I feel to answer the question of “would you use open source tools in education?” is like trying to answer the question “would you use a screwdriver?” My answer to both questions, naturally, is “yes, depending on the goal I’m trying to achieve.” If I’m trying to drive a nail into a piece of cedar, a Phillips screwdriver is not going to help me achieve that goal, and will only serve to make me frustrated. As Open Options stated in its discussion of open source solutions in education, “Goals, not brands or boxes, should be paramount” (n.d.,http://www.netc.org/openoptions/decisions/needs.html). Open source solutions should only be selected if they are better at achieving a goal than the closed alternative. Obviously cost is a major factor, but if your free/open alternative can’t do the job of the paid/closed implementation, then it’s not worth integrating and you need to explore other cost-cutting options. Beyond that, I will only use open source alternatives if the psychological costs are not too great. Financial costs are one thing, but when you start alienating your labor force because of your cost-saving measures, larger problems loom. Open Options also pointed out that, “a school needs to prioritize change to avoid too much general disruption or impact on morale” (n.d., http://www.netc.org/openoptions/decisions/people.html).
One of the first end-user open source initiatives our school implemented was Moodle (we had been using Linux servers for years). I personally championed it, installed it (on my own web server, mind you), administered it, supported it, and taught it to the staff and teachers. At the end of the pilot year, the school decided to install it on its own servers for wider development. Sadly, I left that school shortly after and I honestly doubt that Moodle has continued to be supported. One thing I was trying to accomplish before leaving was creating a stronger support base for the teachers to use as a resource. Neither open nor closed systems are of any value if the teachers can not put them to effective use in the classroom. Again, as Open Options argues, “Too many schools are filled with unused technology because it’s not well supported” (n.d., http://www.netc.org/openoptions/decisions/implementation.html).
There are two projects I would have liked to see implemented at our school. The biggest one was the replacement of Microsoft Office with Open Office. While MS Office is indeed much more powerful than OpenOffice.org, 90% of the users only use 10% of the features, so OpenOffice.org is generally a suitable replacement for most people. It’s an easy fix with a huge up-front cost savings that more than pays for any additional support needed. Also, as David Thornburg stated in an interview at Tech & Learning, “with wide use of open source tools, students [and teachers] can use the identical applications at home they use in the classroom—without having to purchase them” (2010, http://www.techlearning.com/article/28438).
The other project, while not truly open source by definition, is the migration to Google Apps for Education. Google Apps (like PSU uses for its GUS Mail) provides, most significantly, a replacement for MS Outlook. You can create mailboxes and calendars, with shared contacts and appointments; you can use the increasingly powerful Google Docs (again, which does a “good enough” job for most people), Google Sites for intranet or internet websites, and myriad third-party plugins to extend the functionality of Apps. Again, the cost savings from eliminating the internal MS Exchange server and its administration alone is able to cover the costs of support and professional development.
So, will I use open source tools? Absolutely–in every single opportunity in which it makes sense (not cents).