Ministry says no as school opts for free software

School aims for zero Microsoft licences, but wants to keep budget savings

Warrington School, in Otago, will not get paid funds allocated for Microsoft licences after moving to open source software, simply because the school was never billed, says the Ministry of Education.

The school is deploying the GNU/Linux operating system, aiming to have free software across the board by 2010, and the complete switch to Linux has been approved by the MoE, says the school’s principal, Nathan Parker.

Six months ago, Parker suggested a portion of the money that would normally be paid to Microsoft for software licences should be paid to the school to support the Linux environment.

“We are saving the government money,” says Parker. “We are saving them 13 [Microsoft] licences this year, and hopefully we will be down to zero next year.”

Parker says he would use the money to employ a local technician and further develop the Linux environment.

“It seems that schools are being pushed into using certain IT equipment,” says Parker. “But maybe we don’t need it. Maybe it is the industry pushing [equipment and software] onto schools rather than schools seeing the need for it.”

An MoE spokesman says state schools are free to choose their software provider, and the Ministry has separate arrangements with schools using a variety of platforms. But the majority use Microsoft, and the collective licence agreement MoE has with Microsoft gives schools a better deal than individual agreements.

“The principle is that schools should be able to access software and not have to pay exorbitant amounts of money for it,” the spokesman says.

In terms of future costs for supporting a non-Microsoft environment, he says, the MoE is willing to investigate situations it has not already covered.

When Computerworld talked to Parker in July this year, 18 of 25 computers ran Linux. Today, only two of 26 computers use Microsoft’s operating systems. One is the office computer, which runs the school management system, and the other is in the junior class, running some junior-orientated CD-ROM games, he says.

However, after reading the story in Computerworld in July, Auckland-based Open Systems Specialists contacted Warrington School and offered to investigate if it could make the management system run under Wine, a compatibility application for running Windows programs on other operating systems, says Parker.

The School has also been contacted by free software leader Richard Stallman, who recently toured New Zealand on a speaking tour. Through email correspondence, Stallman has given some suggestions on how to best use the school’s WikiEducator site, which is a community for education-related collaboration, says Parker. It provides free eLearning content that anyone can edit and use.

A contact at Otago Polytechnic suggested that Warrington School should start using WikiEducator, says Parker.

The website was established by Wayne Mackintosh, an eLearning education specialist at the Commonwealth of Learning (COL), headquartered in Vancouver, Canada.

Before joining COL, Mackintosh was associate professor and founding director of the Centre for Flexible and Distance Learning (CFDL) at the University of Auckland. He was also the founding project leader of New Zealand’s eLearning XHTML editor (eXe) project.

Mackintosh came to visit Warrington School in August. He gave suggestions for improvements and further “inspired” the school to continue down the open software path, says Parker.

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