Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Who's Singing The Open Source Mantra?

A question came up recently about the Manaiakalani project. "The website is great and has loads of documentation but why is there is absolutely no mention of the use of Ubuntu or opensource software?". Followed up by, "Would the project have been possible without the use of opensource software?".

I guess that would fall onto my shoulders to explain. The project isn't about the shiny machines or the software being run on them. The research, although I do think the researcher did overstep her bounds a little by commenting on the technical assistance (I can demonstrate where those problems were more social than technical - i.e. me not following up on emails quickly enough, not being told of the problem,  people not being sure of procedure etc. None of which is something that can be fixed with more technicians). There is a question of time in there (i.e. I'm not JUST supporting the netbooks out there. I'm also developing the image and constantly struggle to find the time to do so but that's a whole other story. I think the only time I really get a rest is if I'm sick - at the moment I'm on antibiotics and working some hideous hours to have the new image ready for next term), is around learning outcomes. But what if I said "It's not just about the children?". Every time I think I've figured out the project and how far it reaches, I realise there's a whole other layer.

So children get these pretty shiny machines with software customized to them and their needs in order for them to learn. They're administrators of their machines too. They're only locked down enough to keep them safe (i.e. some software isn't installable via the Ubuntu Software Center). So occasionally I'll come across a kid with a lot of accounts on their computer. When asked, the answer is usually "That one's for my mum, and that's my brother's etc..

So parents and siblings are also getting some benefits. The hope is that they're using it for their own lives. Things like online banking.

But there's more to it than just access to a computer. What about people who've never owned anything? There are contracts to be signed. Automatic payments to be made. Insurance issues to be understood. A child's future to invest in. These are all things that most of us take for granted. They're just things that you have to deal with.

At ULearn last year I did a rather woeful (I am a REALLY bad public speaker. It got worse from there on as a phobia took hold at dinner that night but that's a whole other story) talk on my part of the puzzle. As you can probably tell, I hate public speaking. So I was nervous and I had it in my head not to go into an Opensource is great rant. At the end of it I realised I hadn't mentioned Opensource at all. Whoops.

When you start looking at the project, you realise just how little my part is even though I go to great lengths to try and keep up my part of it (I was thinking about the amount of time I get allocated for development of the image. 8 or 9 weeks per year in school holidays and a day scheduled for every week though I think on average, I only manage around 1 of those for every two months. The rest - the evenings and weekends - is all unpaid and I'm still susceptible to sick days). It's a platform. It's a bit like a building. A project would use a building but they probably wouldn't rant and rave about how wonderful the building is or describe the design of the hammer used to construct the building. But the use of that building is quite likely horribly important to the running of that project.

Would it have been possible without Open Source Software? I don't think so personally.

Quite apart from the licensing costs (not just per device, but also the costs around keeping track of those licenses), I don't think the project would have gotten quite the same benefits if a proprietary vendor was supporting it. For example, taking into consideration the needs of children who aren't old enough (according to the Terms of Service) to go onto Facebook or really don't need the option of installing X piece of software (those that have "unsafe" themes). They own the device so there's an ethical question to be asked about those proprietary vendor's solutions to those problems i.e. locking the thing down to a point that it's almost useless. The iPad is a great example of where a vendor simply doesn't seem to care. While they'd have huge benefits in a classroom for young kids, Apple, in their infinite wisdom, have decided that the iPad is a personal device that shouldn't be shared and thus, their configuration has it working that way. Quite different from how a school would like to purchase software for it or maintain it.

What happens when there's a bug? Admittedly in some cases I've just had to wait (like when we couldn't get the microphones working) though in other cases, I've been able to download the source code, make a fix or three, and have then been able to deploy it fairly quickly (the choice of wxcam over cheese is a pretty good example here). How much care does a proprietary vendor take in answering the calls of kids?

And there's the plethora of software available.

One of my big reasons for switching to opensource software was that I was finding myself pirating software so that I could then support that software. So a criminal who ultimately works to support those same people that are calling him a criminal. As a student, it really just didn't make any sense whatsoever. Opensource software gave me the opportunity to learn without being painted with those negative brushes.

So, I consider opensource software educational friendly. The kids can use GIMP or Audacity without fear of being labelled a criminal or spending ridiculous amounts of money. And when they leave, they can still use that software whether they're still students or not. And they can upgrade to the next version of that software!

There's also the option of getting into the guts of it. I was talking to a high school student about programming languages. We were debating the pros and cons of various languages. I had to tell a couple of boys to go and sit down because they were curious as to what I was doing. This isn't uncommon but at the time I was doing something I'd really rather they didn't play with - checking settings on the BIOS which could potentially lead to having to write the machine off.

I've been thinking about a slightly different branding: Sustainable Software. How often has a company had to migrate from a piece of software because it just isn't supported anymore? Your company has brought a piece of software with a 5 year support contract. Then 5 years later they find that the software is horribly woeful and they're just going to have to migrate away from it leading to a whole lot of expense (project management costs, licensing, hardware refresh etc.). This is a post for another day. But for now, I'll just drop in the term "Sustainable Software" and direct you to the fact that the netbooks are generally (there are options) brought on a 3 year contract (and so more recent shiny OSes still need to run on these devices).

I've decided I really have to talk about this stuff a little bit more. So if you have any comments or questions, leave a comment here... I swear, this blog really does feel like I'm talking to myself at times. I have very little idea of what people think of the content - whether I'm being a bollocks, making relatible/valid arguments/points or whether the hits I do get to the blog is the result of spammers/spiders from mars/bots trying to find an email address...

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