One of the slides in my presentation at TechForum SW 2008 was added in the middle of Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach’s keynote. As she shared the words in quotes above, the question that popped into my head was, how could free, open source software help schools be a better node for our students, teachers, and learners?

The answer is obvious to many and the main obstacles are fear of change, fear of trying something new. The question came back to me as I considered the cover of the November 2008 issue of American School journal.

The front magazine cover features a man writing on a chalkboard, “REFORM SCHOOL” with these words appearing underneath:

Why it’s so hard for us to do what works

I immediately read this as a question, Why is it so hard for us to do what works in education?

It’s a question I ask myself often. Consider that school districts continue to pump money into integrated learning systems, drill-n-practice tutorial software that can be either web-based or installed on computers. School districts go out and buy the best equipment money can buy–and these machines come standard with Windows OS, MS Office, and a variety of antivirus, anti-malware software–and then proceed to use it for drill-n-kill, even drill-n-kill has shown itself to not be effective over the long-term!

As districts spend millions of dollars on commercial software, you have to wonder why is it that change that works isn’t enacted more. Sajan George’s article, Restructuring the Infrastructure, from the Nov 2008 issue of American School makes this point:

Districts must struggle to improve performance with limited budgets…These districts must show they are maximizing every dollar. They need to do an analysis that follows the money, and, if necessary, overhaul administrative functions to move those funds to classrooms and into the hands of principals and teachers. Even if budget increases are not possible, there are often ways of directing resources to have a greater impact on education.

When one considers that technology access in American urban school districts is far from ubiquitous, that many districts are working with aging computers (someone challenge me on these assertions, I don’t have the data to back them up), as a concerned stakeholder, I want to demand, “Show me the money trail for what is spent on software, recurring software license and support agreements. Now, tell me, why are we spending taxpayer dollars on certain software when there is free, open source software available? Are educators and students REALLY using all the esoteric features of MS Access or Word that we have to install it on EVERY computer?

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