To be honest, for a couple of years now I have been pretty skeptical about the future of Free and Open Source software in Finnish schools and education sector in general.
In Finland we have a lot of open source expertise and know-how. We have developers. I also assume that majority of the (liberally) higher educated people in Finland, at least know what is “Open Source” and “Linux”. This should be a great foundation to get open source software to all public schools (and public institutions).
Today I did a little Internet study on the topics to find out where we are now. Frankly, I am positively surprised. There are a lot of things happening in the field. But there is also something very crucial missing. I’ll get back to this in the end of the post.
The good news is that the number of schools using Open Source is growing. Relying on several sources I would estimate that around 5% of the schools are using Linux on desktop and over 50 % of the schools have some Open Source software in their desktops — mainly Firefox browser, whose share in Finland is estimated to be over 50%. This is a great result when the Linux’s is estimated to have only 1-2% share of all the desktops in the world.
Another good news is that there are several projects raising awareness on Free and Open Source software for schools. There are blogs and newsletters, webinars and get-together events. The outreaching and educational activities seems to be today professionally carried out and well organized. Still, I would claim that the information provided on the topic is far too technical and as such irrelevant for most of the decisions makers. The people making decisions on the educational technology are not really interested in the LTSP (Linux Terminal Server Project). They want solutions. It looks that we are still missing credible providers of solutions.
Probably, however, the most promising thing in the field of Open Source in education in Finland is, that there actually are several small and middle size companies that are specialized in providing Open Source solutions for schools. Some of them have also build their own products and services specifically for the school market.
I am maybe doing some unfair promotion of only three companies, but they are good examples of those that were catched by my survey.
Opinsys seems to be the most promising one. Opinsys designs and implements networks, computers and software for schools — in practice solutions for teaching and learning. They provide support and maintenance. All Linux and Open Source.
Dicole use to develop their own Open Source community/intranet/learning environment platform, but has since then focus more on knowledge work. I still, however, believe that they could pull together a package of software-as-a-service specifically designed for schools.
Mediamaisteri is a company with strong presence in the Finnish education sector. Their product / service portfolio includes Moodle, Elgg, Mediawiki and Open meetings hosting. All Open Source. (Disclaimer: the founders of Dicole and Mediamaisteri are my friends)
Could these companies find growth in the international markets? I think they could. At least, in the European markets. Maybe there are similar small companies in other Scandinavian / Baltic countries (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Estonia) or in the large European countries (Germany, France, UK, Poland, Italy, Spain). Maybe these small Finnish companies could establish partnerships with them?
I honestly was happy to find out that the Free / Open Source in education is not dead in Finland. Some regions in some other countries, like Andalucia in Spain and some pockets in the UK are maybe far ahead of us. I still, however, think that in Finland we have great chances to make a real impact in the field.
I wrote in the title that there is still something crucial missing. What is that?
It is the simple Linux based device designed specifically for school use. I think OLPC XO is not the solution for us or the rest of the Europe. We need our own device that is basically a touch screen with a web browser, a camera, audio in/out and all possible forms of wireless connectivity (Wlan, 3/4G, Bluetooth).
I know there are people in Finland who are able to do perfect electronic engineering and industrial design for this. I know that there are software people able to do relatively minor changes to existing Linux distributions to make it up and running. If we can do it, why we are not doing it?
Just with the European market — close to 100 million school children — it should make sense.