Inside NYSCATE: Moodle, GIMP, and other open source in education

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Event report

As an educator, trained Linux systems administrator, and technology director for a K-12 school district, I have been actively involved with NYSCATE (The New York State Association for Computers and Technologies in Education), a non-profit organization that works to lead the transformation of teaching and learning through technology. It’s been 20 years since I attended my first NYSCATE conference, and the conference’s open source presence has taken many different forms. 

Four years ago I partnered with a local technology firm and presented about using Virtual Box and several different versions of Linux including Fedora and Ubuntu. Conference attendees who attended our session got a chance to win a brand new computer equipped with Ubuntu, Virtual Box and other virtualized open source operating systems. Two years ago I presented on “Teaching Digital Citizenship with Free and Open Source Tools.” Both sessions were well received.

Previous conferences presentations have focused on using the K12 Linux Terminal Server project and thin clients in schools. In the previous years, Rochester Institute of Technology had presented on One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) and also MythTV.  A few years ago I met Warren Luebkeman at NYSCATE. Warren owns, Resara, a company that specializes in providing open source solutions to education and the private sector. I have met other vendors too who have promoted open source software solutions as part of their repertoire.

The open source impact

The largest growth of open source in schools has been the adoption of an increasing number of Web 2.0 applications. Most of these are hosted on Linux servers, running Apache and PHP.  While most educators are unaware of this growing trend that does not stop them from using these resources.

Financial constraints which have effected nearly every school have driven educators and those charged with supporting education in the direction of open source. In the recent past K-12 schools and colleges used proprietary learning management solutions. Eager for a cost effective solution and one that can be easily tailored to each entity’s particular needs has caused many teachers and administrators to look at Moodle. Schools that adopt Moodle as an LMS need only provide hosting or contract for it and the necessary staff development for teachers and students. Moodle can be used in school or at home on any of a variety of platforms including Windows, Macintosh, Linux, Android and iPad, iPod and iPhone devices.

With the growing popularity of Moodle, each year has seen NYSCATE members presenting on how they use the open source learning management system. The strength of Moodle is evidenced by the number of vendors on the display floor who found it necessary to compare themselves to Moodle. Also, at this year’s conference I noticed an absence of Blackboard and Angel, who had booths at previous conferences. I wondered if that was due to the increasing penetration of Moodle into the the public school enterprise. Nearly all BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) in New York State now host Moodle servers for their client school districts and a growing number of State University of New York and private colleges in New York do the same.

Open source has become so prevalent in most educational enterprises that it is taken for granted. NYSCATE has its own Twitter account (@nyscate), and most if not all presenters use Twitter. I first became a Twitter user because NYSCATE wanted all its presenters to tweet/advertise their sessions. Twitter is undeniably open source. which is used by many presenters is also open source, as is which is also used by many presenters. I would venture to say that most Web 2.0 applications which are extremely popular in the education space are running on Linux servers with Apache and PHP.

Open tools and software

One of the more interesting sessions that I attended at this year’s conference was presented by Adam Bellow (@adambellow) who demonstrated how some schools are using to produce their school yearbook at great savings to the school districts. Other students including my own regularly use Gimp on the desktop or SumoPaint in the cloud. Both are reasonable replacements for Photoshop., which hosts morning announcements in some schools and other streaming educational content, is yet another example of quality affordable technology made possible by open technology. Even the increasingly popular Google Apps for Education, which now has official New York State Education Department and BOCES support, rides in an open source cloud.

The open source  model is about collaboration and community building, and that is ultimately what education is about. People helping people learn. The growth of educational resources due to the presence of open source software in the educational enterprise has dramatically leveled the playing field, and it will continue to expand as creativity and insight about its use grows.

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Educator, entrepreneur, open source advocate, life long learner, Python teacher. M.A. in Educational Psychology, M.S. Ed. in Educational Leadership, Linux system administrator.


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<cite>The largest growth of open source in schools has been the adoption of an increasing number of Web 2.0 applications. Most of these are hosted on Linux servers, running Apache and PHP. While most educators are unaware of this growing trend that does not stop them from using these resources.</cite>
mhh.. i agree with the first point, but concerning my personal experiences, open source education software (for example moodle) has become more and more famous within the last years, even for teachers or profs. Wonderful trend, I think.
Rainer / <a href="">Starbike</a>

I've noticed the same thing in education lately. As someone who spent more time configuring Slackware 1.2 in college (because... it took a long time!) than I did exploring the ease of Windows 95, I take notice when newer open-source options start gaining momentum.

Although Open Source *is* growing in popularity on the backend, most schools in my area of NY (southern tier) seem to still be purchasing a TON of software and hardware that's very much proprietary. SMART/Promethean products (the Wii-based board never really caught on...), MS Office (why? OpenOffice is free...), iPads/apps (versus Android), etc. Even most of the ebooks that we buy cost just as much as the paper versions... and aren't editable.

One could say "one step at a time", but as these newer proprietary technologies/platforms become more ubiquitous, they're going to hold the adoption of more open-source products back. Honestly, I just updated from Ubuntu to Windows7 myself... because most of what I teach online can't be done easily on Linux. :( But I'm behind the effort 100% and hope to someday use that Slackware knowledge for something other than nostalgia.

Stepping out requires some courage and most people are content to follow the crowd. Just this week the State of Utah Department of Education adopted open educational textbooks, All it takes is one person and some inertia. Glad to hear that you are trying to make a difference. I'm an user. I use it almost everyday and interact with MS Office users who are none the wiser. I still use MS Access because I have found no good open source replacement.
I'm impressed with your Slackware credentials. You must be good at the command line I assume.

Biggest problems everywhere and especially now is "bandwagonitis." Once people and more specifically schools discover how expensive iPads are to outfit and maintain you'll see a return to sanity. IWB's of any stripe are extremely expensive and questionably useful. $2500 for board and projector to do the work of an old overhead projector. Duh! The Johnny Lee "Wii" remote movement was too difficult for most schools to handle. Linux and specifically Ubuntu in the right setting(s) can have a major impact for students/schools who want to teach programming or even dabble in programming. There are pockets of acceptance in different areas of the country for LInux. I have to admit I've been using OS X more in the last two years than I have used Linux but that was an easy transition because Linux/Unix (OS X) are nearly identical at the command line. Also worth noting, Steve Hargadon, stated at ISTE 2011 that students with Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP skills could find work right out of high school. Linux+ and A+ certifications from K-12's and BOCES could open the doors for many young students who are not on the traditional liberal arts college track and it gives them marketable skills. Thanks for sharing your ideas.

I agree with you. India has come out with the world's cheapest tablet - for a whopping $35!!

Yet in my state, there are school districts requiring high school students to shell out $300+ for a laptop. I don't get it. How long before knowledge and awareness about these android tablets in India becomes known here?

Australia is now #1 ranked English-speaking country and #2 ranked globally in terms of digital education (S. Korea is #1). Australia is investing over $2.4 billion into their digital education initiatives and programs. One of them involves providing the digital infrastructure necessary for ALL Australians to benefit from a digital economy. They've got a national plan and focus to their curriculum and to providing a global digital education. It's still piecemeal here and there's no or little concept of the differences between propriety-based digital content and non-profit, commercial-free or open source digital content.

I agree except I keep seeing questions every week posted on the International Society for Teachers in Education (ISTE) LinkIn Group about whether corporations should be allowed to run publicly funded online schools or something equivalent. I also keep seeing little knowledge about open source.

People are used to paying for information - copyright, trademark material dominates. I think people have forgotten about the public domain and what public institutions mean. The country's largest provider of public virtual schools is a private, proprietary-based, commercial enterprise who lobbies to get in.

Cities and towns rely on and do not question paying money for print or digital information and content, even though digital information and content is freely available and accessible with open source today. There's a dissemination issue and intellectual freedom issue at stake.

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