Saving money in our K12 schools

A school system in British Columbia has cut technology costs, created new support positions to work directly with teachers, and has dramatically reduced technical problems with their classroom and teacher computers. How did they do it?

They dropped licensed software, and over several years, moved to Free and Open Source (FOSS) alternatives.

Sounds like a win-win-win, but some of us have been recommending that for years. It is largely an IT staff problem; IT staff trained in the monoculture Windows world have little experience with alternative platforms like Linux, and just won't budge. The cost is high. Taxpayers ultimately end up footing the bill for expensive, complex, and difficult to use systems that don't perform well.

A couple of years ago, I was working in a K12 school, trying to help them use FOSS applications in the classroom. One of the biggest obstacles was the school system's "seat management" system, which actually took the entire school off-line randomly throughout the day because students at another school were using licensed software. The school system could not afford to buy licenses for every computer in the school system, so the seat management software just shut off network access to computers to keep the number of licenses below the licenses maximum.

Who loses? Teachers and students both lose, and technology ends up sitting idle. The big myth, often perpetrated by parents as well as administrators, is that kids "need to use software used in the business world." Uh huh. Writing is writing, and using a word processor is a skill that transfers nicely whether you were trained to write with Word or a free alternative. The same is true with spreadsheets--it is about math and thinking skills, not "familiarity with Excel menus" skills.

Claiming that kids should only learn on Microsoft products is insulting to our kids (they are apparently too dumb to learn to transfer skills across different pieces of software) and nonsensical. It is like claiming that only Toyota cars should be used in driver's ed, because "that is the most popular car in America."

IT departments should not be making policy decisions in a vacuum that affect the whole organization. IT staff should be serving the organization, not the other way around. If the IT department seems to be offering flimsy excuses for high cost, low performance systems, insist on carefully considered research and studies for alternatives that cost less and do more. And if your IT staff refuses, maybe you need to clean house.

Technology News: