Article Summary #4: Pfaffman – Transforming High School Classrooms with Free/ Open Source Software

Pfaffman, J.  Transforming High School Classrooms with Free/ Open Source Software:  It’s time for an open source software revolution.  (2008).  High School Journal, 91(3) 25-31.  Retrieved December 10, 2008 from the WilsonSelectPlus database.  (Also available at


Pfaffman argues that open source (OS) software can meet many educational needs, particularly in the science classroom.  Despite the quality and availability of OS applications, many educators are unaware of the meaningful role that OS can play in the classroom.  He also argues that the OS development model parallels the development of scientific knowledge.

Pfaffman offers several reasons why teachers do not more readily adopt OS solutions.  Some teachers do not know about OS software, while others think that using OS software without paying for it is stealing.  Pfaffman summarizes the confusion about licenses:

Understanding a license that forbids restrictions on redistribution is difficult to understand when most software is distributed with a license forbidding redistribution.  (p. 26)

Open source software is about much more than money, and Pfaffman describes these benefits in a straightforward manner.  He points out that free speech benefits everyone, not just reporters, and in a similar way open software benefits everyone, not just programmers.

Most of Pfaffman’s arguments focus on the strengths of OS software, but he describes one particular complaint about proprietary software in schools.  When a school chooses to use a piece of proprietary software in the classroom, it turns teachers into “unwitting sales agents” (p. 27) for software companies.

For example, when teachers require students to turn in assignments using a proprietary file format like Microsoft Word’s, this implicitly suggests that in order to be a successful student one must buy, know, use, a particular software program.  (p. 27)

He goes on to say that the use of proprietary software in schools adds value to the software.  Thus, educational discounts are more marketing investment than corporate altruism.

Significant parallels can be drawn between the OS community and the scientific community.  Both communities work to build a collection of shared knowledge, and people in both fields strive to have their work adopted by their respective communities.  Significant advances in both fields are made by amateurs, usually when they are connected to a network of supportive peers.  For example, in OS it is said that ‘Given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow.’  In astronomy we might say, ‘Given enough eyes, all astronomical events are observable.’  Pfaffman is trying to help science teachers see a connection between their field and the OS community, and he is also arguing that exposing our students to OS software deepens their understanding of how science is carried out.

Pfaffman makes a number of general observations about educational technology, and then argues that OS can offer ways to address these issues.  He points out that we have not yet convincingly established a direct connection between computers and educational achievement.  He cites several studies which show marginal differences in achievement when computers are used with students.  The critical factors, he says, are a minimum level of access that must be attained for computers to make a difference, and a coincident rethinking of pedagogical strategies to make sure that technology serves curricular goals.  Pfaffman argues that the simplicity, affordability, and reliability of OS systems can allow districts to more easily manage larger numbers of computers, which increases the resources available for technology-related professional development.

Pfaffman describes two ways to adopt OS solutions in education, the first of which is to adopt entirely open systems.  This usually means a Linux operating system and a set of open applications.  He describes the thin client model and suggests that this approach increases the longevity of existing hardware, and requires fewer full systems.  This is based on an efficient use of processing power, and simplifies configuration and maintenance issues.  Pfaffman also describes the OpenOffice suite, and points out that many people are so accustomed to thinking of Word as the word processor that they are unaware of the existence of other, equally capable word processors.  “Many people are unaware that each of these programs is merely an instantiation of a particular class of programs” (p. 29).

A number of interesting science-specific programs are described.  Kalzium is one.  The OpenScience Project has developed two tools, JMOL and Jchempaint, which model molecules in 2D and 3D.  Pfaffman also describes the Physics Education Technology (PhET) project, which is a set of about 50 physics simulations.  There are also several astronomy-related projects such as Stellarium and Celestia.  Freemind is mentioned as a concept mapping tool.

In closing, Pfaffman argues that using OS software on a regular basis will improve our ability to meet students’ educational needs, and also help them think more critically about the software they use.

Evaluation and Educational Relevance

This article will become an anchor text in my work involving OS in education.  Pfaffman speaks insightfully and directly about the core issues that classroom implementations of OS solutions deal with.  He mentions a variety of resources and projects that seem worthy of further investigation, and cites recent research.  Peer-reviewed research relating to open source in education is a burgeoning field, and these leads are valuable.


The following resources and projects mentioned in Pfaffman’s article seem worthy of further research:

  • Stardust@home project (p. 28) – A project which trains amateurs to help scan comet dust for remnants of old stars.
  • GalaxyZoo – Trains users to recognize galaxies, with the goal of classifying one million galaxies collectively.
  • Conduct a study on OS in education and submit to peer-reviewed and popular journals, to increase the visibility of educational OS solutions
  • Edubuntu
  • K12 Linux Terminal Server Project (K12LTSP) – thin client model
  • OpenScience Project, JMOL, Jchempaint
  • Physics Education Technology project (PhET)
  • Stellarium, Celestia, KStars
  • Freemind
  • Articles
    • Becker, H.J.  (2000).  Findings from the teaching, learning, and computing survey:  Is Larry Cuban right?  Educational Policy Analysis Archives, 8 (51).
    • British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA).  (2005).  Open source software in schools:  A study of the spectrum of use and related ICT infrastructure costs.  Coventry, UK:  BECTA.
    • Considering changing your school’s computer system to open source software?  one school’s conversion to Linux has been a complete success.  (2003).  Canada’s SchoolNet.
    • Cuban, L.  (2001).  Oversold and underused:  Computers in the classroom.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press.
    • Dynarski, M. Agodini, R., Heaviside, S., Novak, T., Cary, N., Campuzano, L., et al.  (2007).  Effectiveness of reading and mathematics software products:  Findings from the first student cohort (Tech. Rep.).  Washington, D.C.:  U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences.
    • Migrating to 90 per cent cheaper than to Microsoft Office 12.  2005.  Computerworld, 11(23).
    • Perkins, K., Adams, W.  Dubson, M., Finkelstein, N., Reid, S., Wieman, C.  2006.  Phet:  Interactive simulations for teaching and learning physics.  The Physics Teacher, 44, 18.
    • Pfaffman (2007).  Transforming Instruction without Training:  A Case Study of the K12 Linux Terminal Server Project.  Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2007.  363-366.
    • Sandholtz, J. and Reilly, Brian.  (2004).  Teachers, Not Technicians:  Rethinking Technical Expectations for Teachers.  Teachers College Record, 106(3), 487-512.

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