Open Source Success in Schools – Something to make a “FUSS” about

Since he was a child, Marco Marinello has always found computers and how they operate intriguing. His father introduced him to the world of computer science early, including the basics of Linux system administration. Fortunately his own school — and in fact all of the South Tyrol region where he lives — runs a modified version of Debian (“Free Upgrade in Southtyrol’s Schools” or “FUSS“) for both administrative computing, and significantly for Marco, on student laptops as well. Free and Open Source Software provides schools and students unique educational opportunities while enhancing the technology services offered to teachers, administrators, families, and ultimately the community they serve.

Motivated by his own interests and with the support of the Bozen-Bolzano School District and staff, Marco began volunteering with the maintenance of his local school network. The opportunity to work hands-on with the technology, learn from working professionals, and help his community, fostered his curiosity and promoted exploration of computers and computing: he soon found himself programming, teaching himself HTML and Python.

Screenshot of the latest version of FUSS (©Paolo Dongilli. License: CC BY-SA 4.0)

With continued opportunities, only made possible through the Bozen-Bolzano schools commitment to Free and Open Source Software, Marco began working on the FUSS project directly. His first project was to port the FUSS distribution to armhf, and the installation of RaspberryPis in a Bolzano high school computer lab. The work not only provided Marco with the technical education one might expect, but with presentations to both his school’s teachers and technicians as well as the local Linux User Group, important lessons in writing and communications followed.

Marco Marinello with Piergiorgio Cemin, teacher and FUSS Project member (©Emiliano Vavassori. License: CC BY-SA 4.0)

I think that FUSS gave me the very important opportunity to approach and learn the importance of free software and I’m therefore very grateful.

— Marco Marinello, student and developer.
A workshop held by Marco Marinello in 2016 (©Emiliano Vavassori. License: CC BY-SA 4.0)

Marco’s initial success led to many other projects — and learning opportunities: “PyHearings,” a project for parents to book appointments with teachers, and “Gestione piano di Aggiornamento” a teachers’ training portal, a complete web-application based on Django, that automates the district’s previous process (that required 20 employees). Fully embracing the “open ethos” Marco also contributed to existing projects integrated with FUSS like, OctoMon (the district’s central monitoring system) and OctoNet (the district’s management tool). And to make his Free and Open Source experience complete, Marco has presented on Django and LibreOffice Online: again highlighting that the activities undertaken, and skills acquired, aren’t just technical. With dedicated staff and creative administrators, Free and Open Source Software can be a valuable addition, enhancing the school’s entire curriculum.

Considering the success of students like Marco, and the FUSS program itself, we reached out to Paolo Dongilli, Technical Inspector for the Italian Department for Education and Traininig of the Autonomous Province of Bozen-Bolzano, to learn more about the program, it’s inception, and where it is headed. We hope the experiences of the Bozen-Bolzano schools can help other schools recognize the opportunities of Free and Open Source Software to extend technology resources and contribute to educational programs.

One of the IT-labs with FUSS – Middle School “Ada Negri” in Bolzano (©Paolo Dongilli. License: CC BY-SA 4.0)

Open Source Initiative (OSI): Can you tell us a little about the schools, school district, and Bozen/Bolzano Area?

Paolo Dongilli: The Autonomous Province Bozen – South Tyrolis is located in Northern Italy with a population of just over 525,000 people. Because of its location, along the Italian and Austrian border, residents may speak Italian, German, or Ladin, a native language common the Dolomite Mountains. As one can imagine, with such a diverse community living within a politically autonomous region, our schools face many challenges in accommodating learners’ educational needs, while respecting our many cultures, and compiling with independent local and regional governments. The school system serving the community thus includes 44,000 students attending 78 German language schools; 17,000 students in Italian language schools; and another 2,500 students in Ladin language schools. Even more interesting (i.e. challenging), is that each of these three language-based school systems have their own school boards.

OSI: What is your background in technology generally, and with open source and GNU/Linux specifically?

Paolo Dongilli: I graduated in 1998 with a degree in Computer Science Engineering, and began working in Computational Linguistics at EURAC Research, then for the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano.

In 2008 I left research and joined the ICT Division of the Province of Bozen-Bolzano where, I worked for the ICT Strategy and Planning Office in the Enterprise Architecture Group which, in 2016, led to a position with the Italian Department for Education and Traininig of South Tyrol to coordinate FUSS (Free Upgrade South Tyrol’s Schools).

I started exploring the Free and Open Source Software world during the 90s, when I was studying at the university. When I came back to Bolzano I and some friends founded Linux User Group Bolzano-Bozen-Bulsan to help spread the use of FLOSS and GNU/Linux in South Tyrol.

OSI: What were some of the key drivers, issues, circumstances that led to your interest in introducing open source and GNU/Linux to the school district?

Paolo Dongilli: Open Source Software can be extremely helpful to both students and schools. A perfect example of this would be by looking at Bozen-Bolzano schools. FUSS is a complete GNU/Linux solution, server, client and desktop / standalone, based on Debian for the management of our school network. Importantly, the project provides and promotes, “digital sustainability,” allowing students and teachers to use at home the same tools installed at school, freely and without any cost for families.

OSI: What barriers did you have to overcome throughout the process of introducing and implementing your plan?

Paolo Dongilli: From the very beginning [January 2005], the concept of Free Software in schools was favored by local political parties and school directors of the Italian language schools. A key motivation during planning was the opportunity for students and teachers to use the same software at school and at home, without any additional costs to families. Planners were also aware they were Investing public money, and felt the project could spark new educational projects: creating new software and manuals, reusing and modifying existing software, sharing the new outcome with the world.

In addition to the benefits related to access and academics, planners believed FLOSS would provide financial savings, compared to purchasing expensive recurring licenses from vendors like Microsoft, while also extending the life of hardware through open source alternatives.

As one might expect, we experienced the typical barriers from people who did not want to exit their comfort zone, or did not appreciate the importance of investing public money in schools in a sustainable way. Fortunately those people were a minority: our teachers understood the importance of this change and the pupils started using GNU/Linux without any difficulty.

Paolo Dongilli presenting at SFSCon 2018 (©Open Source Initaitive. License: CC BY 4.0)

OSI: How did the transition go? How did you raise awareness, gain support, address concerns, confront objections?

Paolo Dongilli: The project was financed by the European Social Fund, supported and sponsored by the Italian Department for Education and Traininig of the Autonomous Province of Bolzano, administratively managed by the Professional Training Institute “Luigi Einaudi” of Bolzano, in collaboration with the Italian Department for Education and Traininig, and with the advice and collaboration of the IT firm Truelite Srl as technological partner. A strong synergy and convergence of intent was created between politics, public, and private sectors, and the planning phase of the FUSS project began in January 2005, with a deployment phase during the summer of that year. The project went live in September at the beginning of the new school year.

OSI: How did the implementation go, technically, culturally, academically?

Paolo Dongilli: The project included an analysis of the state of hardware across the district, the preparation of software packages — such as the FUSS-server (configuration of services on the server side), and FUSS-client — and the development of a variety of tools to make the server and client installation simpler and automated. We also worked to identify open source alternatives to existing applications used across the district.

Over the years other services were added, such as Octofuss (server and user management), Octomon (technical monitoring of installations), a VPN network that connects all schools, servers with e-learning platforms (Moodle and Chamilo), VOIP services for some schools, just to mention the most significant.

We also developed and implemented a comprehensive training course for the administration of the systems. This included seven teachers and one administrator (The FUSS Group) who were charged with not only managing the technical side (hardware and software), but just as importantly, carry out our educational and client-side support activities, helping teaching staff and students fully maximize the resources available with the new FUSS environment.

A FUSS Group operates in every Italian school in South Tyrol meeting local needs, and becomes, in time, a point of reference and advice for all educational activities using information and communication technologies (ICT). Today, the FUSS Group also proposes new tools and services based on Debian or derivatives (Ubuntu, Mint), recommends updates suitable to specific teaching and learning needs, and assesses requests from teachers. All requests are considered.

All this without forgetting the fundamental purpose: to support colleagues and students in the use of ICT on a daily basis for teaching and learning.

OSI: How did you measure success, and did you meet those expectations?

Paolo Dongilli: Success is measured in many ways. First sustainability: the ability of teachers and students to accomplish their daily work, meet educational objectives, and perform administrative tasks, through Free and Open Source Software. Secondly, influencing best-practices: the adoption of LibreOffice and open (document) formats in education positively influenced our local public administration which now uses and keeps LibreOffice up-to-date. And most importantly, educational value: the participation of students studying, modifying, creating, and publishing Free and Open Source Software and documentation, flipping the classroom and showing their efforts to colleagues and teachers.

OSI: What failed, or did not go as expected?

Paolo Dongilli: As the saying goes: “nemo propheta in patria sua,” i.e. “nobody is a prophet in his own land.” Although we’ve been successful for almost fifteen years, FUSS has never been able to spread beyond our Italian language schools, to the German and Ladin language schools within South Tyrol. We’ve been unable to or make headway with ethical reasons/arguments, didactic advantages of Free and Open Source Software over proprietary software, or even through demonstrated cost savings, which can then be invested in faculty development or new educational initiatives.

OSI: What is the program like today?

Paolo Dongilli: Today governance is provided by the Italian Department for Education and Training, through the “FUSS Lab for Digital Sustainability in Schools”.

FUSS Digital Sustainability Laboratory at Liceo “Toniolo” (©Paolo Dongilli. License CC BY-SA 4.0)

The FUSS Lab is composed by 4 people (Piergiorgio Cemin, Massimo Previdi, Claudio Cavalli, and myself) in collaboration with Mauro Valer, inspector for the MINT subjects and the great support of Marco Marinello who has been helping with great passion since when he was in middle school. In September Piergiorgio Cemin, after many years of teaching and support for the project will retire and Massimo Previdi will bring back his experience to the high school (IISS “Galileo Galilei”) where he has been teaching. They will be substituted in the team by Andrea Bonani, teacher and former coordinator of the project, and Stefania Fiore, also teacher and open source enthusiast.

A group of 12 GNU/Linux professionals (7 FTE) of the Province of Bolzano IT division (FUSS Technicians) provides technical assistance, maintaining all the networks, clients, servers, and available devices in all schools doing a great job every day.

Our current footprint includes 64 servers and around 4,000 PCs and notebooks. Current staffing support includes at least one teacher at each school serving as the “FUSS referent,” with a total of approximately 70 teachers across the district who act as points of contact for FUSS technicians. These teams serve to assist other non-technical staff and students, undertake maintenance, and respond to requests related to installed software, new software, or training needs.

A few important notes about our outreach activities. First, according to Article 69 of the National Code for  Digital Administration, every line of code we develop as part of the FUSS project is distributed under the GPLv3, with all documentation carrying a CC BY- SA license. We’re also working directly with the community to share our work, and increase the use of Free and Open Source Software outside of schools. For example, a group of volunteers from the Linux User Group Bozen-Bolzano, and the Group “Digital Sustainability South Tyrol – Alto Adige”, offer twice monthly workshops  in 4 different cities (Bozen, Meran, Bruneck, and Brixen) to help the public install Linux on PCs and notebooks. These volunteers provide demonstrations and training on how to use the the GNU/Linux operating system, and the most common software packages, such as LibreOffice (a real favorite among community participants).

OSI: What would be your three best pieces of advice for others considering implementing open source within their own schools and districts?

Paolo Dongilli: First of all, don’t reinvent the wheel, i.e. look around to see if there are examples from other organizations that you can follow and software you can reuse. We at the FUSS Project are happy to share with you our experience and lessons learned over the past 14 years. Write to us: We’re happy to share all we have: multilingual distributions for both servers and clients — all Debian — with additional packages to make configuration on school networks easier, and a series of metapackages to group the most common packages needed in elementary, middle and high schools.

I’d also suggest, when presenting a project plan to your school or school district, in addition to highlighting all the technical and economic advantages, emphasize how “sustainable digitalization,” based on Free and Open Source Software, open formats, and free didactic material, improves knowledge sharing, fosters non-traditional educational opportunities, and extends access to students and families who may not have access to proprietary systems.

Also, don’t underestimate the importance (and value) of communication with, and training of users (teachers, principals, pupils and their families) through your local Free and Open Source Software community.

Lastly, invest money in people — motivated people, no matter what their role, technicians, developers, teachers, students — instead of spending money in renewing proprietary software licenses (i.e. operating expenses) in your school. Remember that when you spend money developing new FOSS or enhancing existing FOSS you also invest money (i.e. capital  expenses). Share all what you do and create (software, documentation, didactic material), especially if you use public money