In 2003 the secondary school of Weiz, Austria, started the development of an open source operating system. The overall objective has been to develop a system that was easy to maintain, sustainable in the future, and free of licensing costs: the so called desktop4eduation. Although open source software is not extensively used in Austrian schools yet, it is becoming more and more important, as the government tries to promote free software over proprietary solutions increasingly. Today the desktop4education project is being frequently used as a reference case by the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, Arts and Culture and as such promoted by them throughout Austria.
The Austrian government under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, Arts and Culture (BMUKK) in 2004 commissioned a study to the Donau University in Krems, Austria, with the task to investigate the state of open source software solutions for the educational sector. The central outcome of the University's study was that there were no open source solutions mature enough at that time to replace proprietary solutions entirely, says Gerhard Schwed, eLearning coordinator at the Donau University, who took an active role in this study. However, it was highly recommended that students should gain experience in at least one other software environment than Microsoft Windows, in order to be more flexible and to have a broader knowledge of software solutions.
The study that has been commissioned in 2004 to the Donau University was eventually published in 2006, recommending 10 software solution to the Ministry that perhaps could build the base for an open source software strategy for the Austrian public school sector. Since by the time of 2006 the desktop4education project had become one of the more experienced projects to be named within this study, the Ministry decided to use the Weiz school and their desktop4education project as a reference case to be promoted to Austrian public schools on efficient implementation on open source software solutions.
Description of target users and groups
The projet's aim isÂ Â to bring free software environments into the schools of Austria. Although it is mostly focused on the students of the secondary school of Weiz, Austria, and in similar form at the secondary school Rechte Kremszeile, the project leaders hope to see a deployment of the software in as many schools as possible. The students at the schools can work with the software without much training, and it can be adapted to the students school level and/or technical understanding. Â Â
Description of the way to implement the initiative
In 2003 Helmuth Peer, a math teacher at the Weiz secondary school (Bundesgymnasium) decided that it was time to migrate the schools' IT system to a new platform, that would be easy to set up, easy to maintain, and easy to connect via a network. Together with his students, which he involved in the project, he searched for a solution that would allow for customization and correspond to the needs of each school level concerned. He found that the Linux distribution openSUSE 11.1 would qualify as a suitable solution, and building a system on this basis seemed sustainable in the future and the right choice to him. The team therefore started developing what was to be called the 'desktop4education'Â for the school's workstations and a server version they named 'server4education'.Â
Desktop4Education is build on the GNU/Linux distribution openSUSE11.1. The solution is very customizable and allows for a good integration in other IT systems. The school is mainly using the software on its in-house computers, but all students are given a live booting USB flash drive version, from which they can boot into the desktop4education environment from anywhere. Â
In additional to the productivity suits OpenOffice and Sun StarOffice and other software that comes with most Linux distributions, the project website lists the following applications with particular importance for the educational sector:
â€¢ Tuxmath â€“ math application
â€¢ Tuxpaint â€“ basic paint programme
â€¢ Tuxtype â€“ 10-finger typing software
â€¢ G-Compris â€“ learning software for pupils age 2 â€“ 10
â€¢ Qcad â€“ 2D Construction programme
â€¢ Geogebra â€“ dynamic math software
â€¢ WX Maxima â€“ GUI for the computer algebra system (CAS)
â€¢ Qucs â€“ integrated circuit simulator
â€¢ Dr. Geo â€“ interactive geometry software
â€¢ KDE-Edu â€“ free educational software based on KDE technologiesTechnology choice: Open source software
Track record of sharing
Although the software has been sent to basically all schools in Austria through the governments initiative to share the solution, it is difficult to give clear estimations on how often it is being used throughout the country. The Weiz secondary school is keen on supporting any school that deploys desktop4education, as they see the benefits for all schools. As such, the software is freely available from the project website (www.d4e.at), and the team offers help for software migrations if this is needed.Â
The careful planning of the project implementation, not only from a software perspective, but also from a social and change management perspective, is therefore very important. Only by delivering a product that actually meets all the requirements and compares well to proprietary solutions allowed the team to gain acceptance for their project from the various stakeholders involved, and to remove doubts and resistance.
It is also important to use comprehensive software, which not only functions on a Linux system, but on many other systems as well. Using applications such as Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird, or OpenOffice makes this very easy, as the students do not only use them at school, but also at home irrespective of the operating system that is used there.
For projects such as thedesktop4eduation an important criteria to succeed on a larger scale appears to be 'public awareness' of open source software products and to not see those as inferior solutions to proprietary ones. The fact that many, if not most Austrian schools are still reluctant to use open source software illustrates this very well. Perhaps one suitable way to change such public perceptions would be a closer cooperation amongst similar projects to gain on visibility. In anycase, just sending out CDs and DVDs appears to be too little, or the wrong type of promotion, seeing that it has not been very fruitful so far. While financial incentives may be effective to some level, it might be equally important to have an increasing number of workshops, trainings and other events on a regional and national level, that would allow to showcase the products and to overcome misconceptions.ÂScope: Local (city or municipality), Regional (sub-national)