Open Source Vs Microsoft in Schools

The battle to control what kind of software is the ‘industry standard’ in schools continues unabated. In one corner stands the giant that is Microsoft – all-conquering, all-encompassing and the most widely used software packages in the world. Considering that Microsoft is so ubiquitous it has practically become an adjective, how can any other contenders be considered anything but flyweights going in against the heavyweight champion of the software world?

In the other corner stands the quirky, quick-footed contender determined to get a foot into the educational market – Open Source. What does it have that Microsoft doesn’t?

The main thing that puts Open Source ahead on points is its adaptability. Open Source software is published under licences that allow everyone access to the source code, letting them change, download additional ‘add-ons’ and explore the real nuts and bolts of the software. Anyone with the right skills can access the source code and improve it to suit their own particular needs.

Microsoft isn’t quite so flexible. It may be powerful, but its source code is unreachable, set in stone and packaged to perform particular functions without that ability to manipulate the coding if it doesn’t quite do what you want it to do.

So how does this translate to an educational environment? At first glance, Microsoft would seem to have all the advantages. As a set program, lesson plans can be formulated within selected parameters, everyone knows their way around Microsoft and is familiar with the layout and operation and it’s a tried and (to a large extent) trusted package. But Microsoft is notorious for its bug-riddled programming, requiring patches and fixes on a regular basis. And if it doesn’t do exactly what you want it to do, well sorry folks, but that’s the way it is.

Open Source scores over Microsoft on this one particular aspect. Because the source code is accessible to anyone with the right training, if the software doesn’t do exactly what you want it to then you can change it.

‘Scratching an itch’

Open Source software is an organic process. It starts with a simple idea and developers who are trying to work out the solution to a specific problem (often referred to as ‘scratching an itch’). The code is then put out on open forums or tossed around between developers, each adding their own part of the puzzle. As time goes on, the software grows into something that may be completely different from the original concept. The code is then published under licence, constantly evolving as more people add more of the pieces.

But does this mean that Open Source is the ‘Wikipedia’ of software – where anyone can edit, add or take out bits? And it is here that Open Source for schools starts to waver slightly. While it may be an interesting concept and a powerful developmental tool, its trustworthiness as a resource could be called into question. Microsoft, however, has the benefit of consistency, a strong brand identity and, despite its numerous problems with bugs, is usually pretty reliable.

So who wins? Perhaps in a school environment, where a balance has to be struck between dependable resources and innovation, development and exploration, both Microsoft products and Open Source have their place. Open Source forces students to explore the flexibility of programming, to develop their own programming skills and to learn about the ‘nuts and bolts’ of computer programs. Microsoft is industry-standard and is the software package of choice in the ‘real’ world, so students who want to go into IT as a career have to have a fundamental understanding of the system. As ever, the answer is a little bit of both.