Will 2010 be the year for open source in education? Yes, says Mark Taylor
Mark TaylorMark Taylor: capital projects nextThe way we use technology is changing fast, and the way our children use it is changing even faster. The traditional 'ICT' installed in our schools and taught in our classrooms bears little resemblance to the world as it stands today with the explosion in computing devices, 24/7 access to the web wherever we happen to be, and the software and services we actually use daily online.

Let's take a moment to review that, and check that we have similar lists...

By devices I mean netbooks, smartphones (iPhone, Android and others), tablets, E-Readers (Sony, Amazon's Kindle), thin clients and the whole new world of computer-like, net-connected machines joining the ageing desktop PC and laptops.

By 24/7 I mean the fact that connection to the Internet through whatever means, and wherever we are, is becoming taken for granted.

By “actual” software and services I mean Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter, flickr, Google Earth, webmail, blogs and the whole host of Web 2.0 and social networking sites the younger generations spend much of their day using.

Don't pause for breath yet,  because the change is accelerating - SaaS (Software as a Service), cloud, virtualisation, green and low energy computing, and 'anytime, anyplace' learning are coming up fast, and that's just for starters...

‘Public spending centre stage… with budgets tight or tighter’

The challenge is to make our ICT up to date and relevant, or at least not appear completely archaic and irrelevant! And this is what we are looking for at BETT.

This challenge has just got much tougher of course. The whole issue of public spending is now centre stage, and with the economy still uncertain budgets are either tight or tighter, irrespective of whether we are state or private sector. So how are we to do more than ever before with our ICT and prepare for the future while cutting our spending?

Open source software is the thread running through the short but frantic story of 21st century computing. All of the developments noted above are either based entirely on open source, enabled by open source, or contain an enormous amount of Open Source under the hood. It has quietly become pervasive while we were looking elsewhere.

So if you keep your eyes open at BETT, and probe a little you will start seeing open source everywhere: almost all of the traditional suppliers are using it in all sorts of places.

A huge number of the plethora of new hardware devices also have it under the hood, as does the expanding new world of online services.

But getting open source under the hood only gets you so far. You still get the performance, power and flexibility gains, but the major financial benefits of open source's licence and royalty-free model accrue to the supplier bundling it – instead of you...

Your must-visit guide for BETT

If you want to get the most out of Open Source, then here's your must-visit guide for BETT:

Becta-supported Open Source Schools, on Stand L20 will give you The Open Source Café. This is the place to go to find the varied and enthusiastic communities involved with open source, not just technical community but learners and teachers too. The core is Becta's Open Source Schools project and the centrepiece is a rich and wide programme of talks.

Stand G50 will give you the National Digital Resource Bank (NDRB) and the Open Source Councils Alliance (OSCA, see Gary Clawson's platform article). The NDRB is a national Open Source project to provide high quality royalty-free content for Learning Platforms. OSCA is an alliance of more than 50 LAs systematically researching and implementing Open Source.

If you want commercial and professional providers of specific Open Source products you will find them too: for example Visual Software, on stand B20, is demonstrating a Moodle SIF agent, to help you integrate your other systems with your Moodle Learning Platform.

Perhaps the most frequent objection to using more Open Source explicitly is "But where will I get support for it?" Stand Q50 hosts my own company, Sirius, the first open source company to be given a place on a Becta procurement list, the "Software for Educational Institutions" framework. Sirius is demonstrating an open source infrastructure for schools working with Windows, Apple Mac and Linux desktops.

Outside the BETT show floor the benefits of Open Source have caught the attention of Governments around the world, including our own.

Open source now backed by government directives

Since early last year the UK Government has had a policy promoting open source adoption. Becta is actively promoting open ource through policy documents, new procurement arrangements and its 'Open Source Schools' project.

Government and Becta backing has been the signal for a rapid take-up of Open Source across the UK public and education sectors through 2009, which is now set to accelerate.

The big question is whether open source and open source companies can take on the big capital projects like Building Schools for the Future (BSF). The short answer is "Yes." But the changes need to come from the public sector procurement end first.

Open source companies already look after some of the biggest companies in the world, and not just companies like the US-based Red Hat, Our very own home-grown companies have been serving 'multi-billion per annum' household names for years.

Having been involved in a BSF bid and reaching the final stages I can tell you it is the short-sighted procurement rules that knock Open Source companies out. Perhaps this is why proposals from opposition political parties centre around breaking the lock over public procurement held by a handful of "usual suspects".

There's no lack of open source engineering and technical talent in the UK either to rise to the challenge. The country that invented, then failed to capitalise on the foundations of computing has, again, in open source a talent pool that's just waiting for the opportunity to prove its worth.

This year, 2010, should be a breakthrough year for open source in education, particularly as the Government has expressed its intention that all IT bidders for public sector contracts should include an open source solution. But real progress will be made when the learning community understands that open source is not just about licence savings (even though they are substantial). Open source also brings understanding and creativity to learning itself and, most important, true collective ownership.

BETT 2010 logo

BETT 2010
January 13-16, Olympia, London
Best to start BETT open source enquiries with a visit to the Open Source Café - links below


Open Source Café – Stand L20
Open Source Councils Alliance/ – Stand G50
National Digital Resource Bank
Visual Software on stand B20
Sirius – Stand Q50

Mark Taylor is the CEO of Sirius Corporation plc, the first Open Source company to be given a place on an OGC and Becta procurement framework. Sirius' work in the field of Education includes projects in the finals for this years BETT Awards, and the company has been nominated for an eGovernment excellence awards

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