Open Source Software in Education Conference 2003

Danbury Park On April 4th 2003 I attended the Open Source Software in Education Conference and thought I would review it here. These thoughts, opinions and recollections are my own, so I apologise if anyone feels they have been misrepresented here. You can always mail me and complain! The conference took place at the Danbury Park Conference Centre, a quiet and relaxed site owned by APU.


Start and Introduction. The conference was opened with a short introduction by James Spedding of mPowerNet, the Conference Co-ordinator. We were then welcomed to the site and conference by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University.

Open Source, an introduction – Why is it different? History, Philosophy and Community.
Roger Whittaker of SuSE Linux and Dave Jenkins of RedHat Linux.Rather than being an introduction to OSS, this presentation should have been billed as an introduction to Linux. GNU wasn’t mentioned, apart from in the quote from Linus’ 1991 newsgroup posting. Other OS operating systems or OS projects weren’t mentioned either. That said, Roger and Dave were entertaining speakers and complimented each other well. Roger’s crisp English accent and Dave’s laid-back American one meant that you never found your mind wandering as can happen with a solitary speaker. Whilst Roger focussed on the genesis of Linux and Dave spoke about the benefits of the OS model in software development, they both volunteered comments at various points whilst the other was speaking. In fact, Dave continued to contribute after his talk had finished, and chipped in on a number of other people’s talks too!
Summary: Although well-presented and entertaining, this talk signalled the Linux-centric focus of the day.

The Challenges of e-Learning: why Open Source matters.
Diana Laurillard, Head of E-learning at the DfES.Diana started what was to be a trend in the day, by not getting her laptop to work easily with the digital projector. As she was using Windows 2000, this inevitably drew chuckles from the audience. (Such chuckles were not heard when later Linux-based laptop users experienced similar problems, though.) This presentation centred on the movement towards OS and open standards in Education within the DfES. Diana also discussed types of on-line learning tools that the DfES are trying to encourage. Diana herself spoke positively about OSS and the e-GIF standards were praised from the floor. However, she did come in for criticism from some delegates. This centred around the inability to access many Government sites without using Internet Explorer and the placement of many Microsoft-funded advisers within the Office of the E-envoy. Opinion from the floor seemed to be that “if the DfES wants to encourage the use of OSS and open standards it needs to practise what it preaches.” It was a shame that Diana’s positive messages about the acceptance of OSS in the DfES were over-shadowed by critiscms of technical points outside of her control, albeit totally valid ones. Clearly unable to rebutt the points being made, Diana resorted to replying that things “were being looked at” in response to most questions, until the Conference Co-ordinator intervened, closed the session and basically ticked delegates off for being rude.Summary: Diana’s talk would probably have been more suited to a teaching conference, or as a session running in parrallel with others. Undoubtedly of use and interest to some, and a source of bemusement to others, a choice of whether or not to attend would probably have made for a more positive session.

After coffee, the conference split up into three parrallel streams. I will only write about the sessions that I attended.Chris Dawkins Whole School OS Systems.
Chris Dawkins, Felsted School.Chris’ talk was more technically focussed than preceeding ones. In fact, all three “streamed” sessions I attended were more likely to be of interest to techies than the first two presentations. Unfortunately Chris had less time than planned to give his talk. However, the handout that he had produced covered the points that he didn’t have time to include. Chris represents one of the schools who has “already done it” – achieved widespread OS implementation – and his talk focussed on the clever things he could do with his systems and servers. Unfortunately this was rather to the detriment of the focus on OSS as most of the features he showed us could have been developed using closed source software. This talk was the one place where FreeBSD got a mention, albeit to be summed up with the words, “for present purposes, it’s a version of Linux.” Chris’ servers are all FreeBSD based and have been since the mid 90’s.Chris uses very old PC hardware as terminal clients running OSS. Very few machines in the school run at more than 200Mhz, with the labs being full of 486s and P60s. The terminal server runs KDE and allows pupils easy access to e-mail, web-browsing and office applications. Up until a couple of months ago Chris would have been able to say that he didn’t have a single Windows machine in his labs, although the demands of students wanting to print off work developed in their own time on their Windows laptops meant he has had to introduce a single Windows machine. Chris’ truly impressive acheivement is the range of services that he offers his pupils from off-site. Not only is there an external website, but the intranet is also available externally. Most features on the intranet require authentication prior to access. Students can access their files stored on the school servers from home using ‘scp’ or WinSCP. This allows students to work at home before copying files back to the school for safe keeping, solving potential problems with corrupted floppy disks. Students have shell access over telnet, which was a bit surprising given that SSH is already running and is preferable to the unencrypted telnet. Pine is the provided e-mail client, but students can chose to redirect their mail to an alternative e-mail account in the holidays. The services are clearly popular – over 200 different people had logged in over the last 4 days to check their mail.
Summary: Chris’ presentation was a nice demonstration of what can be achieved with enough time and effort. The school clearly has a head start – having offered 24/7 network services since 1983. The problem for many schools is how to achieve the level of OS implementation that Chris has, rather than knowing what can be done with it once implemented. It would have been helpful if Chris had explained more about the problems he faced developing and implementing his systems and how he used OSS to tackle them, rather than the tricks his system can perform.

Ian Lynch The arguments for Open Source Implementation
Ian Lynch, The Learning Machine.Ian was another speaker who had problems with his laptop and projector, which rather overshadowed his talk. Although this talk didn’t focus on technical details, Ian is aware of the practical problems facing OSS implementation in schools and suggested ways of overcoming some of these problems. He was also pretty scathing about the licensing costs for some education suites, with a single school license costing less than the development costs for the package.One of Ian’s suggestions to start introducing OSS to schools was to move to a terminal session running on Windows 95. That way OSS can be introduced to the school, and used for the most common activities whilst the Windows 95 environment can be used to run the educational software that only runs under Win32. As more educational software becomes available under OS licenses, the Windows platform should see less and less use until the time will come when it can be removed entirely. Ian also talked about the difficulties in getting OSS accepted by sceptics. If a piece of OSS malfunctions, the reaction is “well, this open source stuff can’t be as good as Windows.” If Windows software has problems, people seem to accept “that’s just the way it is.” The largest problem that OSS faces is the assumption of society that something that is free is of no value.Ian finished his talk by handing out CDs of OpenOffice 1.0.2 which were eagerly snatched up by those desperate for their first (and only) freebie of the day.
Summary: Ian’s talk was informative, but really did suffer from his technical problems. He talked entertainingly and helpfully but it is difficult to recall many points without a visual aid to associate with it.

Linux Terminal Server Project
Phil Driscol, Dial Solutions.Phil gave his presentation with Mike Flahive from Corpus Christi Catholic College. Also present was Joseph Garfoot, one of the College’s IT staff.Phil is a straight-forward techie type, who clearly has skill and drive in buckets. He must, to have deployed the terminal server system in Corpus Christi with such good results. The first thing that Mike admitted was that he was relatively new to OSS and confessed to not being technical. It was reassuring that Mike, as Head of IT, worked closely with both Phil and Joe and supported the “revolutionary” work in the school. The presentation was split between Phil and Mike and they were refreshingly honest about what they did right and wrong when implementing OSS.Phil demonstrated the functionality of the project by having a laptop running the terminal server on one side of the room and a system he described as “crap” on the other, running as a client. It took this low Pentium with 32MB RAM just 20 seconds from power on to start X and show the login prompt. No data is stored locally, with the IP address, kernel and other software being provided over the network. The terminal server and client functioned perfectly throughout the demonstration, neatly illustrating the performance across the network.Corpus Christi uses IceWM, skinned to look like Windows XP. Phil says that many students don’t even notice the difference as they can surf the web, use office applications and check their e-mail without coming across any non-Windows like behaviour. The main advantage of using terminal clients in a school is the ability to re-use systems which would otherwise end-up in a landfill. More powerful systems can then be used for multimedia applications which function better when run locally. The system at Corpus Christi is set up so that configuration files are refreshed every time an application is started. If something is tampered with it only lasts for as long as that application is running. Running a terminal server means that applications need only to be upgraded in one place, with all clients running the new version the next time the application is started – a lighter workload for the IT staff, leaving more time for other projects!Mike Flahive spoke about the political aspects of encouraging OSS in the school. He said that the pupils either didn’t mind or didn’t notice what operating system they used, but that many staff were reluctant if they thought they had to learn to use something new. The biggest fear was being shown-up in front of their class if something went wrong. Systems deployed in the school needed to be rock solid to allow teaching to continue according to lesson plans. Questions from the floor highlighted the different perspectives of the delegates, some not understanding that lessons can’t be stopped to debug a problem with OpenOffice!Summary: A real highlight. A practical and successful use of OSS presented in a relaxed and genuinely informative way.

Then there was lunch! Stephen Heppell Vision and the future…
Prof. Stephen Heppell, Ultralab.The first talk after lunch was from Prof. Stephen Heppell who said he’d try very hard to keep us awake. Stephen’s Mac was running OS X, based around an OS kernel, and so was acceptable to the OSS fans in the audience. As it happened, keeping the audience awake didn’t turn out to be a problem. Stephen focussed on the developing ways in which OSS can be used to help cross-curricular learning, regardless of the abilities of the students. Particularly impressive were the results from studies with students on long-term exclusions, many of whom were able to develop collaborative skills working with OSS.Stephen’s advice to the conference was to be philosophical when dicussing OSS, rather than evangelical. Discussions of technical merits will impress only the technically-minded, TCO assessments can be used to prove anything and the tendency of some people to be rabidly fanatical about OSS actually puts potential converts off. Careful, measured discussions of the beneficial effects of using OSS in teaching will eventually win over doubters.Summary: Stephen’s talk was probably most beneficial for people with teaching experience looking to use OS resources to develop new learning patterns, but it was presented in such an entertaining way that everyone was able to understand the educational objectives of the various projects discussed.

Q & A Session
Most of the speakers from throughout the day.The panel for this event was made up of Roger Whittaker, Dave Jenkins, Chris Dawkins, Stephen Heppell, Ian Lynch, Eddie Bleasdale and Mike Banahan. The Q & A session covered topics raised from the floor. Questions covered the inevitability of OSS becoming the dominant development model, the perception that the Government fails to consider OS solutions when tendering work, the drive from the EU to invest in OSS, the “just do it” approach to Linux installation, the perception of OS enthusiasts as “heretics” or “renegades” by certain bodies within the education sector and the restrictive practices placed on some schools by their LEAs.The end of this session descended into a discussion about what should happen next. Apart from resolving to meet again, the conference had no other way of communicating with each other. Mailings lists, websites and Wiki’s were discussed, with MJ Ray from The Association For Free Software volunteering hosting for whatever was decided. The Wiki resulting from the discussion can be found at schoolforge.org.uk.

comproom1.png The Computer Lab. Available throughout the day was a computer suite containing 20 PCs running Linux. Some of these were running as terminal clients, and some with locally installed Linux distributions. These machines grew more popular as the afternoon went on, allowing delegates to demonstrate tips and tricks to each other.comproom2.pngThe Delegates. There was a range of interests and backgrounds amongst the delegates. Mostly male, yes, but not exclusively. Mostly “Network Manager” types but not exclusively. There were teachers, IT Technicians, LEA staff members and, of course, a couple of “true geeks”. Generally, delegates had had experience with OSS prior to the conference and the Q & A session revealed just how passionate some were about it.Areas for Improvement. That the conference was made up of such a mixture of delegates showed that interest in OSS exists in all corners of the education sector. However, this mixture highlighted the conference’s weakness – a lack of provision for the diverse fields of interest. For example, the talk from Diana Laurillard from the DfES was not very relevent to “techies” as it discussed developing pedagogical processes using OSS. However, it clearly interested those more directly involved with teaching. Some items in the schedule were aimed at those who had never heard of OSS software, GNU or Linux. Whilst this was helpful for some, most had heard it all before. The introductory talk would not have revealed anything new to most delegates, and the technical focus of some of the sessions would have been of less interest to “non-techies”. I would have liked to have seen more events running in parrallel “streams”. One stream could focus on the technicalities of OSS implementation, the second, case studies, the third, teaching approaches and a fourth, more introductory topics. This would allow delegates to pick and choose which type of presentation they wanted to attend, crossing over streams where they wanted and still allowing delegates to mingle and share ideas at coffee breaks and lunch.Secondly, what the conference lacked was a theme. “OSS in Education” is too broad a field to be covered in one day and inevitably some areas remained undiscussed. Non-Linux OS platforms were hardly mentioned, as were OSS projects that run on Windows. Using OSS to replace expensive office and media packages is an excellent way of saving money where migrating to an OS operating system isn’t possible. Perhaps the conference will nominate a theme for future years, allowing a specific area of OS implementation to be discussed from different perspectives. This year’s focus could really have been “Linux, OpenOffice, and getting them into your school,” for example.

Conclusion. Whilst I hope that the conference organisers will consider the areas for improvement mentioned above, I believe the conference was a success. I am glad I attended Phil Driscol’s session on the Linux terminal server at his school and Prof. Stephen Heppell’s talk on the future (and past!) of OSS and its development as a learning tool. More important overall was the reassuring feeling of being surrounded by other OSS fans. Whether a source of inspiration, advice, understanding or sympathy, the Delegates were the conference’s strongest asset.

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