Will an open source strategy save the day?

Graciano Soares, JISC RSC ManagerThere has been much criticism of the Government recently regarding its ICT strategy. The freeze of Building Schools for the Future and its ICT capital spending has left many wondering how schools are to continue to invest in technology. Though a former teacher, I am interested in decisions affecting schools as a citizen and a father of two young daughters. Most of my professional life has been in the further education and skills sector.

One of the recommendations of the recently published Capital Review led by Dixons’ Group Operations Director Sebastian James, separates ICT spending from BSF. The “Central Body”, identified in the review as the entity that should be fully responsible for BSF, instead of schools, “should take responsibility for providing the basic backbone infrastructure and should not seek to go further in the provision of ICT equipment as part of the building programme”, as ICT equipment is considered a local priority. The question being asked now is, if left to school leaders, will investments on ICT continue? Provided there is clear understanding of the benefits and limitations of ICT and effective procurement procedures, I don’t see any reason why not. But school leaders might do well to protect themselves from hard sellers.

A strong criticism of ICT vendors is their dominance and influence over pressed-for-time, less-informed public sector buyers. Aware of this issue, the JISC RSC London has played a pivotal role within FE and Skills in ensuring that lessons learned by one learning provider in our sector are shared with others in similar position when procuring ICT equipment and services. There is evidence that savings achieved through this simple process (see JISC RSC Impact Report) has been considerable in learning providers supported by the JISC RSCs, particularly some of our London ones.

Perhaps the point being missed by critics is that Government priority is to cut costs. I welcome the strategy to embrace open source as a way to deliver savings on ICT. In the further education sector, I have seen the growth of Moodle, a VLE that has virtually taken the further education and skills sector by storm and is now steadily penetrating higher education despite it failing Becta’s five-point assessment plan back in 2006. I remember how the ILT Champions reacted with dismay at such rejection – a clear example of how the vision of the organisation that was setting the strategy was much limited compared to users on the ground.

The government strategy does not come as a surprise after the ICT in Government Landscape Review identified how private sector contractors’ failing to deliver to time and budget added to the perception of the public sector’s inability to manage ICT contracts efficiently.

Other countries have entertained the idea of using open source in government in the past. Brazil’s move in 2003 to adopt Linux proved popular as a measure to cut the government spending on software. Russia has announced its intention to move all government processing to open source by 2015 (Moreno Muffatto’s Open Source: a Multidisciplinary Approach makes good reading). But like in any change, there is a need to understand the benefits and limitations of any product and equip the workforce to use it effectively. JISC OSS Watch initiative has been playing a key role in supporting open source initiatives.

I do hope that the intention is also to drive quality and solve the bigger problem of systems interoperability. When I was called in to help a further education college in the process of moving from an expensive proprietary virtual learning environment to a cheaper, open source one, it was clear to me that the move was mainly to save costs and not to enhance quality. It is not uncommon for technical solutions to lie dormant in a learning provider, regardless of how much it has cost.

There is a perception that the government’s selection of Huddle as a project management tool to be used across government can challenge SharePoint’s dominance. Most of the learning providers I work with have bought into SharePoint and have decent installations of it. Critics of Brazil’s support to open source say that that government did not go far enough after the initial media hype. I wonder if the coalition will do what it takes to elevate open source to the level it deserves.

Graciano Soares
RSC London Manager


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