Welcome to our machines
New Zealand’s newest secondary school runs all its computers on open source software. WAYNE ERB reports
hen it comes to software, Albany Senior High School deputy principal Mark Osborne turns to students for expert advice. In fact, students do a lot more than just advise. One of them even has a copy of the school’s server operating system installed on a machine in his bedroom.
This may not be the usual way to solve technical problems but Albany does not use the usual software. The new school in Auckland made the bold move of running its computer system almost entirely on open source software, possibly the first large New Zealand school to do so.
Open source means programmes are developed and distributed for free and can be modified by users, in contrast to the proprietary software that dominates the market. That means expert users, even teenage ones, can look for problems and make improvements.
Mark Osborne says the successful setup was daunting to begin with due to limited precedents. Warrington Primary School in Otago has shifted to open source software but he has not heard of any secondary school that has made the complete switch.
“We don’t know anyone in New Zealand that has done this on the scale that we have embarked on. We’re looking at eventually having 1300 students here and 400-plus computers.”
You might suspect the motivation for this was financial – and Mark estimates the school will save $200,000 per year by having no software licences to pay – but the dollars were secondary to the teaching and learning implications he and other foundation staff could foresee.
During establishment the school created its vision and values and these included being an open and transparent learning community that freely exchanged information.
“We were looking at the pedagogy to support that but we thought all the other systems need to support that too. We kept coming back to open source software because it allowed people to freely collaborate.”
And that’s why the Year 11 student mentioned earlier has a copy of the server software at home. The school would have to pay thousands of dollars for extra licences if students had specialist software on family computers – in other words it wouldn’t happen to the same degree, says Mark.
Instead, all the open source applications are available at no extra charge to students and anyone else with whom they or the school might choose to collaborate. The student and other computer enthusiasts are fine-tuning the school’s network after-hours and during class time allocated for student-led projects. Mark also grabs advice from the young man and his peers during encounters in the corridor.
“This kid is an expert – he knows far more about it than I do.”
Other students have access to cutting edge software such as a 3D modelling tool that makes Lord of the Rings-style animations.
Mark acknowledges that as a new school Albany did not have to cope with existing systems while adopting open source software. But he hopes other schools can follow its lead and he has been carefully documenting the process.
Early on, the school tendered for and hired a company to provide technical support. Mark says there are only a few operators with knowledge of both open source and educational settings.
Last year, well before opening for students, teachers trialled the software on their laptops. The main challenge was simply familiarising themselves with menu changes and the like, he says.
Mark believes the school will save money by extending the life-time of its computers, as open source software runs well on older hardware. It uses less disk space and processing power because the number of programmers making contributions leads to a more efficient design, he says.
Open source software also has a reputation for being more stable, having fewer bugs and less susceptibility to viruses.
The system at Albany Senior High will be adaptable, as required by the school vision. Already, the group of student computer enthusiasts has surveyed staff and found a need for video-sharing software. They are working on a solution, says Mark.
“We went to open source software because of the ethos, not because it was free. We didn’t want to lock anyone out of the learning process.”
What Albany runs
The operating system is Ubuntu, a popular version of Linux, itself one of the best-known examples of open source software.
The school uses Open Office which can read and edit files from the familiar commercial applications. Computers are loaded with video editing software, CAD programmes, web design tools, composition software, project management programmes and more, all downloaded at no cost from the internet. Mark says there is little that is not available.
However, email and document management tools are provided by Google. They are freeware but not open source.
The school intranet uses Moodle, a learning management system used in over 50,000 locations globally including a fair number of New Zealand schools.
Two further pieces of open source software were developed in New Zealand. Albany students and teachers have electronic portfolios made with Mahara, a system collaboratively made by several tertiary institutions and launched in 2006.
The school library catalogue uses Koha, first developed for Horowhenua libraries and now in use internationally. Mark says the school has paid a programmer to add additional features like a book rating tool for students to express their opinion.
“Then we will gift that back to the Koha community. The more people like us who contribute to it, the better it will be.”
More information on Mahara e-portfolios: www.myportfolio.school.nz
Open source library software: www.koha.org