Recently, I had a bit of a run-in with my daughter’s high school. She was undergoing an eSchool class over the summer called “Computer Applications,” and it turns out the class only actually “covered” Office Suites, namely Microsoft Office. Now in our household we do not own a copy of Microsoft Office. Instead, we use OpenOffice and have never had an issue – that is, until now.

The setup

Before my daughter started in on her eSchool, I set up OpenOffice to save in all Microsoft Office defaults. I knew this way she wouldn’t have any problem submitting her work. My presumption was correct…at first. But there was a wrench inadvertently thrown in the works. This wrench came when my daughter was discovered stretching the truth about her assignments. She said she had completed them but they weren’t accepted. She said she HAD to have Microsoft Office. Knowing what the assignments were, I decided to call the instructor of the class. It turns out there were a number of interesting issues going on. First and foremost the instructor was only able to teach Microsoft Office because (1) that is what she had and (2) that is what she knew. This, of course, led me to a question that I had to share.

Why are schools in the States not adopting open source software? It’s happening all around the globe. Schools, universities, businesses, corporations, governments are all adopting open source software. So why can’t the U.S.?

Adoption = savings, freedom, updates

Here in Kentucky the public schools are seriously strapped for cash – to the point that arts, humanities, and teachers (a precious commodity) are being dropped to save money. I have a suggestion for the public school systems around the country – adopt open source software and you will save a lot of money. Not only will you save a lot of money, you will also be able to keep all of your software up to date.

While I was looking into this eSchool class for my daughter, I discovered that the class supported Microsoft Office 97-2003. However, all the instruction for the class (including screen shots) used Office ’97. So any student using the latest version of Office was going to have trouble figuring out what they were doing. Imagine someone unfamiliar with the various interface metaphors having to figure out how to do something from an outdated manual! Or what about a student practicing for an exam using Office 2010 only to go to take the final exam on Office 97?

This would not be the case if the schools adopted open source software. No longer would schools be using out of date and unsupported operating systems (I know schools and institutions still using Window 98 because they can’t afford to upgrade). Every school would have the latest-and-greatest software and the students would be somewhat closer to the cutting edge.

No longer a given truth

I’ve had many a discussion with people about this in various sectors of the professional world. Nearly every person I spoke with agrees with what I assumed to be a truth: At one point teaching school-age kids Microsoft, and only Microsoft, software was a safe bet. But things have changed. No longer is it safe to assume that every business uses MS software. Although most businesses are still sticking with one form of Windows or another, many of those same businesses are adopting OpenOffice, Firefox, and more as their software of choice. And thankfully for the students (and users of all ages and sorts), OpenOffice has done a great job of creating an interface that anyone used to MS Office will be comfortable with. So the preconceived notion that schools HAVE to teach Microsoft Office is no longer a given.

What about the private schools?

I say “public” because the private schools aren’t having such an issue. Here in Louisville, KY there are a number of outstanding private schools. I have spoken with various IT department representatives and was shocked to find out that some of these rather costly private schools (one private school has a yearly tuition of $17,500 – that’s a HIGH SCHOOL, people) have already adopted open source software. And these wealthier schools aren’t just adopting OpenOffice. No, some of them are even encouraging the use of Linux!

What about other software?

I recently did a “10 Things…” article, “10 Linux (open source) applications that are perfect for educational environments.” While writing this article I discovered a vast amount of open source software for education, ranging from tools to help students in the classroom all the way to tools for managing an entire school. I was amazed at what I found. And all of it open source. A school can effectively be run seamlessly and not pay a single penny for software.

Where is the downside to that?

If adopting open source software would allow schools to save thousands upon thousands of dollars per year (per school) I have to ask, again:

Why are schools across the country not migrating to open source software so they can focus the dollars spent on software in such a way to further the education of our children?

Educational institutions are supposed to be a pillar of learning and intellegent decisions. But it seems, as far as software is concerned, our educational system is consistently making some farily unintelligent choices.