Over the last few years, open source adoption has been growing within India's education system. Five years ago, the South Indian state of Kerala, pioneered open source in schools with its famous IT@Schools project, that now covers three million students from the 5th-10 standards, involves 200,000 teachers across 4071 schools. Since then, other Indian states like Karnataka, Gujarat, Assam, West Bengal and others have made open source a key part of their school education initiatives.
Many schools in India do not have proper premises, blackboards or toilets. In these circumstances, equipping schools with computers seems like a challenge, despite the fact that the Indian Government has decided to spend 6 percent of GDP on education. Proprietary software vendors offer deep discounts for schools and spend close to $20 million on “Train-The-Trainer” programs that enable school teachers to impart computer education to their students. Despite these blandishments, many governments find proprietary software an expensive way of computerizing their schools. For example, a study by the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, found that the Kerala government's usage of OSS saved it Rs 49 crore ($10.2 million).
The growing popularity of OSS in the Indian school system has thrown up its own set of challenges. Many school teachers and administrators are not aware of OSS for schools, while those who are willing to deploy OSS are held back by a lack of training materials and other infrastructure. To address these challenges, a group of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) came together in February to hold a workshop in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan state in India. The core focus of the workshop titled, “Public Software for Social Sector--Principles and Practice,” was how open source software (OSS) could help address the challenges of modernizing India's education system.
The workshop was hosted by Digantar, a Jaipur-based CSO that has been working in the education sector for the last 15 years. Digantar has been able to deliver results equivalent to the best schools, while operating on the budgets of government schools. For this reason, Digantar has attracted wide attention from educationists who are keen on replicating Digantar's success in other parts of India. While the principles of openness, collaboration and sharing that are part of the open source way attracted Digantar to OSS, it was hesitant in taking the first steps because it has no technical expertise in deploying OSS. This is where IT for Change and Knowledge Commons, two CSOs working on OSS in education stepped in, by providing the technical content and also helping Digantar with its plan of migrating from proprietary software to OSS. The workshop was supported by UNESCO; Digital Empowerment Foundation, which works in the complementary area of digital content; and the Linux Users Group, Jaipur, which helped in migrating Digantar's computers to open source. The unifying factor for all these diverse CSOs to work together is a shared belief that OSS is one of the best tools for modernizing the India education system.
The workshop had the following objectives:
1. Creating awareness about OSS amongst people who have not heard of it. This includes the social, political, economic and pedagogic imperatives of OSS and the dangers from proprietary software to society. Most people in the social sector use proprietary software since they have not heard of public software and this workshop aims to bring about awareness on its advantages as well as addressing challenges, both real and mythical in its adoption.
2. Addressing the perceptions/issues amongst people who are aware of OSS to help them commit in principle to OSS over proprietary software. This would cover both the principles (why OSS) as well as practical issues of adoption/migration (migration paths, options, case studies of migration, FAQs etc). This helps people/institutions to move from 'awareness' to 'commitment'. Given the compelling advantages of OSS, invariably awareness leads to commitment over time.
3. Helping people/institutions who are convinced about the imperative for public institutions to adopt OSS, to migrate to OSS. There would be technical support teams at the workshop, who would help migrate participants computers and notebooks to public software applications, wholly or partly.
The workshop was attended by around 25 people from educational institutions and government. This workshop is one of the first of a series of workshops being organized throughout India on OSS in education. The long-term vision for the CSOs organizing the workshop is the fact that public institutions like schools exist to promote the public good. In keeping with such basic principles, the technology choice of these institutions needs to clearly favor the collaborative, community-driven model of OSS over proprietary software.
As someone interested in seeing OSS become popular in education, I hope to see more such collaborations among CSOs in India. Given the vast geography and the huge student population of India, outreach is a major challenge. The only way to build a scalable outreach program is through sharing and replicating training materials, software and best practices among CSOs working on in the education sector. OSS and open content licenses like Creative Commons offer the best possible framework for such sharing. It is also important that CSOs like IT For Change and Knowledge Commons that have the technical capabilities work in partnership with CSOs like Digantar that have deep expertise and credibility within the education sector, to make OSS deployments in education successful. The Jaipur workshop hosted by Digantar was a great start, but, (to paraphrase the poet, Robert Frost), “there are miles to go before we sleep.”