With the demise of Becta and cancellation of Building Schools for the Future, question marks hang over the future of ICT development. But, argues Paul Haigh, there is an easier, more cost effective option with open source software and tools.
The demise of Building Schools for the Future (BSF) – which addressed ICT infrastructure as well as building stock – left many schools wondering how they are meant to make buildings and ICT fit for the 21st century. But, to me, the loss of the BSF ICT strategy is great news.
It wasn't a sustainable way to work: a massive injection of new kit in one go without the ongoing funds to replace it all again later was wasteful. A school could find itself committing perhaps a million pounds to the project and be stuck with the same technology for the next five years.
Good riddance, I say, because you can revolutionise your ICT strategy yourself. Evidence from Becta Excellence Award winning schools like my own shows that normal school funding deployed in a creative way can produce outstanding schools with ICT systems which are superbly fit for their purpose.
If a school was prepared to pay around £140 per pupil per year for the BSF managed ICT service – a typical cost from school funds for the ongoing managed service – why not dedicate a similar amount to your own solution? In fact you can do it for far less.
Some aspects of good ICT are not as expensive as you may think and retaining control of your spending is far better these days than committing to five years of heavy payments.
Open source software is a solution that was waiting for this problem. Some of the best schools make use of the open source software which can be downloaded from the internet for free with no contracts.
Technical staff can access the coding to adapt any open source tool to your specifific needs, which is a creative role many find very rewarding.
A popular example is the virtual learning environment (VLE) Moodle. It is the most commonly used VLE in the world and has been taken up by large colleges and universities as well as schools.
My own, Notre Dame High School in Sheffield, has set up a 'virtual school' where each stakeholder, including staff, students and parents, can log into a personalised online account.
Our system blends traditional, paid for, proprietary software like Microsoft Windows, its Office Suite, the management information system (MIS) Facility from Serco, the parental communication tool Keep Kids Safe and a range of open source tools. They include Moodle, the Joomla tool for authoring websites and the Mahara e-portfolio which we are increasingly using for tracking personal, learning and thinking skills (PLTS) and UCAS statements.
We give web access to folders on the network such as 'My Documents' and shared folders with open source code from Gleam Tech. It presents the user with a single web portal where they can work online just as they do in school from anywhere in the world using a range of devices such as mobile phones and iPods.
Parents have access to full real-time reporting on the system as well as a direct link to communicate with the school electronically.
Is open source genuinely free? Well, you need a server to run Moodle, for example, plus technical staff to support it and internet connectivity to publish it, but don't you already have all of this? Are you making the best use of the technical infrastructure and staff expertise you have?
If you are currently hosting a rather dry and under-exploited school website why not turbo-charge it into a dynamic manifestation of the live school community with Joomla? With such tools you can save yourself thousands of pounds on software licences and open the door to the best of 21st century learning.
Some schools have gone further and set up their networks with open source operating systems and office applications. Open Office is a suite of word-processor, spreadsheet, database and presentation tools that many users will find very familiar but for which you do not have to pay Microsoft. Similarly, Ubuntu is an alternative to Windows as a computer's operating system.
The students you teach may be ahead of the game here. The Audacity tool turns a computer into a recording studio and is loved by many amateur musicians but it's also great for making revision podcasts your students will appreciate.
Firefox is a very popular free, open source alternative to Internet Explorer which is not, as some think, the only way of getting online. Many users find Firefox a far more rewarding experience when browsing the web.
Sources of support
The beauty of open source is that the support is everywhere. It's a community and for schools the hub of this support is the Open Source Schools website at http://opensourceschools.org.uk/<http://opensourceschools.org.uk/> I invite you to join our community today.
Anyone can download open source tools but anyone can also make alterations and additions. People then freely share this new knowledge back to the rest of the community.
It means there is a global army of developers who only have the quality of the tool at heart. The tools develop rapidly with improvements available all the time and are tested by more people.
An example of this was the way we needed to link Serco's Facility (our MIS), to our VLE Moodle. Ossett School in Wakefield had cracked this problem and devised a tool that means courses on the Moodle VLE can be assigned to classes on the MIS.
This link between VLE and MIS is essential if e-learning is to take off. We were able to download the tool from the Moodle website, alter it to suit us and then reap the benefits.
School leaders may not want to get involved in the community aspect of sharing the programming code but they will want to join the community of other school leaders who are benefitting from cost savings and teaching and learning benefits. You can register on the Open Source Schools site to get access to forums and invites to events, and to read case studies.
And for access to any of the open source tools mentioned in this article, just Google them.
* Paul Haigh is assistant headteacher at Notre Dame High School, Sheffield and is also a part-time consultant. See http://bit.ly/consultND