Over 2 lakh computers in schools across Kerala will soon be provided with the latest version of a Linux-based free operating system called IT@School. Released by the state-owned Kerala Infrastructure and Technology for Education (KITE), it will provide a variety of applications for educational and general purposes. And according to KITE, it will help the Kerala government save around Rs 3,000 crore.
The IT@School operating system (OS) will include several free applications customised per the state school curriculum, including an open source office suite, language input tools, database applications, DTP (Desktop Publishing) graphics, image editing software, sound recording, video editing, 3D animation packages, Geographical Information System, database servers and desktop versions of mobile apps.
The OS will be installed in more than 14,000 government and government-aided schools – all with classes 1 to 12 – comprising 45.29 lakh students and 1.72 lakh teachers.
According to KITE officials, this OS is ideal for teachers and students, and can also be used for home computers, government offices, DTP centres that use an open source office suite, internet kiosks and by software developers and computer service providers.
How it is cost effective
This new move, however, has many wondering how the use of a OS worth Rs 1.5 lakh for over 2 lakh computers can translate into savings worth Rs 3,000 crore. Many have questioned whether it is an exaggeration or how such an amount can be invested in a proprietary OS.
According to Anvar Sadath, vice chairman and executive director of KITE, if these applications were proprietary in nature, it would have attracted a licence fee of Rs 1.5 lakh for each computer, adding up to Rs 3,000 crore for all the school computers in total.
However, customised by KITE, the IT@School version 18.04 features numerous educational software such as GeoGebra, PhEt, Sunclock, GCompris, Stellarium, etc. The applications and OS are fully based on free software, “and hence, there is no financial commitment at any stage,” Anvar tells TNM.
“On comparing these with propriety OS such as Microsoft Windows, Apple Mac, and applications or software of similar nature in lieu of their FOSS (free and open-source software) alternatives, only Rs 1.5 lakh would be incurred,” adds Anvar.
He further explains, “FOSS-based LibreOffice instead of Microsoft Office, GIMP/Krita software instead of Adobe Photoshop Premier, and Inkscape instead of Corel Draw are some of the alternatives to the proprietary versions that cost thousands of rupees.”
On calculating the price of individual proprietary software, the total cost may go up to Rs 5 lakh per computer. “But considering the advantage of bulk purchase, an average cost of Rs 1.5 lakh per computer is factored in. Besides, we do not want to encourage the use of pirated copies of the proprietary software among our students,” adds Anvar.
What necessitated the change
According to Anvar, more than the monetary savings the greatest advantage of the free OS is its ability to be used and shared without any restrictions as well as to make necessary modifications and publish – limitations that are often faced in the education sector.
“FOSS gives us the freedom to study, copy and share source code. Proprietary software, on the other hand, often deny it even if it is given free,” he says. “Once you install a proprietary software in a computer at a school, students cannot take a copy of this, so they are restrained legally. User license cost is another major bottleneck for schools.”
Anvar adds that the digital content used in schools should not be prepared in advance by only the industry or outside stakeholders. “Applications such as GeoGebra (developed as part of a thesis at the University of Salzburg) and PhEt by the University of Colorado Boulder permit schools to use the source code and customise it to suit the curriculum and the requirements of their teachers, and not by external ‘experts’ who don’t understand the philosophy of education,” he explains.
After understanding the limitations of proprietary applications and the possibilities of FOSS, KITE built an in-house team to cater to the demand. By 2007, KITE fully migrated to FOSS.
Most of the applications in the new version have been customised as per the state school curriculum, a key highlight being the vast collection of Malayalam Unicode fonts that facilitates computing in Malayalam. International free software applications used to teach various subjects using IT – such as Marble, RasMol, GPlates, ghemical, etc – have been customised and localised.
The new OS will be installed in over 2 lakh computers in schools, including 60,000 laptops as part of the Hi-Tech school project and 55,000 laptops as part of the Hi-Tech Lab project, before the start of the next academic year.