THE Journal Interview - Miguel Guhlin on Free Open Source

Doing a bit of navel-gazing, I took a moment to google my name to see what might come up. I'd completely forgotten about this THE Journal interview done in 2010, "How To Get Started with Open Source in K-12." The article's lead is as follows:
For K-12 IT directors, the major appeal of open source software (OSS) generally focuses on savings in licensing fees and access to software that would not otherwise be affordable. Many also are finding that OSS simply is the best solution for their school districts--even compared to commercial versions.
Here are the parts where I was quoted:


Miguel Guhlin, director of Instructional Technology & Learning Services (ITLS) in San Antonio Independent School District in Texas, said that the system has not changed--even as views toward proprietary software are shifting.
"We're still, as a movement, facing the habits of yesterday, which involved vendors wooing school officials," Guhlin said. "You have to get the latest and greatest, when the fact is the latest and greatest is very expensive."

2. Miguel Guhlin, San Antonio ISD, San Antonio, TX
For Guhlin, at San Antonio ISD, the time to adopt OSS came when the district's proprietary database was changing to a new version. He was not familiar with the technology and was going to have to learn something new anyway.

OSS Implementation
Filemaker Pro Server's shift from CDML (codes placed in HTML Web pages that interact with the database) to XML resulted in Guhlin implementing MySQL. The main advantage, he said, was the variety of solutions that worked with MySQL--solutions that were themselves free.

"While I knew CDML fairly well having worked on it for a few years, I hadn't a clue about XML," Guhlin said. "This made switching to PHP/MySQL easier because I could use [Adobe] Dreamweaver to do the 'coding' for me."
Guhlin's district also set up a Red Hat Linux server after finding that the district's Windows server could not handle the latest version of Joomla and kept crashing. The new server was set up with Apache, MySQL, PHP, and Joomla.

Another OSS experiment was the selection of a CMS. Teachers were expected to maintain Web sites, but Guhlin realized that most would not achieve even a low proficiency at designing their sites. They needed a CMS that used a simple word processor.

The first CMS the district tried was Plone for two department Web sites--Advanced Academic Services and Reading/English/Language Arts. Staff members in Advanced Academic Services, in particular, found it easy to update their sites without using Dreamweaver. "They were impressed they could go in and make the changes themselves," he said.

IT staff used Plone for a few months, while researching solutions that would be even easier for end users. Early on they selected Mambo, the precursor to Joomla, which had been in place for a year and a half. When the Mambo development team split off to form Joomla, Guhlin decided to follow the Joomla team.

"The old approach was a Webmaster at the center who had control," he said. "We had campuses with years of information that was completely out of date." The new approach can be seen in a series of video testimonials from principals who now maintain their own sites.

For a learning management system (LMS), Guhlin selected Moodle, which the district runs on a Mac server, though he said the optimal solution would be to run Moodle is on a GNU/Linux server. He wrote an article about setting up Moodle servers on his blog.

He selected Moodle because it is easy to support and has a large support community, he said, as well as opportunities for professional development. Still, to develop the level of complexity that was needed for a large organization, the district hired a vendor for support, Alchemy.

Another OSS project was to find a solution for surveys. Collecting data was not difficult, but designing the surveys and then analyzing the data was challenging. Now they use the OSS UCCASS (Unit Command Climate Assessment and Survey System), as well as Moodle's Questionnaire module to collect information.

For a frequently asked questions (FAQ) database, he found a variety of systems that are based on PHP and MySQL. The best resource for finding software during the process, he said, was Sourceforge.net, which features solutions for PHP/MySQL. He also put a list of recommendations on his blog. Ultimately, the district decided to use Moodle.

Other experiments were not as successful. B2evolution and WordPress did not take off, partly owing to account management with 3,000 teachers and 54,000 students. "We let these initiatives die because of support issues. If they had become popular, it would be overwhelming for a small staff," he said.

"We've jumped into several different solutions," he said. This is possible with OSS--to experiment and find the right solutions, since there are often fewer funding approvals needed and no licensing fees.

The only thing lacking from the OSS has been support and the ability to hold a business accountable, he said. Still, this was only an issue when a change in staff left his department short-handed. To do a district-wide upgrade, he paid a local company to upgrade all the sites over a five-month period.
 
Cost Savings
"We're saving the district tons of money," Guhlin said. However, while there is cost savings between Blackboard and Moodle, for example--and elimination of the annual recurring licensing fee is a major savings--that is not the whole picture.

"I couldn't give you an estimate on total savings of all free open source software solutions because we just wouldn't have implemented the solutions unless they had been free," he said. "We simply wouldn't have done anything."
The San Antonio ISD has about 92 schools, including 52 elementary, and approximately 54,000 students.




Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin's blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure

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