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LinuxPR: OSSI and North Mississippi Education Consortium Announce Pilot Program

Aug 14, 2002, 08:00 (0 Talkback[s])

Oxford, MS - August 13, 2002 - The North Mississippi Education Consortium (NMEC) will lead a pilot program designed to provide Free and Open-Source software to Mississippi's public school system.

The program, called "Freedom to Learn," is part of a Ph.D.-level study exploring alternative technologies and methods of reducing costs while increasing efficiency and student productivity within public school systems.

The program will be hosted at the University of Mississippi's School of Education in Oxford, Mississippi. Freedom to Learn was conceived and initiated by the Open Source Software Institute (http://www.oss-institute.org) a (Mississippi-based) non-profit organization whose mission is to promote the development and implementation of open source software within government agencies and academic entities.

"The goal of this program is to harness the vast resources available through Free and Open-Source software and apply these resources to good use in Mississippi's public school system," said Jim Chambless, Dean of the School of Education at the University of Mississippi. "This program will allow us to explore opportunities in cutting edge technologies that can save our public schools money while freeing funds to improve the computer systems being used by students and teachers."

Free and Open-Source software represent a variety of software solutions whose license requires that the software code be open, extensible and freely distributable. The "freedom" and "openness" of the source code allows for collaborative development by programmers and enables the software to be customized to meet the clients' needs.

The Freedom to Learn program will identify, collect, analyze and combine software applications and program packages that promote literacy skills, communication skills, mathematics, visual arts, data collection and organization, and Internet browsers.

Program researchers will initially target between six and 18 public school districts in northern Mississippi. Within each selected school district at least two schools with similar educational needs, demographics, technologies and financial resources will be selected to participate.

Half of the schools selected will serve as a control site, while the other schools will have their existing student computer labs audited, then reprogrammed with open source software solutions that closely mirror the software being replaced. The experimental school sites will be monitored both directly and remotely by the research team for up to 18 months.

"Nearly all of the existing programs utilized within the schools systems have an Open- Source or Free-source alternative," said Don Schillinger, the 47-year-old Ph.D. candidate leading the Freedom to Learn study. "We are exploring the feasibility of collecting the Open source and Free-Source programs that are currently available today and customizing them to meet the needs of each school district participating in the program.

"By utilizing Open-Source software, we can customize the software to look and feel almost exactly like what the students and teachers are currently using, and add powerful educational applications to their desktops at no or low cost," Schillinger continued. "Since Free and Open-Source programs are not limited through restrictive license agreements, we can also change the programs to address any specific needs that the teachers or student require. Open-Source models have an inherent advantage in that you have the ability and right, through the General Public License (GPL) agreement, to alter the program to meet your needs."

Another benefit to the use of Free and Open-Source software is the price. All of the licensed software solutions to be considered for the Freedom to Learn program are available without charge through the Internet.

"Free and Open-Source software programs are developed through collaborative efforts of programmers around the world. Since there is no restriction to the access of the source code, the only thing limiting the development of any program is the need of the client and the imagination of the programmers," Schillinger said. "Most of these programs can be purchased from traditional vendors, like any other software. What you're paying for, in that instance, is their development time and follow up support for the program. However, if you have the expertise, you can download the programs yourself and customize it in-house. That is what we see happening with the programs we'll implement in the schools."

Two additional attributes of most Free and Open-Source software applications are that they run efficiently on older computers, and their low or no cost increases access to the students and teachers of Mississippi. Both of these considerations may have dynamic and far reaching educational implications.

NMEC will coordinate with the Open Source Software Institute to provide support and training for the teachers, instructors and students involved in the program.

"Freedom to Learn is a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate the practical application of Free and Open-Source Software," said OSSI Chairman and Founder John Weathersby. "OSSI will provide access to the open source industry and will help support this program in every way possible.

"It is our position that Open-Source software is the most logical technical solution in a public service setting," Weathersby continued. "This study and all the programs and application development that will result from Freedom to Learn will become a true public assets and will benefit everyone. OSSI is proud to be associated with this effort and we are excited to have identified a group that has the leadership and vision to take a project like this and run with it."

Project Freedom to Learn will begin with this fall semester and is scheduled to continue through next school year. Five additional states have expressed interest in adopting the Freedom to Learn program.

Press Release

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