OSC Response to consultation: UK digital revolution

I am writing on behalf of the Open Source Consortium (the UK Open Source Industry Association) in response to the post on behalf of the Department for Culture, Media & Sport, The Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP, Ed Vaizey MP and Cabinet Office here: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-seeks-ideas-from-public-and-industry-for-the-next-stage-in-uks-digital-revolution

Considering the advances made toward the UK digital revolution, most of the technology project successes of recent times have been largely down to the adoption of Open Source. GDS have promoted the Open Source principles that have started to enable an openly competitive market and this has allowed local businesses to compete with international conglomerates on a level playing field. A search on the gov.uk website returns 182 results in response to a query for “Open Source” with pages from a variety of departments and the gov.uk site itself being available as an Open Source asset.

The government service manual https://www.gov.uk/service-manual encourages use of Open Source and states “Use Open source software in preference to proprietary or closed source alternatives, in particular for operating systems, networking software, web servers, databases and programming languages.” Lord Bridges of Headley commented: “This policy with the sensible procurement practice has undoubtedly saved the UK tax payer a lot of money. During the last Parliament £1.7bn was saved thanks to digital transformation and the Government Digital Service cost £58m. This is therefore a very good return on investment”

It is unlikely that its possible to qualify the £1.7bn saving, however its obvious that the new Open methods have delivered benefit for the UK tax payer and will continue to do so. Future benefits will be realised when these systems are retired or extended as the data and software is available for inspection and modification, therefore enabling the negotiation of a fairer price based on the delivery of value services.

Although there are many areas where Open Source can positively impact the digital revolution, this response relates to the subject of education, with comment on both curriculum and non-curriculum benefits of Open Source.

The education sector stands to gain a great deal from investing in Open Source as the investment in systems often adds direct value to primary, secondary and higher education who have common and overlapping systems and processes. An opportunity exists for the system to become part of the teaching experience as the learner and teachers are not stifled by limitations of the system itself.

The OSC commends to the UK government the greater use of Open Source and most importantly, investment in Open Source through UK specialist Open Source companies. The following OSC members have provided specific insights in to the use of Open Source across the education sector.

A member of the OSC, Catalyst IT, has worked extensively with the New Zealand Ministry of Education and other government agencies for the provision of Open Source solutions to support operational education systems. Paul Stevens of Catalyst IT writes as follows:

Going back to 2003, the New Zealand government invested in an Open Source LMS for the New Zealand Open polytechnic. This project saw Catalyst IT www.catalyst.net.nz to select an Open Source platform to be used as a Learning Management System (LMS). The investment lead to significant development of the core application and helped Moodle to become the biggest and most adopted LMS in higher education worldwide as noted here: http://listedtech.com/free-lms-or-open-source-lms-used-in-higher-ed/

The official Moodle site states that there are almost 50,000 registered sites across 214 countries which illustrates the benefit of such investments.

Following the success of the Moodle LMS, in 2006, a similar project commenced for the selection of an e-portfolio system. The evaluation process concluded that no suitable Open Source solution was available at the time and the Open Source project Mahara.org was established to build a fit for purpose system. This investment created a basic portfolio and, with the engagement of the Open Source community and contributions from around the world, Mahara has become one of the most popular e-portfolio systems in the world. To this day the Ministry of Education still runs myportfolio.ac.nz which services lifelong e-portfolios for 1200 NZ schools.

Totara LMS has also been a similar success story with an initial modest investment by three NZ government departments in a project called MITMS. Catalyst IT, Kineo City and Guilds and Flexible Learning (later part of the Kineo Group) joined forces to create a corporate Moodle distribution called Totara LMS.

New Zealand government agencies have quickly adopted it with many now operating Totara for their training and career development. A key benefit realised is that the sharing of ideas and the costs of the developments of new features across the agencies, has enriched the product’s feature set and minimised costs, thereby delivering measurable value to the New Zealand tax payer.

The following case studies provide information on the implementation of the Totara Open Source LMS:

The New Zealand Ministry of Education invested in further Open Source projects in 2012 when they engaged Catalyst to develop the Progress and Consistency Tool (PaCT). The tool is designed to record the level of proficiency of students by their teachers and thereby help teachers increase the consistency of their judgements within schools and across the country. Written using Django, an Open Source framework, PaCT also enhances the measurement of student progress in relation to the National Standards. See PaCT for more information here: http://pactinfo.education.govt.nz/

The PaCT project presented the opportunity for New Zealand to create a world class system that is potentially re-usable by other governments and education institutions around the globe. As it has been developed on a 100% open source platform, further development by the administration will not be constrained by license or code challenges. As a further benefit, the Open nature of the application design enables full ownership and control of systems and data by the New Zealand government.

Users were vocal in their praise of the opportunity to be involved in the development of their application and the way their opinions were integrated into the design thinking. Those that are now using it, love it, and the project has been a great success.

Paul Stevens of Catalyst IT says: “Open Source needs to be a key consideration for the progression of the UK government Digital Strategy; to date the strategy has been about how to use Open Source and its competitive advantages above proprietary and closed software. The new strategy needs to look at how to engage and support the key Open Source projects and communities so that they deliver value and innovation, and grow the local economy with in-country funding of IT projects.”

Having a system like Mahara holding all of the UK student information under the management of the UK government is far safer than having the data under the control of a corporation (eg Facebook) who’s business model is to monetise data and contacts. Supporting the implementation of Open Source Management Information Systems is just one example of where significant savings could be achieved across primary, secondary and higher education with one investment.

The Learning Machine, a member of the OSC, recently announced that one of their qualifications in Open Systems is now eligible to attract league table performance points. Details here: http://www.opensourceconsortium.org/open-source-gcse-equivalent-qualification-attracts-dfe-16-19-performance-points/

Paul Taylor, Director of Resource Development at The Learning Machine, writes:

Open Source in Education – The Big Picture

Overview

A number of years ago, very few people in education would have known about or considered using open source as it was perceived as free, so not good quality. There would have been people using Linux perhaps in some server role or students using Open Office because it was on a computer magazine, but little in the way of volume. Fast forward to today and the use and acceptance of open source in education is wide ranging, from primary schools using a Raspberry Pi computer to control various functions through to an estimated 70% of colleges running their courses on the Moodle VLE.

Curriculum

In the curriculum space, there is also relatively wide acceptance of open source. In almost all cases, Awarding Organisations (AO) mention and support the use of open source for course content and large numbers of schools are using google systems. Schools use Moodle, not to the degree of FE colleges, but still in large numbers, because they can control how it works and can manage it effectively due to the large and helpful community built around it. Most of the AOs have reference to Linux or open source software as part of their exams and the specialist open source AO TLM use open source systems to support their assessment and learning functions. Specialist schools will use some of the more well known open source software platforms such as the Gimp or Audacity, not necessarily because they are open source, but because they offer excellent features. Indirectly, open source has driven down the cost of software as a recent announcement from the DfE announced a deal with Microsoft to save £30,000,000. Without the number of schools migrating to Google online applications, this would not have happened. If a deal similar to the one arranged for the government by Collabora to use Libre Office can be pushed to education, even more savings could be made.

Non-curriculum

The biggest aspect of non-curriculum in education remains the MIS (Management Information System) which is currently something of a monopoly. Almost all schools use a proprietary system which is very hard to break free from and very costly. There are excellent alternatives such as Canonical’s SchoolTool, but few schools would be brave enough to move to these systems without some government backing and support. Some schools deploy Linux based servers internally to run mail servers and web sites running Apache, but the majority of state funded schools tend to stick to proprietary servers and desktop clients as these tie in with the MIS they use. The non-curriculum services tend to be controlled through regional consortia such as the London, Midlands etc Grid for Learning. These provides Microsoft based services and deliver on a large scale so it appears to be good value. Few small primary schools have the technical skills or support not to use these so small local schools can pay several thousand pounds for services which would be hundreds if open source was used. The author recently swapped a £7K a year contract for some open source filtering and a basic business broadband package costing £300 per year for a local primary. Taken across all 7,000 or so primaries, that is a lot of extra teachers and resources.

Perhaps some of the problem with the non-curriculum aspects of school is a lack of skilled open source staff available?

I would like to thank Ed Vaizey MP for providing the opportunity to provide feedback on this call for ideas. The OSC would be pleased to consider any further questions or provide more detail as required.

With best regards,

Stuart Mackintosh.

OSC Chair

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