Requirements of Educational Institutions
Different educational institutions have different ICT infrastructure requirements, depending on the level of education, the nature of the courses they offer and the available funding. Invariably, however, there is a need for computer laboratories in educational institutions for conducting basic computer classes, allowing students to complete their assignments, conducting specialized ICT classes,providing access to the library system, making available learning management systems and facilitating email communications. The number of computers required depends on the student population and the student-computer ratio that the institution considers desirable.
Computers within laboratories are normally connected via a Local Area Network (LAN). In an education environment most of the student users are "nomadic" and do not have designated computers.Hence, the set-up must allow them to work from any of the computers on the network.
Ability to connect to the Internet is a basic requirement that educational institutions should strive to provide as it allows both students and academic staff to access the numerous digital resources available on the Web. It also enables the use of email, which has become an important means of communication. For educational institutions, the Internet is a service that facilitates effective administration of the institution and provides a channel of communication between educators and students that can lead to more effective learning. It is also necessary for the implementation of e-learning and distance learning.
With Internet connectivity, an institution's network is accessible from the Internet. Thus it is essential to have a firewall to protect against intrusion by unauthorized users, especially if there is high-speed 24-hour Internet access.User authentication is required to ensure that only authorized users can access the network.
There are often requirements, in an academic setting, for publishing information and providing access to materials via the Web. These include teachers and lecturers providing course materials online, students putting up Web pages, administrators publishing information on the intranet and the institution maintaining a public website. All these require appropriate Web server hardware and software.
A main component of the ICT infrastructure of an organization is the servers that provide various services such as email, file and print services. Appropriate software is required to provide these services. Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) have been found to be appropriate for this purpose. They compare favourably with the proprietary equivalent in terms of features and, in certain cases, have a higher market share.
The provision of email services requires setting up an email server that controls sending and delivery of messages. Once such a server is set up, it is expected to run continuously without any problems. An interruption will affect communication and the work of many in the organization. Hence, reliability is a major concern for email server software. Other concerns are security and performance. Several robust FOSS email servers such as Sendmail ( http://www.sendmail.org ) and Postfix ( http://www.postfix.org ) are available and are being deployed successfully in many organizations, including educational institutions. They compare favourably with proprietary email servers such as Microsoft Exchange, are simpler to deploy and require fewer computing resources.
File and Print Services
One characteristic of ICT usage in an educational institution is the "nomadic" user, that is, students who use the network services from different computers. This requires a file server that would allow them to save their work and configurations in a central server instead of in the local workstations. The possible need to print from any workstation requires server software that allows this. Samba ( http://www.samba.org ) is a FOSS file cum print server that runs on GNU/Linux and works seamlessly with workstations running Windows at the same time.
Every computer connected to a network needs to be assigned an IP address. This can be done manually but it is most common to have the IP address assigned dynamically by a DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) server. Most GNU/Linux distributions include a DHCP server.
GNU/Linux has a utility called Iptables that can be used to implement firewalls to protect against security intrusion. Some ready-made FOSS firewalls are also available, such as Shorewall ( http://www.shorewall.net ). Intrusion detection tools are used to detect any security breach and one such FOSS is Snort ( http://www.snort.org ).
The most popular Web server is Apache ( http://www.apache.org ), which is Free/Open Source Software. It is reputed to have a 67% share (April, 2004) of the total Web server market worldwide. It can be used to host public websites for educational institutions and to host intranets within institutions. It is often used with GNU/Linux as the operating system, MySQL as the database server and PHP as the scripting language. All of these are FOSS. Their combination is often referred to as LAMP-Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP (alternatively Perl or Python).
Other Server Software
There are numerous other Free/Open Source server software that can be useful in an education environment, such as database management systems,content management systems and mailing list servers.
The most well-known FOSS database management systems are MySQL ( http://www.mysql.com ) and PostgreSQL ( http://www.postgresql.org ). As mentioned earlier, MySQL is often used for building dynamic websites. It is suitable as a database management system for many other applications and is used in business-critical enterprise applications and packaged software. Various educational applications such as Learning Management Systems and Library Management Systems also use MySQL.
A Content Management System (CMS) facilitates the creation, publishing and management of Web content by providing a platform that can be used by individuals without their having to be skilled in the underlying technologies. Examples of FOSS Content Management Systems are PostNuke ( http://www.postnuke.com ) and Plone ( http://www.plone.org ). PostNuke is based on PHP and MySQL, while Plone is based on the Zope application server, which is written using the Python programming language. In an educational institution, the availability of such FOSS CMSs enables staff and students to develop Internet and intranet websites for various purposes with relative ease.
The mailing list is an older application that enables online discussions and collaboration to take place. When an email is addressed to a mailing list, it is broadcast to the individuals subscribed to the list by email. Although newsgroups and Web-based discussion forums serve a similar function, the mailing list may still be useful in the education environment, especially where Internet connectivity is still rudimentary. The more popular FOSS mailing list servers are Majordomo ( http://www.greatcircle.com/ ) and Mailman ( http://www.list.org ).
These FOSS server applications make the development of a collaborative environment in educational institutions at minimal cost possible. They allow academic staff, students, parents and administrators to interact in a way that was not possible in the past
Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP)
Desktop applications such as a browser, an email client and a productivity suite are basic requirements in education settings. Even a small computer laboratory will require these applications to be installed in all computers. Instead of installing these applications on every workstation,it may be easier and less expensive to use "thin clients" These are computers with a network card, graphics card, monitor, keyboard and mouse, but without hard disk, CD-ROM drive and operating system. The server handles all computing tasks, including the running of applications, provision of storage space and management of files.This means that cheaper hardware (or old and donated hardware) can be used for the clients. Only the server needs to be installed with the necessary peripherals and software, which means maintenance will be easier.
The Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP- http://www.ltsp.org ), started in 1999, provides the necessary software to set up such a network of diskless workstations. It supports various GNU/Linux distributions and over 100,000 sites are using LTSP. During boot up, the diskless workstation obtains the necessary network information from the server and the operating system is downloaded from the server. Any programme supported by the server can be run from the workstation. It should be noted that a network setup using LTSP will be a GNU/Linux only network and is primarily suited for a new installation.
Although there has been increasing adoption of FOSS for desktops, its penetration is still relatively low. Microsoft Windows still dominates the desktop environment, with an estimated 90% market share. However, it is believed that the desktop based on GNU/Linux suits many users. The increasing availability of applications on the GNU/Linux desktop with features comparable to proprietary software will only encourage more widespread adoption. A long list of FOSS desktop applications that are equivalent to proprietary applications running on Windows is available at http://linuxshop.ru/linuxbegin/win-lin-soft-en/table.shtml .
However, it should be noted that in order to use FOSS on the desktop it is not necessary to discard the proprietary desktop operating systems. For example, programs such as OpenOffice, Mozilla, and GIMP are available for the Windows platform. Hence, FOSS programs can be easily downloaded, installed and experimented with, without having to replace the existing proprietary operating system.
In fact, there are various options when considering the introduction of FOSS on the desktop, namely:
- retain the use of Windows and run FOSS applications for this platform;
- replace Windows with GNU/Linux;
- set up dual boot systems, which allows users to choose between Windows or GNU/Linux during startup; or
- run Windows within GNU/Linux or run GNU/Linux within Windows using appropriate software.
In educational institutions, both staff (administrative and academic) and students require a suite of office productivity software consisting of a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation software. Microsoft Office is currently the most widely used productivity suite. However, the FOSS productivity suite, OpenOffice ( http://www.openoffice.org ), is gaining popularity as its features are becoming comparable to the proprietary Office suite. As noted earlier, OpenOffice can run on various platforms and a complete migration to Linux before it can be used is not necessary. In fact, it can be run on Windows side-by-side with Microsoft Office. A prominent feature of the latest version of OpenOffice is the ability to export documents directly to pdf format.This feature is not available in its proprietary counterpart.
Although interoperability with the existing proprietary productivity suite is not perfect, OpenOffice is an attractive option for educational institutions. The look and feel are similar to that of Microsoft Office. In most cases, only the basic features of the productivity suite are utilized by students and staff and these are available in the OpenOffice suite.
Another FOSS productivity suite - ONLYOFFICE - enables to deactivate unnecessary modules and concentrate on most demanded applications: document management, project management, networking and mail. Full-featured editors include word processor, spreadsheet, presentation and enable users to create, edit and co-edit documents in real-time mode.
There are other FOSS productivity suites available but they are not as complete as OpenOffice. KOffice is the productivity suite running on the KDE desktop and GNOME Office is the suite running on the competing desktop GNOME. The word processor ( AbiWord ) and spreadsheet ( Gnumeric ) components in GNOME Office are considered to be of high quality.
AbiWord ( http://www.abiword.com ) works on most major operating systems, including Windows, and it supports many languages. It can read and write most documents in Word format and has the same look and feel as Word. AbiWord's native document format uses Extensible Markup Language (XML), which is an open standard. This means that an AbiWord document can be read by any other software using an appropriate XML parser.
Gnumeric ( http://www.gnome.org/projects/gnumeric ) is a fast and complete spreadsheet programme that is being actively developed. It can support various spreadsheet file formats and has good support for Excel files. Many of the worksheet functions available in Excel are supported in Gnumeric. However, it currently does not run on Windows. Work is being carried out to make this possible.
There are a number of Open Source browsers available such as Firefox, Galeon and Konqueror. Firefox ( http://www.mozilla.org ) is a popular browser that is based on source code released by Netscape. Apart from a browser it also contains an extension system and can be expanded with many additional tools and utilities such as a Web authoring tool. It is cross-platform and a version for Windows is available that can be downloaded and installed without affecting existing Internet Explorer installation. Galeon ( http://galeon.sourceforge.net ) is another FOSS Web browser. It runs on the GNOME desktop. Konqueror ( http://konqueror.kde.org ) runs on the KDE desktop.
A wide range of multimedia FOSS is available, including graphics editors and video players that can serve as tools for enhancing educational content and its delivery.
GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Programme - http://www.gimp.org ) is the most well-known FOSS for image editing and graphic design. It is a desktop application that can be used for various purposes by both academic staff and students. It is available for GNU/Linux, Unix variants and Windows. As it supports various image file formats, interoperability with other programs should not be an issue. GIMP is considered to be the FOSS equivalent of the proprietary Photoshop software.
A programme that allows the drawing of diagrams will find good use in an educational institution.There are some good proprietary software that serve this purpose, such as Visio and Smartdraw. A FOSS equivalent called Dia ( http://gnome.org/projects/dia ) has been designed to provide similar functions. It can be used to draw many different kinds of diagrams and has special objects to facilitate the drawing of flowcharts, network diagrams and simple circuits.The programme is available for the Windows platform in addition to FOSS operating systems.
Audacity ( http://audacity.sourceforge.net ) is a FOSS audio editor through which you can record sounds, play editor through which you can record sounds, and import and export files in various formats. It can be used to edit your audio, mix tracks together, or apply effects to your recordings.This software will be useful when there is a need to digitize audio or make recordings for incorporation into multimedia educational content. It runs on most Unix systems (including GNU/Linux) and Windows.
A media player for workstations is necessary for playback of videos and other multimedia content. This is commonly available on proprietary platforms. On FOSS platforms, Mplayer ( http://www.mplayerhq.hu ) is a programme that provides similar functionalities. It is available for Linux and many other Unix variants and it supports many video and audio formats.
For a listing of other multimedia FOSS available, please refer to http://llinuxshop.ru/linuxbegin/win-lin-soft-en/table.shtm .
Other Educational Software
Aside from FOSS desktop applications for general use, there is a lot of Free/Open Source educational software that may be used for teaching specific subjects or courses in schools and colleges and universities. The software ranges from drawing programs for young students (e.g., Tux Paint - http://www.newbreedsoftware.com/tuxpaint ) to programs for learning geometry (e.g., Kig - http://edu.kde.org/kig ), chemistry (e.g., Ghemical - http://bioinformatics.org/ghemical ), and physics (e.g., Open-Source Physics Education project - http://www.opensourcephysics.org ). For higher education, there is QCAD ( http://www.ribbonsoft.com/qcad.html ), a programme for Computer-Aided Drafting which may be used in technical drawing classes. Scilab ( http://scilabsoft.inria.fr ) is a full-featured scientific software package that may be used in numerical analysis or engineering courses at the university level.
These software titles represent a very small sample of FOSS available for education. There are various useful online resources available for locating other educational software, some of which are listed below.
SchoolForge ( http://www.schoolforge.net ) is a Web site for projects using Free and Open Source solutions in education. It was conceived as a site where resources are made available to help schools develop affordable and dependable software, as well as educational content.
SEUL/edu ( http://richtech.ca/seul ) is an education portal of Simple End-User Linux, promoting the use of Linux, among other Open resources in education. It covers various aspects of educational uses of Linux by teachers, parents and students. It has a directory of school-related FOSS.
The Organization for Free Software in Education and Teaching (OFSET) has developed Freeduc ( http://www.ofset.org/freeduc ), which provides a catalog of educational software. It has also created a live CD-ROM of FOSS for schools to use. The idea behind a live Freeduc system on CD-ROM is that no installation is required, therefore students and teachers can easily use the applications as if they were installed on the local computer.
The KDE Edutainment Project ( http://edu.kde.org ) aims to develop educational software for the KDE desktop. Its main focus is young school children, but there are also programs that cater to university students and teachers.
As shown earlier, FOSS in backend servers is mature and is equivalent or better than the proprietary counterpart. Applications for the desktop are increasingly available and some of them are suitable for production use. Given this case, it is imperative for administrators of educational institutions, especially those that are publicly funded, to give due consideration to the use of FOSS in their institutions. Even though it is common for heavy discounts on proprietary software to be made available to academic institutions, FOSS should still be considered. In the long run the choice to use FOSS instead of proprietary software can result in bigger cost savings.
Proprietary software designed specifically for the education market is generally very expensive, since vendors must recoup their development costs from very small markets. These may be administrative software such as Library Management Systems or Learning Management Systems. However, even for such specialized applications, high quality FOSS equivalents are now becoming available. In other areas such as Student Information Systems, Human Resource Management and Financial Management Systems the FOSS alternatives are not mature enough for production use. But it is likely that FOSS for these and other education-specific applications will become available in the future.
As mentioned earlier, the initial cost of FOSS is negligible. The cost of upgrades of FOSS is also insignificant. However, it has been argued that Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) should be used in making comparisons between FOSS and proprietary software. TCO also includes maintenance, support and training costs and these may be higher for FOSS. However, in various comparisons, the TCO for FOSS is still lower than that for proprietary software.
In countries where labour costs are lower, the cost of maintenance, support and training will be a smaller percentage of the TCO, in which case the TCO of FOSS will be much lower. The availability of the source code also results in more companies being able to provide maintenance and support, which will drive down these costs. In an academic setting, there is often the possibility of getting assistance from the FOSS community without any cost involved.
In some situations, the availability of funds or lack of it is such that it is not a choice between proprietary software and FOSS but a choice between FOSS and nothing. By using inexpensive or donated hardware with FOSS, some institutions may be able to provide computing facilities to their students that would otherwise be impossible.
Even if funds are available for purchasing proprietary software, the savings resulting from using FOSS alternatives can be used for better purposes such as buying more computers, providing training for administrative and academic staff or developing non-ICT related infrastructure for the institution.
- Decrem, B., "Desktop Linux Technology Market Overview", Open Source Applications Foundation (OSAF), July 2003; available from http://www.osafoundation.org/desktop-linux-overview.pdf .
- Glance,D., Kerr, J. and Reid, A.,"Factors affecting the use of open source software in tertiary education institutions", First Monday, Volume 9, No. 2, Feb 2004; available from http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue9_2/glance/index.html .
- Martyris, D.,"Community-government partnerships and open source technology for low cost IT access in India-A case study", Harvard University, July 2003; available from http://www.developmentgateway.com/node/133831/sdm/blob?pid=5474.