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Lowering education’s cost through free or open source tech

Free or open source software is based on the principles of freedom and cost.

A few years back, one of my classmates from a graduate course had a complaint. She told me that her school bought an expensive technology system, which included tablets and interactive whiteboards, to help improve the school’s technological environment. In her opinion the purchase of this high-priced equipment was not really necessary. She believed that instead of buying such expensive technology, her school should have investigated alternatives that are inexpensive or free, and require only minimal training.

In today’s economy, schools are looking for innovative ways of serving the public by using lower-cost resources while not compromising on quality and service. Many schools do incorporate innovative methods to integrate technology in the classroom.

However, when it comes to technology infrastructure, schools are still vulnerable to commercial applications that are expensive and difficult to maintain. With the use of free or open source technologies, such as free or open source software, schools could reduce the cost of technology infrastructure. These tools could provide the same functionality of commercial software at a fraction of the cost.

(Next page: What are some common free or open source software applications?)Origins of free or open source software

Free or open source software is based on the principles of freedom and cost. Many of these applications were conceived in order to break free from the difficulty of repairing technical errors of propriety applications and the expensive licensing fees on large scale implementations. With its origins in the Free Software movement founded by Richard Stallman and the Open Source Initiative, this concept has expanded beyond the availability of source code to include the freedom to run, modify, and distribute copies of a program.

To clarify the technology, below are some examples of free or open source software applications that are commonly used by public and private organizations:

  • Linux. Linux is an operating system developed by Linus Torvalds in 1991. It is a modification of the UNIX operating system and is typically used for managing computer servers. But Torvalds modified it to be usable for managing desktop systems. While he was developing the system, he shared its codes in order for other developers to modify and distribute. As a result, the system evolved into several variants such as Ubuntu, Debian, and Fedora operating systems. All of these are free to use and free to redistribute. Presently, Ubuntu is the most popular Linux variant that is being used by educational institutions.
  • OpenOffice.Org. OpenOffice.Org is a software suite similar to Microsoft Office. Many organizations and public institutions that cannot purchase large scale Microsoft Office licenses choose this software suite to accomplish daily office processing tasks.
  • Moodle. Moodle is a free and open source online learning management system. Similar to Blackboard, Moodle performs as a tool for managing classroom based tasks such as quizzes, distribution of activities, and online discussions. Some schools and higher education institutions that do not have enough money for commercial learning management systems opt for this application.

Benefits of free or open source software

Experts say that the average school district can realize substantial savings by switching to free or open source software alternatives. For example, free or open source software operating systems such as Ubuntu can perform functions similar to those of Microsoft Windows at a fraction of the cost. It comes bundled with an office suite, a web browser, and other productivity programs that would fit the daily needs of the institution. At the same time, administrators, teachers, staffs, and students could also install the software on their own personal machines.

Schools decide for their students what technology they should use to successfully accomplish school related activities that require computers (Pfaffman, 2008). Because free or open source software can be distributed freely, schools could provide the same software packages to students. This assures an equal opportunity for students to use the same software from school to home.

Students can develop solid decision-making skills in choosing technology with the use of free or open source software applications. Teaching concepts and giving activities while using FOSS applications will broaden students’ range of decisions on choosing or buying software. By refining that skill, they will be free from dependency on commercial software that is often not within their financial reach. Also, knowing how to use alternative FOSS applications will discourage students from pirating programs and violating propriety licenses (Pfaffman, 2008).

(Next page: What does research say?)Research on implementing free or open source software

In 2011 a study was conducted on the implementation of free or open source software in a school setting by Paul McKimmy of the University of Hawaii-Monoa. It was supported by the Mathematics and Culture in Micronesia: Integrating Societal Experiences Project (MACIMISE). The participants were math teachers and their K-12 students. They were provided with laptops loaded with Ubuntu Linux as the operating system. Other free or open source software was also installed, such as Open, Firefox, and a variety of mathematical-oriented software (PSPP, Freemind and Kig).

During the course of six months of using the laptop, a survey on user experience was given to the participants using a 7-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (Extremely Dissatisfied) to 7 (Extremely Satisfied). The survey showed that respondents reported 60 percent positive experiences, 20 percent were neutral, and 20 percent reported negative experiences. It was found that their positive experiences centered on the wide range of available free software, ease of peripheral device setup, computing speed, and available features of the computers. Their negative reflections centered on the incompatibility of Windows or OSX software, difficulty with some peripheral devices, and lack of experienced technical support. The respondents were generally positive about recommending Ubuntu Linux to family and friends or to schools (McKimmy, 2012).


Free or Open Source Software applications are free–free to redistribute and free to modify. The current financial threats to education could push schools to investigate the possibilities of implementing the technology. Findings suggest that implementing FOSS technologies alleviates the cost and the unequal access to technology. The nonrestrictive licenses encourage teachers to share their FOSS lesson packages or materials with their colleagues, and with the teaching community to further modify and improve. Being an active learner of free or open source software could improve decision making skills on choosing software. Free or open source software could free schools and students from a heavy dependency on commercial software.

However, many schools are still not aware of the free technologies they can use as an alternative to their commercial infrastructure. Many free tools have been developed, but are failing to reach their audience. Especially in public education, data-driven research on the effectiveness of FOSS is needed before schools will widely adopt the technology. free or open source software evangelists and organizations should disseminate more information on what they can offer.

Arthur Beltran is currently pursuing an Ed.D in Curriculum and Instruction, specializing in Instructional Technology, at the University of Houston. His research focus is on technological applications and systems that enrich classroom instruction and school administration. He is a former educational technology college instructor of and a former high school computer education teacher at the University of Santo Tomas, Manila, Philippines.


McKimmy, P. (2012). Free(dom) Software in the Pacific: Student Experiences with
Ubuntu Linux. In T. Amiel & B. Wilson (Eds.), Proceedings of World Conference on
Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2012 (pp. 216-222).
Chesapeake, VA: AACE.

Pfaffman, J. (2008). Transforming High School Classrooms with Free/Open Source
Software: “It’s Time for an Open Source Software Revolution.” High School Journal,
91(3), 25–31.

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