Familiarity undoubtedly ranks among the largest barriers to open source adoption — software, like so many other things, is habit-forming. Much of that familiarity, at least among younger users, comes from the prevalence of proprietary applications in education, an area awash with government regulations, competitive bidding, and its own habit-induced hangups.

Enter Albany Senior High School, an Auckland, New Zealand-based unorthodox enclave of education. The school, which opened its doors in 2009, takes a different approach to learning, utilizing open principles that include open spaces, open interaction, open opportunities — and open source.

Mark Osbourne, the school’s deputy principle, is at the heart of the school’s FOSS activities. Despite a serious time crunch, Osbourne pushed ahead with an all-open source infrastructure, putting together in some two months a system that continues to run fundamentally unchanged. Cutting through the predictable complaints — “But the world belongs to Microsoft!” — he installed Ubuntu desktops and Mandriva servers, and set students up with open source applications including OpenOffice, Mahara, and Moodle. The school’s network allows connections not just from its own systems, but (with appropriate security measures) from outside hardware as well — students have reportedly connected everything from Macs to the Playstation Portable.

Proprietary software has more than habit on its side in New Zealand schools. Microsoft is literally guaranteed a cut of the budget — the national government subsidizes Microsoft products, and pays up whether the software is actually in use or not. A fait accompli, as Osbourne notes: “The brilliance of Microsoft’s business model is they get the same amount of money regardless of who uses it.”

Nevertheless, Albany is still saving money with reduced hardware costs