Japanese Schools May Switch to Linux
Conference held in Tokyo considers the open-source option for education
Christopher Salzberg (gyaku)
Published 2007-03-07 07:46 (KST)
Japan's public broadcaster NHK reported late last week that the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry plans to introduce the open-source operating system Linux for use within classrooms across the country in the near future.
According to an investigation conducted last spring, there are currently over 400,000 computers at schools in Japan running on either Windows 98 or Windows Me, systems no longer supported by the software manufacturer Microsoft. The prohibitive cost of replacing these machines with newer models, as well as the rising price of proprietary software, prompted school teachers and administrators to propose the possibility of switching to open-source software as an affordable alternative.
A conference held in Tokyo on March 2-3, attended by around 2,000 government officials, teachers and education board members from across the country, considered the idea of reclaiming these older computers by switching from unsupported and out-of-date versions of Windows to the operating-system Linux, which can be freely downloaded from the Internet. A teacher from a high school in Fukuoka Prefecture explained: "Having to always install the latest software is costly, and it makes things very difficult for us. From now on, I want to actively move toward the use of free open-source software."(1)
The idea of switching to Linux has become an increasingly active topic of consideration over the past few years in Japan. Starting in late 2004, a trial study conducted at a handful of schools across the country, comprising a total of roughly a thousand students, experimented with using Linux-based systems in the classroom environment. Three hundred Linux-installed computers were distributed to these schools and subsequently used in a variety of classroom activities such as science experiments, report-writing, and internet-based research. While certain issues arose in the context of these activities related to dependencies on Windows-based software such as Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player, the project on the whole was largely successful and students are reported to have enjoyed and benefited from working in the Linux environment.(2)
Last week's conference in Tokyo, organized under the title of "E-squared Evolution," included numerous demonstrations and presentations, as well as panel discussions with researchers, teachers and administrators. The conference was organized through the Center for Educational Computing (CEC), a group under the control of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) and the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), set up to promote the use of computers at schools within Japan.(3)
Software on display included KNOPPIX, a linux variant which can boot and run entirely from a CD, without the need to install anything on a hard disk, as such making minimal demands on computer architecture. A group of Japanese university researchers and teachers have developed a variant of this minimal system specifically designed for educational institutions, entitled Knoppix Edu. At the conference, a group from one school demonstrated the operation of a robot installed with a camera and wireless LAN, as well as a cross-platform suite of tools for 3D animation (Blender), entirely operated under the minimal KNOPPIX O/S.(4) Other open-source systems currently in use at schools in Japan include Turbolinux, Debian Linux, and the Java Desktop System R2.(5)
Under the title of the "Open School Platform (OSP) Portal," the CEC plans to follow-up the current phase of open-source educational integration, which completes its operations this month, with a new phase in which Linux software, documentation and packages will be made freely available at the group's website. From 2008 onwards, the project aims to move into a new phase in which the goal will be to install open-source systems on existing computers currently running outdated and unsupported Windows software.
The move toward open-source software within Japan mirrors similar transformations ongoing within educational institutions in numerous other countries around the world. An article late last month in Linux.com reports that "Linux and open source software are receiving increased interest within the educational sector as an alternative to Microsoft Windows Vista," noting that the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta), among others, warned of "lock-in" risks due to Microsoft's licensing programs. In Venezuela, the government has gone so far as to make it illegal -- by issue of a Presidential Decree -- to use proprietary software in public educational institutions, giving rise to several open-source movements.(6) Meanwhile, Chinese government officials reportedly now regard the open-source community as "a key to its software industry" and plans to invest more resources in Linux-based systems.(7)
It remains to be seen to what degree the current drive for open-source software within Japan will succeed in its long-term goals. However, given the increasingly stringent financial constraints imposed on educational institutions and the heavy price tag demanded by proprietary software, it seems unlikely that the inroads the open-source community has forged thus far within Japanese educational settings will be easily reversed. Further progress will ultimately depend on the level of grassroots involvement in development and promotion of the open-source option, and on the degree of pressure exerted by monopolistic proprietary software manufacturers in response to this threat to the corporate profit margin.