For a number of years I was responsible for the purchasing of all hardware and software for schools within my K12 division. Despite the fact that the amount of money I was responsible for was significant it was invariably never enough. There was a growing excitement about educational technology at the time and schools and teachers were clamoring for more and better hardware and the software to drive it. In order to stretch the dollars I did have to support schools I was constantly on the look out for open source software to compliment or replace the commercial software we already used. At roughly the same time I was also introduced to Blackboard and was very intrigued by the notion of using a learning management system to support student learning and professional development. Because of cost [extreme cost] Blackboard was not an option given my budget so I went on the hunt for an open source equivalent. Along with looking for general software and an LMS we were also in need of some type of website system to replace the existing school websites. At the time interested teachers [if anyone was interested] in each school worked at developing websites using software like FrontPage or Dreamweaver and occasionally the development environment in Netscape [yes…it was that long ago]. I put in many hours trying to train teachers to build and manage websites using Dreamweaver [without much success]. I even went as far as to license Macromedia Studio for all schools to provide a consistent environment for website creation, digital imaging and some authoring. In hindsight it was almost a total waste of money.
So in the end we ended up with the following within the division:
Teacher and student laptops [I forgot to mention….during this time the division began providing every teacher with a laptop and schools with mobile laptop carts] were installed with Audacity, OpenOffice [NeoOffice on Macs], GIMP [GimpShop on Macs], Tuxpaint, Blender, SketchUp, and a number of other tools. Because the majority of the machines in the division were Macintosh we also had access to iLife [iMovie, Garageband and iPhoto]. Software, by the way, that did more for furthering the use of educational technology than anything else we did or had available. Even though we now no longer provide macs [despite my protests] much of this software is still placed on machines as they are provided. However…the division still spends way too much money on commercial software that generally speaking does not get used at all or not close to its full extent.
As a result of the LMS hunt and with the support of a very forward thinking and intelligent division IT person [you know who you are GG] I ended up installing two instances of Moodle. One to support teacher use with students in schools and one to support professional learning within the division. Both instances are still running [with upgrades] and have been a bulletproof addition to the learning environment. We have a growing number of teachers creating courses in Moodle even though the process is still not for the faint of heart.
After researching, installing and piloting Drupal, Joomla, Plone, WordPress, MediaWiki and Adobe Contribute [eliminated early because of cost and the complicated nature of the product] we finally settled on Drupal as a solid system for giving each school a presence on the web. Within about 2 weeks all 56 schools were provided their own install of Drupal [version 5] and they have been happily humming away with virtually no issues [except for required updates] for the past 5 years. As a bonus our test install of Mediawiki became the division wiki available to all teachers. I know someone out there will mention that we should have installed a multi-site version of Drupal. We worked at it at the time without much success. Knowing a lot more now it would not be an issue today….and it would be the better way.
With all of this already in place along came Google Apps for Education. Our division was one of the first in Canada to have our own Google Apps domain and we now have over 7000 students and teachers using the secure suite of tools to support content creation, collaboration and sharing. My previous comment about the iLife suite from Apple applies completely to Google Apps. For me….no other service or software since iLife has had the impact on the use of educational technology and on shifting the thinking of teachers around the use of educational technology as Google Apps. I think in the end that this shift is possible for a number of specific reasons…the service is free, online and available 24/7/365, sharing and publishing are built in and collaboration [true live collaboration] is simply a sharing click away. It also doesn’t hurt that many students and teachers are already familiar with the Google tools through their public service.
So what am I saying with all of this? In the end I can not see how any school division could not operate [at least from the teaching and learning perspective] entirely with the use of open source software and services. It is unfathomable to me how a publicly funded institution can justify spending the money they do on commercial software that can be easily replaced with open source alternatives. This is especially true where educational institutions are tied to extremely expensive licensing arrangements for software and services that are at the very least overkill in most K12 educational environments and at the very worst lock divisions [districts] into the traditional IT perspective of control. Spend the money on infrastructure and hardware instead and when you absolutely have to spend money on specialized software spend equal amounts to provide the support required [and usually sadly lacking] to properly use it in the educational context.
On a personal note….I now use Google Apps almost exclusively at work and at home. I have not used Microsoft Office at work or at home for almost a year. I don’t miss it at all.