Boost your grant-seeking efforts with school foundation support

Some of you might be thinking of starting an educational foundation in your district, or you might already have such an organization. An educational foundation can significantly expand the scope of your fund-raising efforts, but you’ll want to make sure you closely coordinate your grant-seeking efforts with the foundation’s work.

While the role of an educational foundation differs from that of grant writers, its overall mission is similar. Grant seeking is a form of fund raising that pursues support from government and foundation sources to fund needs. An educational foundation is also a form of fund raising that usually focuses efforts on raising support from individuals. Typically, grant-seeking efforts and the fund-raising efforts of the educational foundation will overlap in the areas of foundation and corporate support.

It is essential that you coordinate your grant-seeking and foundation efforts so you don’t duplicate efforts. For example, private funders should not receive duplicate proposals from the same district; clear communication between grant-seeking and foundation staff is essential before proposals are sent to private funders.

Keep in mind that district grant writers and staff from the educational foundation are representing the same cause. Both are representing the district, and both should be on the same page with regard to the district’s needs, priorities, and possible projects. Both should share the same funding goals and should share information about sources of support. It’s probably a good idea to have your grant-writing staff and the educational foundation staff meet at least quarterly. Certainly, there should be regular phone contact between the two.

Collaboration between the grants staff and the educational foundation staff also can strengthen fund-raising efforts. Both can share information about funding opportunities and the research that has been conducted about these opportunities. In addition, both can share office equipment and secretarial support.

Gifts secured by the educational foundation might be counted as matching funds for grant projects. For example, if the educational foundation is able to secure a gift of scanners from a business in the community, the scanners could be used in a grant-funded project and could be counted as matching support.

Board members of the educational foundation may be valuable contacts for grant-seeking efforts. Or, a classroom project that is funded through the educational foundation may be expanded and turned into a schoolwide project that can be submitted for support by a state education department grant.

Clearly, the need for coordination between the two staffs is critical to maximize the fund-raising efforts taking place in your district. You might want to consider holding an annual event that recognizes the fund-raising efforts of both the grants staff and that of the educational foundation.

If you are planning to start an educational foundation or your foundation is in its infancy, make it a priority to coordinate its efforts with those of your grant writers. Schedule meetings so that foundation staff members can identify the needs of the district, and develop a plan that will enable both teams to work together throughout the year. Encourage them to discuss fund-raising objectives and share problems, with the goal of coming up with the best solutions.

Promote the idea that although the grants staff and the foundation staff might be in different physical locations and might have different bosses, ultimately they are a part of the same team and should not be working completely independently of each other. Maximizing your fund-raising efforts through the careful coordination of grant-seeking and foundation staff will bring more resources to the table to help you achieve your district’s goals.

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Give your AUP a fall tune-up–here’s how

In the June 2001 issue of eSchool News, I began a series of columns on acceptable-use policies (AUPs) and what they should entail. I’ve covered filtering, plagiarism, and law-breaking in some detail, and I’ve urged readers not to be vague: A good AUP is a policy document approved by the school board that spells out specific rules of computer conduct and the consequences for breaking these rules.

Now that you’ve got a solid foundation upon which to work, here’s a final checklist of things to look for as you review your own AUPs.

First, make sure your AUP covers all aspects of high-tech use in your school district. Some AUP-drafting committees and school boards get so hung up on insulating their schools from the dangers lurking on the Wicked Wild Web, they forget that even schools without internet connections need an AUP. If you have computers, your AUP needs to address every way they are used, even if the machines aren’t web-enabled.

Remember, if your computers have floppy disk or CD drives, anything (and I do mean anything) that can be found on the web could end up downloaded onto a hard drive in your computer lab. If you give students (or faculty and staff, for that matter) access to your system by having slots or drawers that accept portable media, then you must tell them that it is not OK to bring floppies loaded with games, shareware, pirated applications, or digital photos with the faces of the cheerleading squad superimposed on naked bodies.

The simplest policy is often the best. No outside application software of any kind—ever. Any programs loaded onto school computers must be screened and approved. Most schools allow students to transport homework or class assignments on floppies so they can work on home computers. Problems can be minimized if you have a system to screen disks for viruses and limit the types of files that can be uploaded.

The list of hardware dos and don’ts is pretty simple. Your AUP must include rules about respecting copyright. School computers should not be used for private business or personal gain. Vandalism against other computers or the school’s information technology system must be on your “forbidden activities” list, along with all forms of hacking. Don’t forget to make sure students understand that passwords are of little use if they are shared or published. Put it in your AUP.

Some AUPs are marvels of inclusiveness. All of the lists and explanations and promises and places for Mom and Dad and Junior to sign are there. They have all the proper philosophy for education in the solid state age. They also read like they were written by a committee of lawyers, technocrats, and the folks who write the instructions for how to assemble do-it-yourself backyard jungle gyms and lawnmowers.

This is the No. 1 (and most unforgivable) fault of many AUPs, in my opinion: Someone forgot to have the policy reviewed and rewritten by the English teacher with the best writing skills or (even better) the journalism teacher whose mantra in class is “be concise.” Even if your review of your AUP turns up no technical holes or policy lapses, give it a hard look for plain old readability.

The best AUP is a policy that is straightforward and easy to understand. It has a lot of simple sentences and a dearth of dependent clauses. It eschews legalese and fancy educational or technical terms (in other words, it is written to educate and inform rather than impress someone). It uses analogies that compare high-tech offenses to traditional ones: No copies of Penthouse, no porno CDs; threatening eMails are no different from nasty handwritten notes; electronic mailboxes are no more private than student lockers. You get the picture.

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Analyst recommends software switch in wake of Nimda attacks

As the insidious Nimda worm continued to wreak havoc on Microsoft web servers worldwide in late September, an analyst with an influential high-tech research firm said companies and school districts affected by the attacks should consider switching to a new product rather than battling to keep their Microsoft server software secure.

John Pescatore, research director for internet security at Gartner Group, told the Associated Press Sept. 24 that organizations whose web sites were shuttered more than once by the Nimda worm and other similar attacks might not be able to keep their servers safe from future attacks.

The attacks, including Code Red and Nimda, have knocked out thousands of web sites and briefly threatened to wreak havoc on the internet earlier this summer.

They work by wriggling in through vulnerabilities in Microsoft’s Internet Information Server (IIS). The glitches can be fixed by regularly downloading security patches from Microsoft web sites, but Pescatore said any organization hit by more than one attack clearly doesn’t have the technical staff to stay on top of the latest safeguards.

“If you were hit by Code Red and by Nimda, basically you can’t keep IIS secure, you’re not up to the task,” he said. “IIS has a lot more security vulnerabilities than other products and requires more care and feeding.”

Pescatore said Microsoft’s web server product is hard to safeguard because it is more often the target of hacker attacks. He recommended that users switch to rivals such as iPlanet or Apache, which he called more secure and less likely to be hit by hackers.

Microsoft Corp. denied that its IIS software is especially vulnerable to attacks.

“Gartner’s extreme recommendation ignores the fact that serious security vulnerabilities have been found in all web server products and platforms,” Microsoft spokesman Jim Desler said. “This is an industrywide challenge.”

Other analysts contend that Microsoft’s web servers aren’t significantly less secure than other products, but are simply targeted more often.

“IIS right now is so exposed … it is arguably the biggest target in that space,” said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the high-tech research firm Giga Information Group.

Enderle said he’d heard from clients who were switching from Microsoft server products, but he said security alone isn’t to blame.

Many organizations also are angry about a change in Microsoft’s licensing agreements, which they contend will make it much more costly to run Microsoft products over the long term, he said.

Nimda’s wake

Nimda—which is “admin,” the shortened form of “system administrator,” spelled backwards—started spreading Sept. 17 and quickly infected PCs and servers across the internet.

Also known as readme.exe and W32.Nimda, the worm is the first to use four different methods to infect not only PCs running Windows 95, 98, ME, and 2000, but also servers running Windows 2000.

The worm spread by eMailing itself out as an attachment, scanning for—and then infecting—vulnerable web servers running Microsoft’s IIS software, copying itself to shared disk drives on school district or business intranets, and appending JavaScript to web pages that would download the worm to a user’s PC when the user viewed the page.

Although Nimda did not delete data, it did overwrite a number of files and spread to shared computer hard disks, allowing it to wreak havoc on computer networks by slowing them to a halt.

School officials in Fort Wayne, Ind., said the program attacked and disabled library computers containing card catalog information. Though it had little effect on students and teachers, the district’s libraries and their staff members were without access to their electronic card catalogs Sept. 21.

The worm infected 53 library servers and two servers in the school district’s administration building. Computer technicians spent about 100 hours combating the virus, and the electronic card catalogs were knocked offline for about a week, said Jack Byrd, the district’s director of technology.

In Mitchell, S.D., Nimda caused problems in taking attendance and running the district’s food service software, and it also interrupted online exams. Technology director Dan Muck said technicians received a remedy for the problem the same night, and the system was back online Sept. 18.

Other districts reportedly affected by the worm included Pittsburgh, Pa.; New Orleans, La.; Providence, R.I.; and Columbia County, Ga.

Despite the attacks, many school technology directors contacted by eSchool News said they disagreed with Gartner Group’s advice to switch to a new web server product.

“Microsoft servers are attacked by virus creators because there are so many out there,” said Chris Mahoney, director of technology for the Lake Hamilton School District in Arkansas. “Getting rid of Microsoft servers would only shift the focus [of hackers] to other platforms.”

Microsoft responds

In light of the damage Nimda caused and the resulting security concerns about its server software, Microsoft said Oct. 3 that it would offer free customer support to combat computer viruses and streamline the way users can download current software patches.

Previously, large-scale customers had to pay Microsoft to get their virus-related questions answered and were required to check the company’s web sites regularly for any updates.

Beginning in late October, however, Microsoft said it would let customers running the company’s Windows 2000 and NT operating systems, web server products, and Internet Explorer browser download all-in-one patches that fix security flaws the company knows about.

Microsoft also said it would help users shut down unused functions, such as internet printing, that could make their systems more vulnerable to attack.

Customers will have the option of getting future patches automatically downloaded to their computers from Microsoft’s servers.

Brian Valentine, senior vice president for Microsoft’s Windows division, acknowledged that the process for updating virus protection was confusing and may have kept some customers from keeping their systems safe.

“It is a situation where we just have to make it simpler,” he said.

Links:

Gartner Group
http://www.gartner.com

Microsoft’s “Information on the ‘Nimda’ Worm”
http://www.microsoft.com/technet/treeview/default.asp?url=/technet/security/topics/Nimda.asp

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Voc-Tech Goes High-Tech

Washington Post Magazine, Sept. 16, 2001, page 34

After several years of positive results, Fairfax County (Va.) Public Schools are expanding their efforts to provide vocational-technology students with a head start in high-tech fields such as computer repair and network maintenance. Fairfax County’s new Chantilly Academy has been mirrored by numerous school systems across the country.

The transformation of the voc-tech curriculum has had great significance for students and high schools, Chantilly Academy administrators say. First, many of the students taking computer-oriented technical training courses plan to continue on to college, unlike traditional voc-tech students.

Second, because they are college-bound, these students are not isolated from their fellow students into a vocation-focused school-within-a-school.

Third, many of the voc-tech students pursue summer internships with local companies, strengthening their schools’ ties to the community.

Employment possibilities for these students remain exceedingly bright, even with the slowdown in the technology sector in the past year. The U.S. Department of Commerce projects that from 1998 to 2008, about 2 million new information technology jobs will be created.

Computer and software manufacturers recognize that they will need well-trained people to manage the systems they are helping to build today. Therefore, these companies often offer their expertise to Chantilly Academy and conduct certification tests for program graduates.

While the program is very popular, outside education experts sounded a few cautionary notes for administrators of these types of programs:

– Make sure the certifications students are seeking will still be valued in the marketplace in a few years, when students are likely to be seeking employment.

– Make sure the teachers of the courses are skilled as educators, not just as IT experts. Students need to learn “why” as well as “what.”

– Watch out for corporations that offer support to the programs. They might be seeking something in return, such as equipment sales.

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Six Tech Lessons from Principals ‘Down Under’

The Technology Source, September/October 2001
http://horizon.unc.edu/TS/default.asp?show=article&id=867

The school system of Victoria, Australia, has made a major effort in the past ten years to integrate technology into the classroom and administrative offices. Simultaneously, large-scale changes in curriculum have been instituted. Furthermore, principals have been given authority over approximately 95 percent of their annual budgets. Thus, principals have been faced with multiple and complex changes, as well as the means to address those changes.

A survey of principals in the district reveals some of the effects they have felt and some of the benefits that have accrued:

– Understanding information technology is an absolute must. Principals do not feel they need to be technical experts, but they need to be aware of the equipment and software that is available and its potential uses.

– Exposure to technology comes from multiple sources. Professional training programs are one valuable resource, but principals say they learn a great deal about technology from their staff, their teachers, and from interaction with parents and students. Being open to all of these resources is essential.

– Computers have not decreased workload and work flow, but they have changed it. Basic tasks such as word processing and budgeting have been simplified, but expectations that principals will communicate with various constituencies have increased dramatically as the perception of “easy communications” has increased.

– eMail has limitations. Principals note that it is still very important to maintain personal, face-to-face contact with each teacher and staff member. The temptation to communicate only by eMail must be resisted.

– Principals have more control over their work flow. For example, principals can more easily work on projects from home by tapping into their schools’ networks. Also, with web access, they can readily find cutting-edge information about new teaching methods or grant programs that might be available to their staff or students.

– Teachers have only scratched the surface when it comes to the use of computers in the classroom.

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Bennett’s K12 Inc. targets elementary schoolers online

Educators and others got a first look in September at the offerings from K12 Inc., the Virginia-based company led by former U.S. education secretary and conservative icon William J. Bennett.

The company aims to profit by delivering instruction via the internet to students as young as kindergartners, but critics question whether students that young can learn as well as older students do in an online environment.

When K12 launched late last year, it drew cheers from homeschooling parents, criticism from some teacher unions, and curiosity from all observers. Now, as the company opens its virtual doors for its first cohort of students, K12 seems intent on expanding into the charter school market while remaining true to its homeschooling customers.

K12 boasts leadership from high-profile individuals and groups. In addition to Bennett, who holds the chairmanship of K12, the company also has attracted Yale University computer science professor David Gelernter as its chief technology adviser. The firm was launched with a $10 million investment from the Knowledge Universe Learning Group, backed by financier Michael Milken.

Although K12 has attracted attention as an online schooling option, its lessons draw more from traditional texts and materials than they do from computer-based sources.

A typical lesson begins with a review of previously learned material. Then, activities that use materials readily available around the home are presented, such as estimating the number of jars in a spice rack in first-grade math or building a river bed out of sand and a baking dish when studying the Nile in first-grade history.

Online examples illustrate the lesson at hand. A graphic of a flooding river overtaking a field accompanies the lesson on the Nile, while a game of clicking on the closest estimate is included in the mathematics lesson.

Most of the lessons, however, are paper-based. The lessons point to specific text and exercise pages in the accompanying books that ship with their purchase. Worksheet pages and answer keys in portable document format (PDF) are available online but are intended for printing and traditional completion. The lessons conclude with enrichment information, such as the history section on the Nile River today.

“Three-quarters of the time [is spent] off line,” said Ron Packard, chief executive officer of K12, who acknowledges that the program involves a variety of delivery methods.

Packard declined to release current enrollment figures, but said the number is “in the thousands.”

K12 has made a deliberate decision to open its doors to just the youngest students—those in grades K-2—this year. Packard says this is because K12 has “very high standards” that exceed those in place by any state in the country. Therefore, the organization prefers to start with a fresh group of students and establish the entry-level lessons first.

The company’s focus on grades K-2 is not without its critics, however.

“I’m not convinced that students that young can learn as well online,” said Jim McVety, an analyst with Eduventures.com. By targeting the youngest students, McVety says K12 is attempting to bring online education to a population that many people feel protective of. “Students are a bit more sacred when they’re younger,” he said.

McVety said K12 will need to be aware of the market to be successful financially. “High school is really where we’re going to see growth” in online education, he said, adding that K12’s approach of starting with younger students may put the company behind its competitors.

He also noted that homeschooling is just a small piece of the education pie. “The homeschool market is growing, but it won’t surpass 2 million any time soon, vs. 54 million [students] in U.S. public schools,” he said.

K12 officials say they’re aware of these figures, and they are making inroads into the charter school market as well.

Before this school year began, K12 signed contracts to supply online curriculum to charter schools across the country, including Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School, Texas Virtual Charter School, and Colorado Virtual Academy.

Ultimately, this school year is critical to the success of K12. Packard says the company will measure its success by “how children do on state assessments and our own final exams,” as well as by its customer retention rate.

K12 “needs this school year to bring examples of success to the fore,” said McVety.

Links:

K12
http://www.k12.com

Eduventures.com
http://www.eduventures.com

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Eight Items to Consider When Choosing an Online Curriculum

School Administrator, October 2001
http://www.aasa.org/publications/sa/2001_10/hirsch.htm

It’s clear that online courses will become increasingly common in the K-12 environment, especially for high school students. As schools and districts consider the best way to offer online courses to supplement their current in-school curriculum, they may wish to work with one or more commercial vendors.

In choosing a vendor, school officials should consider the following eight factors:

1. Accreditation. Online courses should contribute to a student earning the credits he or she needs to graduate. Teachers and administrators must check carefully with their states to determine whether a course meets state standards. School officials should not rely solely on the representations of the commercial vendor, because the company simply may not be aware of all of the demands of a particular state.

2. Quality. Accreditation is only one aspect of quality. Find out if the proposed course or curriculum meets state and federal educational standards in its subject areas. Check the level of interactivity the curriculum promotes through the use of multimedia features, online exchanges, and teacher-student activities.

3. Flexibility in offerings. Educators should ask themselves, “Does the vendor offer short courses that address single topics, or must we sign up for a comprehensive program?” It may be best to start small and monitor students’ and teachers’ satisfaction with a program.

4. Delivery options. Application service providers (ASPs) are all the rage in school districts now. These companies host and deliver software via the internet and manage and update systems, all for a single price. Many ASPs are now working with content providers who have developed eLearning curricula. This arrangement may be convenient for ordering online courses. On the other hand, some districts do not have the necessary infrastructure to use ASPs or may not wish to tie up their internet connections with bandwidth-intensive course programming, preferring instead to store and host these applications on their own computer networks.

5. Educator input. Superior online course providers work extensively with current and former teachers to develop an appropriate curriculum. Educators should ask, “Who are the ‘experts’ who developed the courses?”

6. Monitoring and follow-up. It’s important to establish a timeframe for when the online course vendor will check back with you for a progress update. Administrators should know who performs the follow-up services and what kinds of adjustments can be made during the school year. They should ask themselves, “Will this company be in business in six months?”

7. Handicap access. Some courses are more handicapped-friendly than others; they can incorporate text readers for the blind, for example.

8. Price and pricing options. Price is always an issue. Some programs are priced per student, some are offered on a flat-fee basis. School officials need to think about their school’s likely level of use before purchasing.

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Six Education Dot-Com Survivors

Washington Post Magazine, Sept. 16, 2001, page 16

Here are six high-quality online resources for students that so far have survived the pullback of advertisers and investors in education-related web services:

– Encyclopedia Britannica (http://www.britannica.com). The site includes the Encyclopedia Britannica and access to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and Collegiate Thesaurus, as well as other links. Pages do include pop-up ads.

– Internet Public Library (http://www.ipl.org). Created by the University of Michigan’s School of Information, this site provides information and links to other sites by subject, similar to a physical library.

– Cool and Useful Student Resources (http://www.teleport.com/~burrell/). Designed for high school students, this site compares and ranks web sites by topic. Updating is spotty, as some links lead to defunct sites or incorrect addresses.

– Bigchalk (http://www.bigchalk.com). This is one of the best commercial search engines in the education market. Users can ask to search by subject and for grade-appropriate material simultaneously.

– WWW Virtual Library (http://www.vlib.org). This site features a search engine designed to find the most-relevant information, not the most commonly visited sites on a subject. This is in contrast to the underlying logic of many leading search engines, such as Google, which provide responses based on which sites are visited most often.

– Tutorcafe (http://www.tutorcafe.com). This is a clearinghouse for tutors on every subject imaginable. The site lists prices, location, and expertise of tutors online.

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Strategic listening can bridge the public divide

“They just don’t listen!” If there’s one consistent complaint from parents, politicians, teachers, taxpayers, senior citizens, realtors, and other public school stakeholders about how we manage our business, that’s it.

And it’s an issue we simply cannot afford to dodge anymore, especially with teachers—the backbone of our system—feeling the most ignored. According to a recent survey by Public Agenda, 70 percent of all United States teachers say they feel left out of the decision-making process, while school board members express frustration that all they hear from the public are complaints.

Such statistics aren’t news to Roger Pawley, chief executive officer of Leadership Technology Group Inc. That’s why he’s created an institute devoted to improving the “strategic listening” skills of leaders in schools and other organizations.

Research conducted by Pawley’s organization shows that when people are asked for advice, 63 percent say they feel complimented and 25 percent feel the person is showing good judgment. Interestingly, the numbers flip when people are asked about taking part in a survey.

Both methods involve asking questions. The difference, Pawley says, is how the request is communicated and whether the focus is on building relationships or just getting input.

“Strategic listening helps people feel important and included, and it encourages them to participate,” says Pawley. “When people feel valued, they develop more loyalty and commitment to the organization.”

They also contribute better ideas and are more likely to focus on solutions and problem-solving, rather than points of conflict, according to Pawley. This is good news for school leaders, who must struggle to find the common ground in an increasingly diverse and often divided community.

Technology plays a pivotal role in strategic listening by helping school leaders reach out to a large number of people on an ongoing basis in an efficient and effective manner.

Rather than simply rely on a public hearing that brings out the most passionate voices on the extreme ends of most issues, Pawley recommends going to where your stakeholders already are and then using technology to gather and compile their input automatically.

“The best form of engagement is one-on-one with individual people, but it’s just not practical for most school systems,” says Pawley, whose firm works with more than 100 school districts across the nation. “Technology is an aid to that process and a way to bring people in and participate in meaningful ways that are easier for school systems to manage.”

Using voice server technology, parents and teachers can use their touch tone phones at home or at work to participate in monthly automated questionnaires on issues ranging from a proposed character education curriculum or school uniform policy to school boundary changes, new facilities, and upcoming bond referendums.

Portable key pads and a laptop computer, on the other hand, can be brought into grocery stores, public libraries, health clinics, churches, and shopping malls to capture feedback from a wide range of citizens, many of whom might not respond to more traditional survey methods.

In either approach, anonymity is assured and results are available instantly. If connected to the organization’s computer system, results also can be posted simultaneously on the school district’s web site, eliminating any concern that the data is being manipulated in any way—an added benefit for school leaders struggling to rebuild fractured relationships and trust.

Even traditional public engagement approaches, such as focus groups and town hall meetings, become more meaningful when group feedback technology is employed to get the “silent middle” and the “quieter voices” in the room not only on the table, but up on the video screen for all to see.

The cost is surprisingly affordable, even for smaller school systems. Leadership Technology Group’s strategic listening initiatives include training, consulting services, technology, software, and technical assistance and range from $10,000 to $100,000, The technology can be rented or purchased.

The combination of cutting-edge technology, research, group facilitation, and communications can be powerful and poignant. One of Pawley’s clients, for example, was struggling to engage a group of native Cambodian parents in a dialogue about the school their children were attending.

However, when a session was set up in a neighborhood center that the parents were comfortable with, and a translator and translation software were provided, the once-reluctant parents responded enthusiastically. The anonymity of the process, and the district’s commitment to reaching out to them, made a once-distant group feel valued and important.

Engaging the public means more than just getting people’s ideas and making them feel welcomed and appreciated, however. School leaders are often criticized, and rightly so, for asking for input when they really want a “stamp of approval” on a predetermined strategy, plan, or idea.

“You have to close the loop and let them know how you’re using the information to improve the organization,” says Pawley. “You don’t have to tell them how you are using specific ideas, but you do need to be able to show that their input matters, that something has changed because of it.”

Not surprisingly, one of the growing criticisms of public engagement is that it is too focused on process and involvement, rather than results.

“Public engagement is essential and critically important, and technology is the only thing that makes it manageable,” says Eric Smith, superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), the nation’s 27th largest school system. “However, process alone won’t get you where you need to be.”

When CMS built its new student assignment plan, it gathered input from more than 7,000 parents, teachers, and community stakeholders—including some 1,000 who corresponded via eMail and the web.

Smith cautions that for strategic listening to be effective, it has to help the organization achieve its strategic objectives.

“You have to focus on results,” says Smith. “All the engagement in the world isn’t going to matter if it doesn’t [lead to] better results for children.”

Links:

Leadership Technology Group Inc.
http://www.theltgroup.com

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Schools are latest battleground in open-source campaign

The chief executive of a leading supplier of open-source software has issued a challenge to the open-source development community: Work with educators to free schools from dependence on more costly proprietary software programs.

In his keynote address at the LinuxWorld Conference and Exposition in San Francisco recently, Matthew Szulik, Red Hat president and chief executive officer, criticized developers of proprietary software for allowing money to determine whether children “are allowed to participate in an information-based society.”

Szulik also proposed the creation of an Open Source Education Corp., modeled after the Civilian Corps of Engineers. Members of the corporation would work with educators to improve the quality of local technical education, he said, thereby “bypassing proprietary, high-cost vendors.” (For the full text of Szulik’s speech, see Viewpoint, page 32.]

Skeptics might dismiss Szulik’s call for an open-source movement in America’s schools as self-serving, but Szulik, in an interview with eSchool News, insisted his plea stems from a genuine concern about public education.

“We are most vulnerable as a nation in K-12,” Szulik said. He said budget restrictions often prevent schools from providing students with adequate exposure to technology and that the proprietary technology used by schools to date has not been subjected to the more rigorous vetting that open-source software invites from a wide community of users and developers.

Open-source software—software for which the company releases the source code, opening it up for alteration and customization by users—has gained a foothold in other areas of the world, especially South America and Europe.

In these areas, governments have passed or are considering legislation that would compel schools and government agencies to use free or open-source software unless proprietary software were the only realistic option. Brazil has taken an early lead in this movement, and the country’s government reportedly spent just $200 million on software last year.

“You have to start with need,” said Szulik, explaining the growth of the open-source movement in countries poorer than the United States. But in this country, Szulik asserted, pressure from proprietary software companies and from unions has kept the open-source movement from taking off.

The debate between open-source and proprietary software advocates has existed since the early days of computing. “In the beginning of computing, you always shipped the code with the software,” said Danese Cooper, director of open-source programs at Sun Microsystems.

This practice changed when individual programmers found they could secure their employment by writing code that was difficult to understand, Cooper said—and companies realized consumers would have to return to them for updates and fixes if the software were proprietary.

Microsoft took its position early, when a young Bill Gates wrote the now-famous “Open Letter to Hobbyists,” in which he decried the practice of sharing purchased software. Although Microsoft—which did not respond to requests for an interview—is far from the only proprietary software vendor that schools deal with, its size makes it a lightning rod for the debate.

Despite its relative obscurity compared with more widely used proprietary solutions, open-source software is slowly emerging as a grassroots movement in K-12 education. One such success story is Haywood County Schools in North Carolina, which constructed a computer lab using computers with old 386 and 486 processors running Linux.

The open-source lab cost less than $5,000, compared with Szulik’s estimate of $40,000 for a comparable lab of computers running on proprietary software.

But open-source advocates are fighting an uphill battle against perceptions—especially in schools, which often are conservative in their approach to technology.

The need to learn a new software package or operating system—often with spotty or nonexistent support—is one of the factors that holds back adoption of open-source products.

“There is an initial pain point to learn it,” said Sun’s Cooper, who acknowledges that programs written by the open-source community often are written with other aficionados in mind and skirt the needs of novice users.

Proprietary software vendors have a stake in ensuring that students learn on their software—and develop a brand loyalty in the process. This has not been lost on supporters of the open-source movement.

“Get them early, train them to love you, and when they grow up, they’ll work on your stuff,” said Cooper.

Links:

Red Hat
http://www.redhat.com

Sun Microsystems
http://www.sun.com

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