If Open Source Doesn't Succeed, Don't Blame the Teachers

by Ostatic Staff - Jan. 27, 2009

We talk a lot at OStatic about open source solutions in the classroom. In fact, just yesterday Kristin pointed to a recent article from the BBC discussing the strengths of open source software and the complexities associated with deploying it in an educational environment.

According to the BBC, "Good teachers will always be looking to move forward but they are so busy that they are often conservative."

Datamation's Matt Hartley has a completely different take on why open source can't get a foothold in American classrooms, and he claims it's largely because teachers and school IT professionals are "misinformation junkies."

In a rather vitriolic rant against the nation's teachers and school IT departments, Hartley roundly dismisses the fact that there are plenty of educators who openly advocate open source in the classroom. Instead, he complains, "Seems to me that [it] is not just individuals in the proprietary software realm who have no idea how open source software works. Apparently the group of misinformation junkies now includes teachers as well."

Then Hartley turns on IT professionals and claims "The problem is that Linux users themselves are seen as a rogue element in a world maintained by Microsoft certified administrators. These admins, often working off of their 'vast Linux experience' derived from a twenty minute [sic] adventure into some random Linux distro from a few years ago, are choosing to contribute to the misinformation already in existence."

Perhaps Hartley needs to get to the root of the issue here, instead of lopping off the first head he sees. In general, IT and hardware decisions are made at the district level and, in some cases, higher. The poor soul in the high school server room has no more input about the platforms being used than my great-aunt Fanny. The teachers? Even less. It's the suit-wearing administrators sitting in air-conditioned offices who drop in for a meeting between rounds of golf that make the decisions that are foisted on local schools.

When school administrators are handed incentive-laden hardware and software proposals from slick marketing folks promising to put a laptop in the hands of every student, it's not surprising that Microsoft and Apple win the race almost every time. So, before anyone blames IT admins or teachers for a lack of experience or willingness to use open source solutions, it's important to make sure accusations are flung in the right direction.

Hartley goes on to say, "With the current educational budget that U.S. schools have at their disposal, it seems like there must be plenty of money to spend on software and hardware upgrades!"

Does Hartley read the newspaper? Every single school district in the nation is struggling with horrific budget cuts that slicing core educational necessities from classrooms. Teachers are being let go, and entire subjects are being eliminated from curricula across the country. Perhaps not enough is being done to educate students on the benefits of open source software, but it is most certainly not because a surplus of money is being funneled elsewhere.

In the end Hartley concludes that the best thing to do is encourage students to explore open source software on their own time, perhaps offering extra school credit as an incentive. On that, we completely agree. Hartley loses me again, however, when he suggests "teachers and the school’s Microsoft trained [sic] IT staff consider studying up on the subject of Linux before trying to pass futile judgments over it."

Perhaps Mr. Hartley could do a little studying himself before passing futile judgements in kind.