Shuttleworth Foundation develops open source school software

The Shuttleworth Foundation (TSF), established in October 2000 by South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth, is throwing its weight behind education initiatives by sponsoring the development of free school administration software.

The software, known as SchoolTool, will be piloted in a number of Mpumalanga schools later this year and will be freely downloadable from the Internet when it is completed.

Gyki Le Grange, SchoolTool project manager at TSF, says the team plans to complete version one of the application by mid-year.

She says the "entire foundation is focused on education" and that one of the needs of the local education sector identified by TSF was the need for a low-cost and integrated school administration system.

Le Grange explains that because the development of administration software "is not a very profitable business, most development has been discontinued and not redeveloped on newer technology platforms". As a result, she says, most of the current administration tools lacked many of the core components required by schools, including financial modules.

Le Grange notes that one of the primary concerns for government is the lack of trends and statistics for the education sector, a shortcoming SchoolTool will address.

The Java-based SchoolTool administration application can be run in a networked or standalone environment, and will be available for both the Windows and Linux operating systems.

According to Le Grange, the decision to develop in Java stems from a desire not to tie schools into one or other operating system. She comments that the foundation has "always been pro-open source and in particular Linux," because the open source environment offers users many cost benefits. "The software licensing is a major cost barrier to schools."

Le Grange says initial development is concentrating on learner modules that not only track individual learners within a single school but will also be able to monitor movements between schools. Other modules that will be included in the final application include teacher modules, attendance modules, contacts modules and financial and administration modules. A large portion of the development also concentrates on the user interface because "the software needs to cater for a number of different environments".

She says version 1.0 of SchoolTool is expected to be completed by July. The foundation has agreed with the Mpumalanga Department of Education to run pilot versions of the application in 10 schools prior to the full release of the software, most likely in May and June.

TSF also has a good relationship with other education authorities and projects including the Northern Cape education authority and the Western Province education department, says Le Grange. The foundation is confident that once the benefits of the software are demonstrated to schools, many other schools will download and use the application.

It is a methodology that TSF has found to be very successful, notes Le Grange. "The foundation does not believe in handouts," she says of rural and under-equipped schools. Rather, the foundation aims to educate schools on the benefits of open source software and partner with appropriate parties on specific projects. By educating users, she believes that schools take greater ownership of the equipment that they receive or purchase.

The foundation employs two contract developers, a system analyst and a technical writer to document the SchoolTool software. Ultimately, she says, "the goal is to create momentum around open source software," and although the foundation does not plan on ending development in the near future, by creating momentum, Le Grange hopes the SchoolTool project will develop a life of its own.

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