Sunday, 20 March 2016

Idealism and Made Up Numbers

This article that crossed my radar this morning left me feeling a little dazed. "Why Aren't More Schools Using Open Source Software?" by Katrina Schwartz for Mindshift.

In it the experiences of Penn Manor School District who have chosen to give their students Ubuntu laptops rather than Chromebooks, iPads or Windows laptops is described. Penn Manor have some interesting ideas about engaging students in the design of the service that I enjoyed reading (although the link between open source software and student engagement is maybe overstating it, I don't see that using Linux makes students more or less empowered to get involved unless they are directly involved in modifying the source code on a significant scale - otherwise they can participate in any project, and indeed should).

Starting from the top:
The stated goal is to make learning more of an individual experience, but many schools have chosen to implement technology programs in fairly regimented ways — for lots of different reasons. Many schools want all students to have the same kind of device, with the same apps pre-downloaded. Students often have little choice over which tools they can use on their devices.
I couldn't agree more. We (as in the education system) have a strong attachment to the idea that we want every learner using the same software. I suppose this homogeneity helps to ensure we can plan quite tight sequences of what the learner needs to do, and we can ensure we "know how to do what we are asking the student to do." But if we want to focus more on the learner resolving problems and enquiring, working with greater autonomy, who cares what tools they use, what matters is the learning and the outcome... And if we let go of that homogeneity, and instead focus on control not of the tools but instead of the resources and the identities of who can access what, well then the learner using their own device becomes something we welcome rather than fear.

Problem is, that isn't what the school district are doing. If they are giving every student an identical laptop (albeit with open source software) then on a wet Wednesday their teachers will be expecting them to use the same tools... Exactly what the author is arguing against.
Even for online research, many schools filter out useful websites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, making it harder and more restrictive.
I'm no fan of 1:1 programmes - to me they are every bit as doomed to look somewhat quaint and lost in the flow of change as provision based on only letting students use IT suites on the school network. If you want personal and individual experience, you need to accept that not every student will be using the same device in lessons (a big ask, but one we need to accept and plan for), not plan to buy every student a device, forever.

To criticise schools for filtering websites though is so facile and naive, of course they filter internet sources that could contain anything harmful, controversial or difficult. They need to balance the social norms of their audience, the risks and the need to get on with the job. A school district does not exist to argue for an open and free internet, it exists to educate and improve life chances. The irony of an article about open source advocates bemoaning blocked access to the true corporate, closed source engines of the decade is an interesting one.
The district recently gave all 1,700 high school students laptops running Ubuntu operating systems, an easy-to-use version of the open source product Linux. Reisinger estimates that going with an open-source operating system has saved the district $360,000 in just the first year of the program and his dedication to Linux machines has saved closer to $750,000 over the ten years he’s been with the district.
So... 1,700 laptops (or tablets) would have cost $360,000 in software in the first year? That's $211 per student. Even allowing for server software that is just off-the-scale exaggeration. In the UK, closed source software for a project that size would cost a few thousand pounds - because vendors fall over themselves to make sure their software is being used by young people. Anyone spending those sums has either:

  • Lost control of their senses and spent on a massive scale on shrink wrapped software.
  • Or just looked up the per-packet retail price and multiplied by 1,700.
The second choice is far more likely - this is misleading. I've seen similar claims of how:
  • An academy paid for its 1:1 programme by diverting the money spent on textbooks and printing into buying devices - which is great, except it's untrue - they still use textbooks (virtual and electronic) and still have copiers - perhaps less, but they have not made anything like the savings they claim.
  • A group of schools saved millions by "going Google" - when in reality they will be running their existing architecture for years and will never recoup anything like the amount claimed.
Everyone wants to save money. That is an important part of my job. We can save money on software, and should but Open Source is not a magic solution to do so.
“The difference is with a device such as this, it’s unlocked and kids have administrative level accounts on their laptops,” Reisinger said. “So where our formal instruction ends, their new learning can begin because they have control over the device.” 
Again, no problem with giving students control, providing the support is there to fix things when they get bust, or you will have students unable to access the curriculum. Criticising the LA iPad project for trying (and failing) to lock down their devices is hopelessly naive - IT support is expensive.

Apart from that it is a great article!
“What we did a little differently is we structured the help desk into an actual course, so they could do this type of work” 

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