Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Open Source in schools — not an idle fantasy

One of the policies in the Pirate Party UK's general election manifesto this year was:

We will encourage the adoption of open source software in schools, so that children won't be reliant in the future on buying a particular software package from a particular company.

Here in the UK, I still get odd looks when I say I use Linux almost exclusively on my computers. A widely-held perception seems to be that Linux is an esoteric operating system that isn't capable of doing a lot of widely-needed tasks. Certainly many of my friends would never consider running it on their own computers (despite the fact they're almost certain to have at least box running Linux in their house — but I digress).

Open Source in schools is a particularly controversial concept. 'But how will school leavers be able to function in the Real World if they haven't been taught to use the "industry standard" software?' the detractors cry, referring of course to Microsoft Office.

The fact is, though, that Linux has been widely deployed in schools all around the world. The biggest deployment is in Brazil, where the Ministry of Education has installed Linux in labs used by 52 million schoolchildren nationwide — yes, that's fifty-two million — and it's been a great success. Not only does the 'Linux Educacional' distribution, installed in tens of thousands of school computer labs, fulfil the day-to-day needs of school ICT and computer science teaching, but has lead to a growing market for OEM Linux computers in Brazil. And no, their school leavers seem to have no difficulty whatsoever in adapting their IT skills for use in the 'real world' (whatever that is), as Brazil continues to have the strongest IT industry in South America.

Aaron Seigo mentioned this and other (huge!) educational Linux deployments in his keynote speech at this year's Akademy, the KDE developer conference. It seems to me that Linux — not to mention other great Open Source software such as OpenOffice.org, Firefox, Blender, Audacity and Inkscape — have already proven their suitability for use in schools.

Maybe it's time for British schools to step out of the muddy rut of using Microsoft everywhere 'because everybody uses Microsoft', and follow the lead of so many other countries in trying something new, exciting, and in the long run quite possibly both better and cheaper.