Tech Leadership

Opening Up Options for School Software

by Jim Hirsch


an you keep a secret? If you look closely at the license agreements your staff routinely agrees to for software that is purchased and installed on computers throughout your school system, you better have answered “yes” to that question.

Almost all school software in use today in the United States falls under the “proprietary software” category — software programs used, produced or marketed under exclusive legal right of the inventor or maker. Schools pay for the privilege of using this software either through a one-time fee or an annual license fee.

TLHirsch.jpgJim Hirsch

Unfortunately, the software providers have had to go to great lengths to protect their intellectual property, beyond typical copyright protection in many instances, in the hope that competitors don’t move ahead of them in terms of program features. These software-use licenses detail specifically how their software is to be installed and ultimately used within your schools.

As you realize so well, with the investment our school boards and communities make in technology resources, it’s to every student’s benefit to get the most use possible out of each software application. Whether it’s the ability to access the software from any computer a student happens to be at while at school or to use the software during the 16 hours each day when students are not at school, current proprietary software licenses often don’t fit the model of collaboration that we espouse for our students and teachers.

Open Source
An alternative that many countries outside of the United States have used for years is what’s called “open source” software. Unlike proprietary software, open source is software licensed under an agreement that conforms to the open source definition for freedom of use.

In general, the definition provides for your freedom to use, modify and redistribute the software in any way you wish. There are no license fees to pay, and any costs associated with open source software typically are for staff training or specialized support from a third-party company for implementation assistance.

School systems across the United States are just now getting to the point of investigating open source software solutions as alternatives to existing proprietary software solutions. Throughout the world, schools have been reaping the benefit of open source applications that provide stable software for many years. This includes access to a worldwide community of developers for defined new development and new models of software support.

There are literally thousands of open source software products available for use worldwide. The best listing of these software projects, particularly those with direct links to educational use, can be found at

Adoption Options
Any software package being considered for adoption in a school system should meet minimum standards. These may include a thriving development community with a large body of contributors and a motivated users group offering ideas; a clear, school-friendly license; commercial support from companies employing people to support and enhance open source applications; and comprehensive documentation providing a clear path for implementation.

For example, high school students completing a business computer-applications course can no longer simply learn to use a single program interface such as Microsoft Office. With the wide proliferation of web-based software, our students need to be able to understand not only the basic functions of word processing, spreadsheet and presentation applications in general, but also in a variety of delivery venues.

With that in mind, the Plano Independent School District recently redesigned its business computer-information systems course using the open source productivity suite Open Office as the core software component. In addition to learning expected software basics using that program, students also will use Microsoft Office, Google Docs and Zoho Office to experience a variety of interfaces.

A Global Model
You should feel comfortable investigating open source software solutions for your own school system since the largest and most innovative companies in the world, including Google and Amazon, are running their highly complex and successful systems using open source.

Students operate outside of school in an open source philosophy; their culture is one where it is unacceptable not to share what you know. It’s time we did more than simply give lip service to students about being more collaborative in support of preparation for work in a global community. Providing students with options in the use of open source software demonstrates commitment to collaboration in a visible manner.

Jim Hirsch is the associate superintendent for academic and technology services in the Plano, Texas, Independent School District. E-mail:

More information on open source options and school software is accessible at these two websites: