Bringing Open Source to the Classroom

Open Source Software in the Classroom

In American public schools, computer and multi-media technologies have become an important part of the general curriculum. Managing that technology has presented public school districts with an entirely new set of issues such as technical support, faculty training, acquisition and funding of up-to-date equipment and ancillary support. While schools struggle with these issues, technology budgets are being cut, new security threats to the computer systems are being discovered and exploited, software costs are raising and hardware is aging. It is becoming an overwhelming task to effectively manage and keep the infrastructure safe from external threats while also attempting to keep the technology current. One kind of resource that can help schools cope with this situation is Open Source Software. The use of Open Source Software builds cost effective and secure solutions to the funding and security problems that prevent the efficient use of computer technology in education.

Any discussion of computer issues uses specialized terminology. To better understand this paper the following commonly used terms are defined.

Open Source. The Open Source Initiative (OSI) defines Open Source Software as software providing the following rights and obligations, as paraphrased:

  • No royalty or other fee may be imposed upon redistribution.

  • The source code must be made available.

  • All parties have the right to create modifications and derivative works.

  • The license may require modified versions to be distributed as the original version plus patches that include the modifications.

  • The license cannot discriminate against persons or groups.

  • The license cannot discriminate against fields of endeavor.

  • The original works license may not be changed in such a way that does not allow all rights granted to follow the original work in addition to the modifications.

  • The programmer cannot break the program into sections and apply different licenses to different sections of the code, and finally

  • The license must not restrict other software; for example, it cannot restrict someone from running the software on a specific platform. Thus, it is permissible to distribute Open Source and closed source software together (Webbink).

Operating System or OS. An Operating system is software designed to control the hardware of a specific data processing system (computer) in order to allow users and application programs to make use of that system (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition).

Linux. Linux is an operating system, it is an implementation of the Unix kernel originally written from scratch with no proprietary code by Linus Torvald (Howe).

Source Code. The source code is the form in which a computer program is written by the programmer. Source code is written in a formal programming language which can be compiled (Howe).

To compile a program is to translate the code of a formal programming language in to machine language system (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition).

With the above terms explained, we proceed to consideration of resource availability in education.

Funding is perhaps the single most prevalent challenge facing technology in the classroom. Technology is expensive to procure, maintain and repair. In addition, it is difficult to measure the return on investment (ROI) as it doesn’t bring direct funding back to the institution.

The way these costs are managed plays a large role in the success or failure of technology deployment in the classroom, and in convincing administrators to invest or continue investing in technology. When costs are poorly managed the typical pattern is that technology is invested in initially, and then left to deteriorate to an extensively crippled state before investments are made in maintaining the system. An inherent issue to this approach is that although on paper it looks to be a good deal, in reality, it is much more costly. Un-maintained equipment needs to be replaced more often and causes frustration amongst technology users, thus diminishing its

effectiveness in education (“Computers Not Working in Education”).

Linux and Open Source software can help ease the costs and reduce the magnitude and frequency of hardware purchases required of an institution. Linux and Open Source software can allow older technology to be utilized effectively, allowing it to compete with newer and faster computer systems. It also allows older computers to be placed in areas not normally assigned to desktop PC’s or servers. Older computers can be used in functions such as routers, firewalls, small web-servers, Internet proxy servers and internet cache systems. These functions can cost an institution tens of thousands of dollars when implemented with task-specific hardware (Lineweaver).

The direct costs in the open software market generally stem from obtaining support for that product from the developer. Support is an assurance that if there is a problem with the software, the original coding team will back the code and will work with an institution through any problems they may encounter. In general, the cost of the software does not stem from obtaining a license for installation of the software. The software is allowed to be deployed on an unlimited number of machines for no additional cost (Dean).

In a closed source software model, the code is encrypted and compiled before the consumer receives it. Access to the source code is either entirely restricted or an extra fee is charged to gain access to it. In-house modification to closed source software is more difficult if specific tasks need to be added or modified. Going through the original closed source software developer will increase the cost both up front, for it to be coded, and in the long term for a special support contract. This is necessary, because in most cases, modified software isn’t covered under general support.

In contrast, an onsite developer in an Open Source environment allows greater flexibility for an institution because it allows the use of free, openly distributed software to be modified to specific needs at low cost. With an in-house developer, or development team, issues can be dealt with rapidly on-site. In addition, code produced by the in-house team is not subject to proprietary claims of the original code provider (Lineweaver).

Security in today’s computing environment is critical and the demand to maintain a flexible yet secure system is ever-growing. An improperly configured security environment can pose a great risk to any institution. An insecure operating environment opens an institution to a greater degree of risk when facing issues such as hack attempts, mass virus infection, or other malicious activities, as well as accidents such as leaks of personal data.

There are strong opinions on whether Open Source or closed source is a more secure approach to software development and deployment. In the Open Source community, the arguments include greater peer review of code before it is released to the end user, because the development code is available for download and review by anyone (“CVS – Concurrent Versions System”). The number of programmers in the Open Source community is greater than that of even the largest software vendor, Microsoft. Open Source proponents contend that because of the large number of programmers reviewing code, there is a greater ability to catch potentially fatal coding errors, bugs, and exploits (“CVS – Concurrent Versions System”) (Poulsen). Admittedly, there are unscrupulous coders in the programming community that wish to damage development projects or computer systems once those projects are deployed, but the greatest proportion are honest, benevolent programmers. As is indicated below, the benefit they provide is greater than the evil posed by saboteurs.

In addition to massive peer review, fairly elaborate checks and balances are in place to make sure that malicious code is not permitted in to the main code stream (Poulsen). With heavy oversight and sophisticated checks built in to the submission systems, Open Source security proponents have had the ability to convey an, as yet, un-challenged message, that Open Source development is as secure if not more so then its closed source counterparts (Lineweaver).

While Open Source security experts believe their system is in fact secure, the closed source communities argue that because the code is accessible, exploits can easily be identified and exploited to a greater and potentially more damaging degree. The closed source vendors claim that since closed source code is inaccessible to the end-user, it is more difficult for exploits to be discovered (Spafford). This is proving to be a weak argument.

If we look at reported Windows system exploits for announced security vulnerabilities it can be concluded that the closed-code security argument is not entirely valid. Windows, the largest closed code system, has suffered more discovered vulnerabilities than any Open Source system. Closed source security experts attribute this to the fact that closed source systems are in larger deployment making them a greater target (Security Tracker).

But an exploitable, potentially more dangerous set of systems, that is often overlooked, is servers. Servers are, in general, significantly more powerful then the average desktop PC. Servers have internet connections tens to hundreds of times faster then the average home PC. This greater power and speed allow for the potential of a much more devastating attack to be launched if server systems were to be compromised. If we look at today’s largest group of servers, about 70% are using Open Source server software (“May 2004 Webserver Survey”). There is little indication that these systems have been compromised in such a way as would allow a large scale attack (Lineweaver). This information helps to reinforce the claimed security of Open Source and Open Source systems.

Current infrastructure may not allow the rapid, mass deployment of Open Source alternatives. Fortunately, institutions in this situation can actually illustrate that a mass deployment isn’t necessary to begin enjoying the benefits and cost savings of Open Source software. An Open Source roll out can be done slowly over an existing infrastructure and will work with existing software. Linux systems can be configured with ease to recognize, and operate in an existing windows, UNIX, Solaris, FreeBSD, or Novell environment. This allows great flexibility over implementation so, for example, when a server dies it can be replaced with an Open Source alternative such as Linux and continue to operate as it did before and in some cases actually outperform the native software that it’s replacing (Howorth) (Lineweaver).

Making a transition to a new system generally requires some type of training, possibly for the users, possibly for the system administrators, perhaps both (Dean). This is no different with an Open Source deployment (“Benefits of Open Source in Education”) (Lineweaver). Users will have to learn a new system rapidly, this is because an institution generally does not have the time or money to allow system users to “figure it out” on their own and need to invest in some type of training for their personnel. The cost of personnel training in a Linux environment is drastically reduced due to the fact that the user interface mirrors that of systems users are used to such as Microsoft Windows.

Technology has become a vital part of our society; it is the responsibility of the education community to prepare students with the necessary skills to utilize that technology. While it is important to deliver a high standard of education it is also important to deliver that education within a scope of reasonable funding. Open Source software provides educators with the tools needed to teach students computer skills and principles within a secure environment, and to reduce licensing and system administration costs by employing a unified interconnected software environment.

Works Cited

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language. 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.

“Benefits of Open Source in Education.” Open Source Victoria. 25 May 2004.

“Computers Not Working in Education.” Slashdot. (30 Dec. 2002.) 25 May 2004. <http://slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=02/12/30/1454255&mode=thread&tid=146>

“CVS – Concurrent Versions System.” CVS - GNU Project – Free Software Foundation. (22 July 2000.) 25 May 2004. <http://www.gnu.org/software/cvs/>

Dean, Katie. “Open Source Opens Education.” Wired News. (13 Mar. 2004.) 25 May 2004. <http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,34807,00.html?tw=wn_story_page_prev2>

Howorth, Roger. “Windows 2003 vs. Linux File Server Benchmarks.” NT vs. Linux Server Benchmark Comparisons. (14 Oct. 2003) 25 May 2004. <http://www.kegel.com/nt-linux-benchmarks.html>

Lineweaver, Rob. “Cost Savings of Open Source Software in the Server Room.” Harrisonburg City Public Schools. (22 Aug. 2003.) 25 May 2004. <http://staff.harrisonburg.k12.va.us/~rlineweaver/>

“Linux.” The Free On-line Dictionary of Computing. (9 Jun. 2000) 25 May 2005.

“May 2004 Webserver Survey Finds 50 Million Sites.” Netcraft. (3 May 2004.) 25

May 2004. <http://news.netcraft.com/archives/2004/05/index.html>

Poulsen, Kevin. “Linux Kernel Backdoor Blocked.” The Register. (7 Nov. 2003.) 25 May 2004. <http://www.theregister.co.uk/2003/11/07/linux_kernel_backdoor_blocked/>

“Security Tracker Popular Archive Topics.” Security Tracker. (25 May 2004) 25 May 2004. <http://securitytracker.com/>

Spafford, Gene. “Is Open Source More Secure?” TechTV. (6 Nov. 2002.) 25 May 2004. <http://www.techtv.com/screensavers/print/0,23102,3406300,00.html>

Webbink, Mark. “Understanding Open Source Software.” Groklaw.(31 Dec. 2003) 25 May 2004. <http://www.groklaw.net/article.php?story=20031231092027900>

(c) 2004 T. M. Thorpe All rights reserved. This document may be reproduced and distributed on the conditions that it is unaltered and retains this copyright message.


At November 13, 2004 at 10:32 PM, Blogger Jeremy said...

I use Moodle, Apache, PostNuke, Eclipse in everyday situations at our school. Open source is terrific.

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At November 9, 2008 at 7:29 PM, Blogger Dave said...

Good article -- as a HS VP with a 20 computer lab running mostly XP on outdated 256MB RAM machines, I can tell you that the biggest challenge to moving to FLOSS is not the students but teachers who never like things to change. Students these days are flexible and will get used to things after a while. They just need to be shown how. It is with the teachers and the rest of the school community that the challenge lies. I would be interested in learning about the problems anyone else is facing in turning their labs over to FLOSS systems.


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