway in software 'sales'.

Just to clarify this also: not all of our software is open source. We still use a couple of products that have no comparable open source equivalent (like Final Cut Pro) because the tool is the most important thing. We won't deny a student the ability to study and learn because of an ideology we have. Our ideology is to do the very best by our students, it just so happens that open source software does this most of the time.

A few posters on discussion forums have also focused on the amount of money the school has saved as a result of being open source. It's true that we save a six-figure sum each year in hardware and software costs, but this is just a handy spin-off from our decision to be open source, not the reason we did it.
It's free as in 'freedom' not free as in 'free beer'.


  1. CIO is claiming 50x saving in servers, not true and no one else is making that claim, are they?

  2. Exactly - schools shouldn't use tools which students can't afford or get hold of legally (unless there is no reasonable alternative). I met a person with a very limited income who had forked out over $400 for MS Office because she thought she needed it for her polytech courses. She didn't even know there was a good alternative that was free. It's just not right.

  3. Hi Mark,

    Just heard of your efforts to bring Free software to your school. Just want to let you know that I wish you the best and thanks for helping bring real change in school technology.

  4. These days there are many free alternatives to office and school software. Open source is only one of them. Freeware can do just the same without the cost.

    You should also have a look at SSuite Office for free software. They have a whole range of office, home, and school software that are free for download.

    Their software also don't need to run on Java or .NET, like so many open source software, so it makes their software very small and efficient.

    You may try these links for more info:

  5. You might also be interested in something like - the technology component of this is all built on Open Source...

  6. This goes beyond software. When you buy in to software, you buy in to the values behind it (e.g. market capitalism or social democracy).

    Open source is an organizational model, a community culture. American public schools are bureaucracy-bound, and only the software (and perhaps the lesson plans) can make it through now...

    But this must change. Rewarding seniority over contribution, centralizing authorship, disempowering users....all that is destructive to the goals of public education, and expensive, and one day students will rise up.

    Viva the un-conference as a model of the new classroom, supported by blended learning with open source tools!

  7. Critics of open source seem to have something else on their minds...

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