Linux in Government: An Interview with Les Richardson, Author of Open Admin
On the School Forge Web site, you can read the statement that led others to consider building a similarly styled "forge" for government. The statement reads:
There are several kinds of software needed in a school environment: network security and monitoring to keep the school networked and safe, grade and timetable tracking software for teachers, educational software for classes, general network clients for email and web access.
The SEUL/edu Educational Application Index is a directory of school-related open source software.
When you go to the School Forge site, you discover that Les Richardson maintains one of the largest vertical repositories on the Web. There, you can find almost any type of software for K-12 and university purposes. In addition to maintaining the Web site, Les develops Open Admin, one of the premier education applications available; teaches school; writes; and supports other educators on the SEUL/edu mailing list, a branch of the Simple End User Linux Project.
Recently, I caught up with Les, one of the busiest people I know, to discuss his Open Admin software and some other issues.
Linux Journal: Les, you have a long history with Linux in schools. I recently received your announcement of Open Admin 1.6 and saw the new features. Before we discuss the software, please give the readers some background on the overall Linux in schools efforts. When did you get involved and what motivated you?
Les Richardson: I like writing software and learning about technology. I'm a science and computer teacher. Once I learn something about computers, I like to put it into a practical application. I originally wrote my local school's administration software using Borland's Paradox database software and Turbo Pascal, in about 1988-90. In 1994-95, I discovered Linux and the Internet and the UNIX philosophy and languages and so on that go along with it. It was a whole new world.
I learned about and used Linux for the next several years. I chose Perl over PHP-FI as my main language because it matched my interests well--text processing, LaTeX, XML and so on. In 2000, I worked on writing an on-line test-bank for Saskatchewan Learning. I used Perl and MySQL to write it and develop some of the technology, along with integrating LaTeX for PDF generation, that I later used in Open Admin.
In 2001, I was approached by Tom Hawboldt of the North West Catholic School Division (NWCSD) to write an administration program for its elementary schools. I wrote a simple application for them that had a pilot test in 2001-2002. From the start, I wanted it was to be released under an open-source license (GPL), and they agreed.
I have been working on Open Admin part-time since than point. [It's been] part-time because I have been teaching full-time since 2002 and have been supported financially by NWCSD and the Battlefords School Division, as well as Rose Marie Academy in Thailand.
I like writing software, and school administration software is a nice means of expression.
LJ: You also maintain the SEUL/edu Educational Application Index. Tell us about this repository; it has some impressive statistics.
LR: This is really the original work of Doug Loss. Doug was assembling lists of educational software and authoring an on-line newsletter. I simply wrote some tools to make his work easier so he wouldn't burn out too quickly. He did all of the really hard work of reviewing and entering this information. It continues to need support and nurturing to remain current. Supporters are certainly welcome.
LJ: What's your take on Linux and open source acceptance in schools? Where is it strong and where is it weak?
LR: The problem is that people who work in schools still don't get the idea of community around this kind of development.
LJ: Do you see political interference in different parts of the globe?
LR: I really don't know. An entrenched Microsoft-think attitude can be a problem due to the NIMS (not invented by Microsoft) mentality. A "community of software developers/users" can be a difficult concept to get across to folks who buy only shrink-wrapped software that runs on desktops.
LJ: What's the biggest challenge Linux and open source face in schools?
LR: I would say creating good software and good documentation and training materials in a collaborative, cooperative fashion.
LJ: Has Mozilla, OpenOffice.org or any other open-source project made an impact in schools?
LR: Their impact is accelerating, but we require good instructional materials to be able to make the best use of these programs--OpenOffice.org, The GIMP and so on--in schools. Teacher training and instructional materials are crucial here.
LJ: Tell us about the Open Admin 1.6 project and how schools around the globe can benefit.
LR: I wrote Open Admin to help support teachers, students, administrators and parents. There are several design goals:
Simplicity. I've tried to keep the interface as simple as I could. I've tried to keep the design and scripting simple and easy to understand and modify. I haven't built any centralized library of functions to be called, although that may come due to multi-language demands.
The software is built on tried and proven technology, including Linux, Perl, LaTeX and MySQL, that is reliable and low maintenance. We tend to run large numbers of schools on a centrally located server [built from] modest hardware. I've tried to make OA as lightweight in its bandwidth and resource requirements as possible. For example, there are only two graphics on the main administration site and none on the teacher site. Also, a single CSS supports all format controls--things like this.
We are planning to add student images in the near future for identification, if needed. So this will up the bandwidth requirements where this functionality is needed.
Transparency. I've tried to move functions out of the central office and onto the teachers' workstations so they can print their own reports and manage their own classrooms more easily. In the process, this should simplify the job of the secretary/ies.
For students, I want them always to be aware of their progress and marks in any class. The on-line grade book is the result, although much more work has to be done. Similarly, for parents, the parent functions allow them to track their children's progress in school more easily.
Control. I want schools to be in control of their software and its functions rather than being at the mercy of software companies that charge large amounts of money to schools who have, in many cases, simple needs. Hopefully, OA can put control back into the hands of teachers and administrators. It would be nice to have a community of folks to help support this.
LJ: What's adoption like?
LR: With open-source software, this is hard to tell. Downloads are from all over the planet, for example, South America, North America, Europe, Africa and Australia. In Saskatchewan, Canada, besides the two supporting divisions (25 schools), we have at least three other divisions using it, and pilots are ongoing in other divisions.
International schools have shown some interest in further development. I also have fielded some questions from schools in various parts of the US. For example, there is interest in Spanish-speaking areas, where they are doing a Spanish translation. OA also is being tested in some Australian schools in New South Wales.
LJ:What kind of success can be seen by the schools using OA?
LR: From the limited feedback I've had with Saskatchewan schools outside the supporting divisions, it has been quite positive. This is very gratifying. It certainly lifts your spirits when someone appreciates your hard work. The supporting divisions have paid for feature development, but I have done all of the documentation and open-source releases on my own time, unpaid.
We have to think carefully about what we mean by success. We will have success with OA when we have more of a community built around supporting it and fostering development. This is happening now, but it's been slow.
LJ: What are your plans for the future?
LR: I will continue to add features that schools and teachers want or what I figure they need. Upcoming features include:
Family Reports and Functions
Student Pictures & Attendance Reporting
Single Site Scripting
And further out, we are looking at adding or improving scheduling and multi-language support. Of course, there are many other interesting things in the world of open-source software that one could do.
LJ: I can't think of anything more fulfilling that helping the kids and leaving a legacy.
Tom Adelstein lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife, Yvonne, and works as a Linux and open-source software consultant locally and nationally. He's the co-author of the book Exploring the JDS Linux Desktop, published by O'Reilly and Associates. Tom has written numerous articles on Linux technical and marketing issues as a guest editor for a variety of publications. His latest venture has him working as the webmaster of JDSHelp.org.