Don Watkins: My open source story

An open source tool for every classroom need

My open source story
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I spent my career in a school system that had a high number of socioeconomically disadvantaged youth. These young people were talented, but often lacked the resources to afford both computers and software to use at home and to share their work with teachers when they came to school.

Students would often come to school with an assortment of file formats from software that was bundled with computers they or their parents had purchased in local stores. Supporting differing file formats was difficult, and by distributing OpenOffice (and later, LibreOffice) to students and teaching them how to save files in a format that they could share with their teachers was a boon.

Teaching about open source software invited a conversation on licensing, copyright, and intellectual property—a conversation more educational institutions need to have. At one time, there were a number of projects like The Open Disc that provided ISO images with nearly 150 open source software titles that could be used on operating systems other than Linux. I made CDs for students and handed them out freely. I also took these collections to regional staff development gatherings and distributed them to turn-key trainers and teachers who attended.

Our school was looking for a secure web hosting solution, and in that process I discovered that I could install Apache on an aging computer that was in our technology office. Teachers began to use podcasting as a way to flip their classroom instruction, and I was able to recommend Audacity to them.

We used VLC media player on teacher desktops, which allowed them to easily play DVDs with educational content. We used PDFCreator, which allowed teachers to easily create PDFs which could be shared on classroom websites. We wanted to provide remote desktop support for teachers and students and we discovered TightVNC, which fit the bill neatly. At one point we needed to find a cost effective way to protect our email system from spam, and again we found an open source solution that used SpamAssasin, Mimedefang, and ClamAV as part of the equation. We created extra storage and backup solutions for our teachers and staff using Samba on network-attached storage devices.

As our art classes began to use digital images and students and teachers were looking for software that could be used at home and at school, we found GIMP and it became part of our standard image for teacher and student computers. Later we discovered Inkscape and used it to create vector graphics and we shared the program with students.

We were looking for a way to encourage classroom discussions that could happen asynchronously and that is when I looked at PhpBB and later Drupal. I setup a Drupal server that allowed a classroom teacher to discuss a series of novels with his students whether they were on campus or off. Around that time we began to experiment with Moodle in instruction. I used Moodle as part of a course that I taught on digital citizenship. Other teachers began to see how Moodle could be used for classroom instruction. We also used our Moodle server to facilitate book discussions which were part of our staff development program.

I used VirtualBox to teach students how to virtualize operating systems and build their own LAMP stack servers. The best way to learn about software and system administration is building, breaking and rebuilding servers and VirtualBox made that easy for students.

I found that over time there was an open source tool for virtually every educational need we had. Open source software leveled the playing field for our students, giving them access to world class resources.

About the author

Don Watkins - Educator, education technology specialist,  entrepreneur, open source advocate. M.A. in Educational Psychology, MSED in Educational Leadership, Linux system administrator, CCNA, virtualization using Virtual Box. Follow me at @Don_Watkins .