Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A Great K-12 Free Software Case Study

Kamloops school district gets an education in free software:

The Kamloops/Thompson School District in British Columbia, Canada, is a free software success story. Gregg Ferrie, manager of information technology for the district, believes its infrastructure may be "the largest Linux on-the-desktop implementation in Western Canada" in public education. According to Ferrie, hardly a week goes by without another of British Columbia's more than 60 school districts consulting Kamloops. Currently, five other districts are considering or planning to implement the Kamloops district's custom-built thin client solution, and the department of education at the University of British Columbia is also investigating the possibility.

Kamloops' success did not come overnight. It represents a culmination of almost a decade of effort that includes resistance from both instructors and unionized technical staff. Ferrie's account of how he and his small team of system analysts managed to introduce free software to the district provides a case study of the challenges that others might face in making similar efforts...

However, resistance among educators crumbled with the emergence of an advocate of the new system. In 2005, Dean Coder, a principal from the Prince George district with whom Ferrie had corresponded, transferred to the Kamloops district because he wanted to become involved in its transition to free software. Assigned to Barriere secondary school, Coder decided to convert all 110 computers at the school over to the thin client system. Systems analyst Dean Montgomery began work on a second-generation system, using state-of-the-art equipment.

By this point, applications such as OpenOffice.org and Scribus had evolved to the point that teachers were "awestruck" by the new pilot system. However, what really convinced teachers that the change was worthwhile, Ferrie says, was Coder's advocacy. "He put his own reputation on the line and said to the staff, 'I'm going to be there for you.'" A young principal at the district's largest school soon requested the new system, and several others quickly followed. Now, Ferrie says, "we're struggling to implement it at the rest of our secondaries." In the end, an advocate who was both an educator and an administrator, he maintains, made all the difference in getting the system accepted....

However, perhaps the greatest benefit of switching to free software is that the reliability of the new system frees up technical staff to do more than routine support. Where the district once paid 10 technicians to keep the district's computers running, many of those can now be freed for other duties. Since implementing the second-generation system at Barriere Secondary, the district has been able to create a new help desk position to work directly with teachers so that they can make better use of applications. Recently, too, the district has improved the new position of technology coordinator to offer teachers hardware support.

That last one frequently comes up when you talk to people who have implemented a transition to Linux. Going from spending one's time putting out technical fires to supporting learning. It doesn't show up in the TCO calculations, and it seems so audacious it is hard to assert in your advocacy. But it definitely happens.

1 comment:

gferrie said...

Thanks for posting this Tom. Our implementation has been successful and we continue to forge ahead. As you point out our real intent is to stop fixing and maintaining broken stuff and put the emphasis on helping teachers teacher. I think this will have a much greater impact on the students.