I’m getting it in the neck from two sides at the moment. One or two teachers who identify with the Open Source movement have passed comments suggesting that our online services Paperless School and Yacapaca are somehow morally inferior because we are a commercial company. Meanwhile, colleagues in online publishing are looking askance because we’ve publicly supported Moodle, the Open Source VLE.
Both are completely misguided in my opinion. Let’s start by debunking a couple of myths…
Open source is not free
You don’t have to pay for Open Source software, but you do have to install it, host it and support its users. In practice, support is the major cost of any piece of complex software. So, who’s doing the supporting? If it’s a paid technician or specialised support company, the cost is overt. Suppose it’s the enthusiastic teacher who sponsored the software into the school? They are on salary, and would be putting their energies elsewhere if not doing this. The total cost may still be lower than with a commercial alternative, but you can’t take this for granted. [Update: the going rate for Moodle support is £ 600/yr, I’m told.]
Open source is not morally superior
If you are a teacher, it’s tempting to think of yourself as a public servant who has risen above the money-grubbing of the commercial world. Let’s test this by looking at how the money really flows.
- Taxpayer -> education budget -> salary budget -> teacher
- Taxpayer -> education budget -> materials budget -> online publisher
In either case, it is the taxpayer who puts a roof over our heads and food on our plates. Of course, some online publishers do get rich, but many others go spectacularly broke.
So why does Chalkface support Moodle, which is Open Source?
Notwithstanding the above, I think much Open Source software has great merit, and indeed Chalkface uses it throughout our projects. For example, this website is built on the Open Source ecommerce platform Zwarehouse, and that in turn is an application of the Plone Open Source content management system, which is written in the (Open Source) Python language. I feel that we have a moral duty to reciprocate.
Second, commercial self-interest motivates us. By helping to give schools a real alternative to the grossly overpriced proprietary VLEs out there, we keep budgets free for other purchases. Logically, some of those will be from Chalkface.
So is there such a thing as a free, proprietary, online service?
If you’ve used Google, you know the answer is ‘yes’. In fact, many online services are free or part-free. In addition to Google, examples include Hotmail, the TES Staffroom, and Flickr. Of those, three pay for themselves with advertising. The fourth, Flickr, has a premium service which allows you to do even more for a small fee.
I mention Flickr last because it’s the closest thing to what we are doing with Yacapaca. For light users, everything – hosting, bandwidth, support, the lot – is free. Power users pay, but only a modest fee. This is the closest you are going to get to having your cake and eating it – a free/low-cost online service, and a viable commercial business for the provider.