Interview | Gunnar Hellekson: Fear and Technology in K-12

As the Chief Technology Strategist for Red Hat’s US Public Sector group, Gunnar Hellekson works with systems integrators and government agencies to encourage the use of open source software in government. He is the co-chair of Open Source for America and one of Federal Computer Week’s Fed 100 for 2010. Gunnar is also a member of the Military Open Source working group, on the SIIA Software Division Board, and sits on the Board of Advisors for CivicCommons. “I perk up when people talk about cross-domain security, edge innovation, and interagency collaboration through the open source model,’ he says. Prior to joining Red Hat, he worked as a developer, systems administrator, and IT director for a series of internet businesses. He’s also been a business and IT consultant to not-for-profit organizations in New York City. During that time, Gunnar spearheaded the reform of safety regulations for New York State’s electrical utilities following the tragic death of Jodie Lane. When he’s not spreading the Good News about open source, “I’m wishing I had a dog,” he says. You can find what he is reading on Goodreads, what he is saying on Twitter, and what he is listening to on But before you go clicking around too much on the above links, it’s worth it to have an interesting time with Gunnar right here in this interview where he shares his thoughts on open source, cloud computing in K-12, fear and non-technical leaders in education today, as well as his outlook on the future of education and technology.

Victor: What’s the state of open source in education? Where is adoption occurring and why?

Gunnar: It’s interesting—open source has always been part of academia. The whole opensource culture came in large part from academia and research institutions, so it’s not surprising to find open source software everywhere in computer science, engineering and math departments.

But walk down the hall to the administrative computing centers, it’s historically been a nightmare of proprietary software and hardware. Just like their commercial counterparts they’ve spent the last few years moving to open source software. The progress has been slow, though. That’s not because of a lack of will ortalent. It’s largely due to budget problems. Besides the usual challenges with capital spending, the recession was vicious to educational institutions.

Victor: What are the benefits of deploying open source solutions?

Gunnar: Most folks come to open source for the cost-savings, and that’s definitely part of it. But once they start adopting more open source software, they start discovering the other advantages. In some cases, it’s more secure. The software is more adaptable to their environment, not only because you can change the code, but also because it’s more likely to support open standards for interoperability. Of course, you can avoid sunk licensing costs and can compete your support contracts, as well.

I think the biggest advantage, though, is that open source is necessarily user-driven. A strong open source project with a thriving community of users and developers is a tremendous engine for innovation. The software moves very quickly, incorporating new ideas, fixing problems and being very responsive to the needs of its users. That’s totally different than the proprietary experience, where the only incentive for innovation is the tax you pay in the form of licensing fees for the next version.

Victor: What challenges do school districts face when moving to open source?

Gunnar: The biggest challenge doesn’t come from open source per se, but from the incumbent systems. Districts are locked into one vendor’s data formats, hardware, or architecture and it’s hard to unwrap all of those dependencies. The good news is, you only have to go through that pain once, and the option value that the untangling creates is totally worth it.

Another challenge is skills. It can be difficult for a district to transition staff to any kind of new software, and that’s true for open source as well.

Fear is another challenge. Non-technical decision-makers can be afraid of open source, what it means for security, what it means to support it, and so on. But we’re seeing that less and less often.

Victor: What are some examples of successful open source projects in school districts?

Gunnar: Moodle is a classic open source success story. You have thousands of educators around the world, all with very similar needs: grading, centrally organized course materials, and so on. Moodle lets us solve these problems once, so the educators and IT staff can focus on more complex and frankly more interesting problems.

Kuali is the equivalent for the administrative computing folks. Institutions have requirements fromtheir enterprise software that are specific to them, and again: why does every institution have to solve the same problem many times over? Kuali allows us to share a common solution to a common problem so we can spend more time on the fun stuff.

Those are two pretty well-known projects, but what gets me excited are the projects I haven’t heard of. Somewhere, right now, there’s an enterprising student, instructor or staffer who’s been able to download useful open source software and done something amazing with it. Maybe they’ve saved the school a bunch of money, made it easier to schedule classes, or shared some intriguing new curriculum. It might even just be a small improvement that makes their own lives easier. Whatever it is, open source opens up institutions to all kinds of innovation that was unavailable to us just a few years ago.

Victor: What would you tell an institution who is on the fence about deploying open source solutions?

Gunnar: First, I’d suggest neutrality. I wouldn’t suggest open source software just because it’s open source. That’s just as bad as avoiding open source because it’s open source.

Second, you should look at total cost, which includes the cost of switching and any sunk costs for licensing.

Third, you should look at the responsiveness of the software. How quickly are bugs fixed? How quickly are security vulnerabilities addressed? The more responsive the open source project or the software vendor is, the easier and safer your system will be.

Fourth, you should account for the lifetime support burden. The institution isn’t in the software business, it’s in the education business—so how can it keep itssupport burden to an absolute minimum? There are a lot of folks who will take open source as a quick, cheap fix to a problem and find themselves a coupleyears later stranded after the project they were using goes defunct. It’s like buying software and having the vendor go bankrupt. How would you handle that? How can you mitigate the risk?

Finally, there may be some problems for which there is no appropriate open source software. In that case, make sure that the proprietary software supports open standards so that you have the option of tying it together with open source, or replacing it with open source once a viable alternative becomes available.

Victor: What role does open source play in cloud computing? How will cloud computing influence K-12 schools?

Gunnar: This doesn’t get talked about enough: open source makes cloud computing possible. It makes high-quality, foundational software like operating systems available at very low cost. Open source also taught us how to work in very fast-moving, agiledevelopment environment. The open source process is being used to drive collaboration among many vendors on interoperability and open interfaces. You can see that in our DeltaCloud project, for example.

It works the other way, too. Cloud makes complex software environments relatively easy to create and share. That makes it easier to develop software that relies on these environments. So if I have a good idea for a new web app, I don’t have to build and buy everything from scratch. I just stand it up in a cloud, pay for it by the hour, and get my open source project started. That’s the idea behind our OpenShift Platform-as-a-Service environment.

Victor: What are the risks or concerns school districts should consider with cloud computing? How can they mitigate these concerns?

Gunnar: The open source community talks about vendor lock-in as one of the big disadvantages of proprietary software: you can’t change your software, you can’t transfer your data and your support can only come from one vendor. Cloud computing takes that problem and makes it bigger and more complicated—our CEO, Jim Whitehurst, calls it “the mother of all lock-in.”

So, think especially about where your data lives. Can you extract it quickly? Will it be in a useful form when you do? Could you switch from one cloud vendor to another? How much time and money would a migration like that require? Make sure you distinguish between the assurances from a cloud vendor and what they’recontractually required to provide.

Victor: What formative experiences of your own have helped to inform your approach to the use of technology to transform education?

Gunnar: When I attended Drew University, they had a pretty remarkable program for the time: every student got a laptop and every student had an email address. This had a profound affect on how the students interacted with the faculty, the administration and with each other. There were all kinds of formal channels for using these capabilities: emailing papers, registering for classes online, and so forth.

The most interesting work, though, was what this technology made possible outside those formal channels. Students could write tools that were useful for other students — we didn’t need to wait for the administration or the computing center toprovide something, we could make it ourselves. That was amazing!

This changed how I understood the role of technology. The challenge is not, as I assumed, how to apply technology to a well-understood problem. The challenge is providing tools to those with problems to solve. The rest takes care of itself.

Victor: What’s your outlook on the future of education? 

Gunnar: This is going to sound bland, but I think the combination of the open source development process, which quickly disseminates good ideas, and cloud computing, which makes complex IT infrastructure cheap, simple, and ubiquitous, is going to be very disruptive. I can’t look into a crystal ball and tell you exactly what’s going to be disrupted and why—but that’s the point: innovation is going to come from these newly-empowered users, staff, and faculty themselves.


Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to:

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