What for some means liberation from data monopolists like Google, Apple or Microsoft is for others a tangle of applications, programs and user-unfriendly software. It’s time to take a closer look at the pros and cons of open source software (OSS).
The most obvious benefit of Free Open Source Software (FOSS) is that there are no licensing costs. FOSS can be installed school-wide even if it is only used a few times. With FOSS, schools do not commit themselves to long-term user contracts.
In addition, every student can download open source programs onto their own devices. There is no compulsion that parents have to pay for software that is used in school and therefore also required for homework. Financially less well-off families are not disadvantaged.
Since open source software usually requires fewer computing resources, the hardware used can be used for longer. Schools don’t have to resort to computers with the latest generation of chips or huge hard drives when making new purchases. In this way, schools are decoupling themselves from the innovation cycles of large hardware and software companies, which are becoming shorter and shorter, which means that the pressure to use new hardware and software faster and faster increases. This independence from hardware and software providers also prevents schools from becoming victims of the so-called lock-in effect. Since manufacturers have an economic interest in their customers using their products throughout their lives, hardware and software are proprietary, i.e. incompatible with products from the competition. The result:
It also becomes problematic when companies such as Google, Apple or Microsoft stop supporting software and no longer offer security updates.
Keyword security: Fraudsters are interested in the widest possible distribution of their malware in order to be successful from their point of view, i.e. the more frequently software is used in the school environment, the higher the probability that it will become the target of cyber attacks. This can often be ruled out with OSS, although it can of course also be targeted by hackers as the number of users increases.
Since the source code of OSS is open, security gaps are usually identified and closed quickly, especially when there is a large community behind the software. Thanks to the support of the community, lock-in effects with OSS are difficult to achieve, especially since every user theoretically has the option of adapting the software as desired. To a certain extent, this ensures both the further development of the software and long-term archiving and readability of the data, since open standards are used far more frequently with OSS than with proprietary software.
Invest in software instead of people
However, independence from large tech companies does not come for free. A certain level of IT know-how is required for the use of OSS, which is not available in many schools. Therefore, for many, it is more convenient to put the money into a complete package from a single commercial vendor, which ensures correct installation and high availability of the software, rather than personnel. In addition, commercial solutions tend to be more user-friendly than their OSS counterparts. The way it works is more intuitive and is understood more quickly by students, so that they can use the software in class without much preliminary practice.
Even if there is a large community behind an OSS solution, it is still a very heterogeneous community, which means that there is neither a guarantee that every software will be further developed (which does not exist even with proprietary software), nor have it Schools have a single point of contact when problems arise and they need help. Then a lot of personal initiative is usually required.
The use of OSS becomes particularly critical when liability issues are not clearly regulated or are not regulated at all. Who is then liable for damage caused by a cyber attack for which a hacker exploited a vulnerability in the OSS?
Finally, it must not be overlooked that many schools do not have the option to choose between commercial and open source software at all. The school administrations or district governments often decide which software is used at the school. Anyone who still wants to rely on OSS has been able to find support in the Free School Software network since summer 2021, which was launched by the Bielefeld data protection association Digitalcourage.
The network continues the community spirit of the open source community. Interested parties can find a lot of information on the network’s website, such as explanations about OSS alternatives that can be used instead of proprietary software solutions, as well as contacts who share their experiences with OSS here. Just one week after the start, the network counted 400 offers of help, half a year later there were already over 1,000 entries.
The network makes no secret of the dangers it sees: “We must prevent an Apple, Google or Microsoft account from becoming mandatory for every student in the future,” says a blog post on the website.
The Lobbycontrol association warns against so-called deep lobbying, which uses long-term strategies to steer attitudes or moods in the population and politics in a certain direction. According to Lobbycontrol, this would also include the school activities of some companies, with which they would cover up that they are also concerned with exerting influence and promoting their image.