In December of 2011 we decided that migrating to FOSS was the ideal solution to replacing the existing proprietary platform since it is a less costly option. Once that was decided, we began our migration from a Microsoft Windows platform to a Linux (Ubuntu Linux 10. 04 LTS) platform. Linux was created by Linus Torvolds, who at the time of its creation was a Computer Science Student at the University of Helsinki. Linux is a major competitor to Windows and is popular for its high performance, robustness, and security. Also, it is mostly used to run servers on the Internet.
OpenOffice.Org which is integrated in Ubuntu Linux became our replacement for Microsoft Office. OpenOffice.org is a multi-platform office productivity suite which includes the key desktop applications, such as a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation manager, and drawing program, with a user interface and feature set similar to other office suites.
For our Typing class, we selected Tux Typing which comes packaged with Ubuntu Linux. For desktop publishing, we installed Scribus. Our web browser selection was Mozilla Firefox which I believe is widely used in Liberia. Mozilla too is an open source web browser which has over a thousand useful add-ons that can be used for enhancement and personalization.
We installed GIMP to be integrated in the school’s Arts program/class. GIMP is an acronym for GNU Image Manipulation Program, which is a freely distributed and photo retouching, imaging composition and authoring software. I often refer to it as the open source version of Adobe Photoshop.
We then built the school’s website using Drupal Content Management System (CMS). Drupal is a free and open source CMS which has become extremely ubiquitous. Drupal is the CMS that was used to build the Liberian Legislature’s website (http://Legislature.Gov.Lr).
For Security, we installed Clam AntiVirus, an open source anti-virus toolkit for UNIX. Even though Linux is not as susceptible to malware attacks as is Microsoft Windows, we had to implement some level of security.
We took advantage of the school’s Internet capacity, webcams and audio system, and installed Skype for video conferencing. We would later use Skype video conferencing to provide guidance and consultation to the school’s young network administrator.
Although not in full operation yet, we set up an Online Learning Portal using Moodle, an open source CMS (course management systems). The portal was installed as part of the school’s professional development initiatives and a potential means of instructional delivery for teachers. Plans are underway to begin this program soon!
What’s next? As the faculty, staff and student get more accustomed to their new platform, we intend to inject more usable FOSS to enhance students’ academic performance, allow faculty and staff to work more efficiently, and facilitate the integration process. We are considering a move to an Edubuntu platform for all computers that are used for educational purposes and remain with Ubuntu in the administrative offices. For the school’s administration, we are exploring “SchoolTool”, an open source Student Information System (SIS), GNUCash for the Business Manager’s office, Camstudio (Video Tutorial Software), Geogebra for Math and Science, Google Apps for Email, Calendar, Document Collaboration, and so on.
While the use of free and FOSS is a low cost way of integrating technology in schools, professional development is crucial. Therefore, we held a technology boot camp for teachers in which teachers were trained to use basic Ubuntu Linux, OpenOffice.org, and Mozilla Fire Fox Internet browser. We then trained the network administrator basic system administration and Web design skills. We also trained a group of 10 students; the SWAT Team (Students Working to Advance Technology), to be a student tech support team. This year, we plan on carrying out an aggressive professional development initiative that will focus more on technology integration as compared to the “standalone” approach that is currently being taken; basically, focusing more on Computer Aided Instruction (CAI) and Computer Aided Testing(CAT).
As Liberia makes changes to its educational system, the need for technology integration becomes imperative because of the pedagogical paradigm shift that the 21st century has brought. The Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) of integrating technology in a school can be prohibitive especially when using proprietary software. If selected and pursued, a proprietary software paradigm could asphyxiate our efforts to integrate technology in Liberian schools. Therefore, there is a need to seriously consider FOSS as an option. The use of FOSS is also a key component to building a strong and equitable technology curriculum because it allows schools to implement powerful software in the classroom without additional cost, and for students to continue working at home.
Finally, I have a deep passion for true, effective technology integration in schools, and to motivate teachers to look for new ways to instruct old things, using FOSS. I believe that FOSS could be the solution to Africa’s increasing need for accessible and affordable ICT. I also believe FOSS could offer a solution to the growing Digital Divide that is opening between the continent and the rest of the world. B. W. Harris School has pioneered the use of FOSS in Liberian schools, and perhaps the path to a “Digital Liberia.” I suggest that policy makers consider this approach if we are to meet the challenges of the 21st century.