January 18, 2007

If the world uses Firefox, why don't schools?

I saw this story on the relative rise and rise of Firefox, the internet browser I use and which has never failed to present web pages in the way they were intended. Just one example: trying to edit a PBWiki yesterday on Internet Explorer 7 I couldn't get half the What You See Is What You Get buttons to add formatting to text on the page. A quick switch to Firefox and it all works.

Given that we are/should be entirely user centered in education (my opinion, at least) why do we not see every browser in schools using Firefox. I guess there are valid reasons against using it as well as these ones for using it. Any IT gurus want to take the plunge?

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Ewan, I think the main reason why schools don't use Firefox is that they would have to download and install it. IE is automatically there so it is the easy option, especially for the small schools that don't have technicians. Maybe there is a need for educational suppliers to install it on the pc build.

One of the issues the techies say in Shropshire for not doing it is that it doesn't work well with SIMS, but rather than telling SIMS to get it sorted they take the easy way out and just go with IE!

Have you asked your IT support team why it's not on the PCs? If we are looking to get certain bits of software added to PCs we usually ask our support function to install it, and if they refuse we ask the reasons for the refusal. I would think it's unlikely anyone from your IT support team reads your online diary (apart from Mr Cruickshank I suppose)!

Firefox still only represents about 14% of the browser 'real estate' (even after several years of Firefox advocacy from various sources) which may be why your PCs don't have it as standard - most people still use Internet Explorer (for good or for bad). Most pupils will use 'standard' Microsoft-based PCs and software when they move into the workplace - maybe another reason for schools to still use these rather than alternative operating systems?

Steve,
It's not always true that running Firefox necessarily means installing it. The pocket version will run from a USB stick, for example.

I wonder whether the workplace argument is one of the tail wagging the dog. In my workplace we use IE7 or Firefox or Safari or Camino. Where's the 'standard' in there? It's flexible instead.

On another note, I've found blogs to be an excellent means of airing ideas or questions to not only those in our IT teams but those elsewhere. Maybe the East Lothian eduBuzz / Exc-el network is something the British Computer Society hasn't discovered yet ;-)

I would hesitate about drawing comparisons between your place of work and most others - you work for an educational establishment, which is very different from a "normal" place of business. If you walk into a bank or insurance company office, you will NOT find a variety of technologies.

It is important to remember that education & technology companies provide a VERY different IT environment than most other industries. Generalising from LTS does not create a very accurate viewpoint.

I think your point about banks and insurance companies is valid although the sectors with most growth, the creative ones, tend to offer choice. Part of me also thinks that argument is the tail wagging the dog. User experience is more important than what is easy for IT to set up, in an ideal effective world anyway. Where product support and updates can be rolled out in a click that ideal is not far away.

At the end of the day IE and Firefox share much of the same functions and buttons, but Firefox presents web pages better. To us it seems a no brainer unless there is a technical or security reason otherwise, neither of which I suspect.

Hi Ewan,
As said more to do with whoever is in charge staying with what they know rather than pushing in new directions. Given they are probably stretched and working flat out you cannot really blame those who make the decisions about what software, sites ect we can access in schools. In an ideal world they would have more time to listen to what the ground troops want, and the ground troops would have more time to decide what they need. At the moment I fear only a small percentage of teachers have heard about firefox. Is they any Scottish school where teachers and pupils use firefox?

Hello from California,
I got into this blog from Randy Rodgers who made a comment that he was trying to get his district to switch to Firefox after reading your article. Our district, PVUSD,which is located about 40 miles from Silicon Valley, uses Firefox with great success. Myself and our tech liason take the responsibilty for making sure that the staff and students know that is the browser we use. Our district has also made a push to use it and installs it automatically on all new pc's that are purchased. The liason and myself really see the benefits of Firefox with less spyware and popups than IE7. The only concern is that some educational software, such as EDUSOFT and ETruancy are not writing their programs to maximize Firefox, so you have to switch to IE7, which can be a pain. With the big push for WEB 2.0 to become part of schools it would seem that an open source browser with the capabilities of Firefox should be accepted with open arms by education.

Thanks so much Brian for leaving a comment and showing that it can be and is done. We'll all be citing your example and the benefits you perceive. I wonder, do students and teachers get to choose which plugins they would like or does the line have to be drawn somewhere with some central decision-making on that one?

Ewan,
At this point our school computers are locked down, so students cannot add plugins. However if we see a plugin or widget that we like we can simply add it to our computers over the network. This makes it simple to keep our lab and student computers up to date. As for teachers they are free to add plugins if they are tech savvy enough to do so. In addition the tech liason and myself are always looking at additions, upgrades and cool features that Firefox has and we pass them on to the staff. We are pretty confident in our staff and there ability to monitor themselves on installing things. So far this system seems to be working.
Brian

Ewan,

Brian referenced my own comments on this issue. Our IT department is basically taking the position that with IE7, as many or more plugins for Web 2.0 applications will be available, so what is the point (they ask)? I would advocate Firefox for its ease-of-use, as much as anything else. The response I'm receiving (as of now) is that Firefox will be available to our teachers through our network via Altiris, but won't likely be installed on the district's new image. It has already been stated, but it does seem that tech staff familiarity with IE is the biggest stumbling block for Firefox. Of course, it amazes me that such technologically skilled folks still use that dinosaur!

Hope the BCS reference wasn't in relation to my email address - I also have a Hotmail address but don't work for them either!

I think your point about standards is difficult to build a case from either side - the school may have some people who would like Firefox (or indeed more/other alternative browsers to IE) installed. However, I suspect your IT staff would want to err on the side of caution - the majority of cases I have seen in the past where multiple tools to do the same task have been deployed together has created difficulties in configuration and troubleshooting on the technical side. You also have to consider what people are used to, regardless of any potential benefits non-MS browsers may provide. There are websites that support IE but not Firefox and vice versa - they're in the minority of course, but it is something to think about. Your Californian poster mentions specific education software that doesn't work with Firefox - could this affect some of the software you use?

I may have missed it somewhere (yellow and black makes my eyes go funny) - did you say if you HAD asked the people supporting your IT about why Firefox is not on your PCs (or Apples if your authority still imposes these on you)?

I love FF and would really love to have it installed in my school (i'm sysadmin).

The reason I haven't yet is really down to resources :- time. We have IE deployed securely and we are happy that it is locked down sufficiently. With Firefox, at the moment, it means jumping through several hoops to get it locked down to the same extent.

With addons, we would have to manage installation of that too - there are some unpleasant ones out there, that we don't want our students using.

I know there exists a couple of projects for deploying FF to your network. I am following these and hope, very soon, to be able to offer it.

eTruancy now runs on all major browsers, including Firefox, Safari, and Opera (as well as IE 6 and 7). Not sure about EDUSOFT. But more companies are paying attention to users that want a choice of browsers.

I have done it!

this is the main reason and the solution all in one!

http://schools.phoenixfox.info/mozilla-firefox-for-schools/securing-mozilla-firefox-for-school-usage/

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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