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Open source

Software is just the beginning. Open source is doing for mass innovation what the assembly line did for mass production. Get ready for the era when collaboration replaces the corporation.

Thomas Goetz

What is Open Source Software?
Software is distributed in a variety of versions. In the standard commercial form, the complete version of the software, as well as all of its code, is considered exclusive property of the producing company. The company may license out the software or parts of its code to customers and other companies to use or modify for use, but the cost must be paid up front. “Shareware” is a free trial version of commercial software which may be used for a certain amount of times before it must be paid for. “Freeware” is just that: software which can be used and distributed freely, although the original author normally continues to own the copyright.

Open Source is different. It is distributed freely, as with freeware. However, the original author/programmer agrees to let any subsequent user modify the program code in order to fit specific needs. So:

  • Software can be examined for bugs much more easily.
  • As more people are looking, more bugs can be found.
  • The software is easily adapted for uses beyond the original authors’ conceptions.
  • Authors achieve recognition by making their code available.   

Open Source operating systems
There has been much discussion in recent years about whether it is better for schools and other educational organizations to use open source software (OSS) or commercial software products. This is no easy question to answer, as it involves financial, policy, commercial, technical, and educational concerns. 

For educators, deciding which operating system to choose depends on what they want to do with the technology and what the needs of students and teachers are.  
Open Source Software is provided with a license that gives the end user the right to use it freely for private or commercial use. You also have the right to inspect and even modify the underlying source code. 

If you have no interest in source code, you may ask why the open availability of this matters. One answer is that open source software has no upfront costs (unlike proprietary software), so is relatively inexpensive.

Another answer is that proprietary software tends to use closed file formats to store your data. Once the parent company stops supporting older versions of a proprietary program, you may therefore have to upgrade to newer versions of that program, at significant expense, in order to retain access to your data. This does not happen with OSS, because when the source code for opening and saving files is available, a third party can easily write an import filter for the next generation of software, ensuring that your data will always be available.

The release of source code has, in some cases, spawned large communities of volunteer developers, such as Linux,, and Mozilla, who have provided the world with highly useful, and entirely free software. These are then available free of charge to schools or anyone else who may not have a large budget available for software.   

It is important to remember, however, that open source software is not completely "free". Although it can be downloaded free of charge, some level of technical expertise will be required in order to install and utilize it.

Linux, part of the UNIX-based family of operating systems, is one of the most popular open source software products used for computer operating systems. It has become popular primarily because it is available free of charge and has a large development and user community. Linux is also among the most popular operating system software for Internet servers, accounting for about 30% of all Web servers in the world today. However, it is used only rarely as a client operating system, mainly because of low awareness of how to use and install such an operating system.

Benefits of OSS 
• It’s free to download and modify. 
• Servers running Linux crash less often and perform better than most commercial and other OSS software. 
• Linux can be used on a wider range of computer platforms than any other operating system and is more secure than commercial operating systems. 
• Studies have shown that Linux and other open source software usually have significantly lower initial costs than commercial operating system software.   

• With any operating system (including Windows), teachers will need training in how to operate the software. While OSS may be free, operating system and network operating system software only account for about 5% to 8% of the total cost of buying a client computer system. Ongoing training costs for teachers and technical support and maintenance costs can be quite expensive. 
• A shift from Windows to OSS may require schools to spend money and time on finding the technical support essential to making effective use of software unless there are technicians readily available who have the capability of managing UNIX/Linux operating systems.
• Windows is the operating system used on 80% to 90% of all client computers in business, government, and the non-profit sectors of the economy. Students studying using computers in schools with OSS may also need to gain familiarity with Windows operating systems so that they are able to operate the software they encounter in the work place. 
• There are, so far, relatively few educational software applications that can operate on OSS; and virtually no software which is used in special-needs education is currently available for OSS operating systems.

Related articles


Free and Open Source Software CD-ROM
The UNESCO Bangkok ICT in Education Unit has created a CD-ROM which contains a selection of free and open source software (FOSS) tools. The software on the CD-ROM is divided into the following categories: audio and video; games; graphics; internet; learning; office; and utilities. This software can be freely copied, changed and re-distributed. 

Useful links 
Free Software for Educators (CD-ROM and Website) - UNESCO has developed a CD-ROM containing a selection of free and open source software that are useful for teachers and educators. This material has been transferred to the Internet by Budapest University of Technology.

UNESCO's Free Software Portal 
- The UNESCO Free Software Portal gives access to documents and websites which are references for the Free Software/Open Source Technology movement. It is also a gateway to resources related to Free Software. 


Schoolforge aims to unify independent organizations that advocate, use, and develop open resources for primary and secondary education. It is intended to empower member organizations to make open educational resources more effective, efficient, and ubiquitous by enhancing communication and sharing resources. Their website contains software and other resources for teachers and educators.  - Moodle is a course management system (CMS) - a software package designed to help educators create quality online courses. Moodle is Open Source software, and is available in 34 languages, including: Chinese (simplified and traditional), Indonesian, Japanese and Thai with more being added all the time.

The Sakai Project is a community source software development effort to design, build and deploy a new Collaboration and Learning Environment  for higher education. The Project began in January 2004 and aims to deliver the Sakai application framework and associated Content Management System tools and components that are designed to work together.