Open Source Education

My ‘provocation paper’ for the recent Open Source Schools think tank.

Open source or software freedom isn’t simply another way of procuring software, it’s more a state of mind, a particular attitude to technology. Of course, you can just treat it as a cheap way of getting high quality, robust code, and there’s certainly no requirement to grow a beard, wear sandals or drink real ale in order to install open source applications. However, the philosophies that lie at the core of open source as a movement are important, and, I think have much to offer to education more generally; furthermore, open source approaches to development can apply to things even more important than software, such as curriculum resources, school policies and even the curriculum itself. This brief paper seeks to explore some of these areas.

There are strong parallels between an open source approach to software development and some educational theory. Piaget, Montessouri, Froebel and Dewey all placed emphases, to varying extents, on the importance of play, exploration and direct experience; qualities which will not be unfamiliar to those developing open source software. Vygotsky’s social constructivism argues that meaning is something developed through conversation with others, anticipating the importance of efficient and effective communication in the development of open source projects involving more than a sole developer. Papert’s notion of constructionism, in which knowledge comes to be embodied in the development of shared, public artifacts continues to be of importance in computing education, and is the pedagogic approach that has underpinned Moodle’s phenomenal development as an open source VLE.

So what does an open source approach to education look like? ‘Access to the source code’ surely implies a willingness to adopt transparent approaches in education, in which freedom of information requests about school curricula, schemes of work and policies are never needed, as these, and perhaps other, documents are shared as a matter of routine with all of a school’s stakeholders – thus not only is collaborative planning made possible amongst the teaching team, but pupils and parents too have access to lesson plans, enabling them to read ahead and to become something closer to partners in the educational process. Similarly, such openness would suggest, as a default position, a willingness to share pupils’ work and pupils’ data as widely as appropriate, with children’s work on the school website or blog and an enthusiastic approach to the parental engagement agenda.

This equivalent of ‘access to the source code’ of education is pretty much necessary if teachers are to be empowered as professionally autonomous and accountable, and if pupils are to be empowered as independent learners, each taking their full share of the responsibility for the learning that takes place in their classes. The opportunities to take control over the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of learning, and perhaps to start addressing the ‘why’ of education, provide many opportunities for a radical step change from the present top-down approach, as we’ve seen on many occasions with open source software development, most clearly with the open nature of the Internet. This provides teachers, and other stakeholders, with the opportunity, or even responsibility to engage in creative, innovative ‘tinkering’ with the education in their classes, and to collaborate with others in sharing this practice:

The ‘tinkering’ teacher is an individualised embryo of institutional knowledge creation. When such tinkering becomes more systematic, more collective and explicitly managed, it is transformed into knowledge creation” (Hargreaves, 1999)

The ‘four freedoms’ of the free software definition would have even more radical consequences when applied to education: the freedom to run the program for any purpose, implies, I think, not only an education without charge, but also one which built on the principle of children developing the critical and cognitive skills to think things through for themselves, rather than accepting political, religious or cultural dogmas – something akin to the rational autonomy that can be seen as an overarching aim for education; the freedom to study how the program works and change it to make it do as you wish, would, if applied to education, mean that personalisation would have to be taken seriously, in ‘choice and voice’ terms, not merely as alternative modes of presentation or assessment, it would mean students having a real say in what and how they learn; the freedom to redistribute copies would firstly imply an end to schools keeping their curriculum and resources to themselves, moving towards a position in which publicly funded schemes of work and materials are readily available to any who would wish to make use of them; this would be extended by the fourth freedom, the freedom to distribute modified copes to others to produce a culture of genuine collaboration and partnership between teachers and their schools.

The communities of practice which grow up around open source projects could have much in common with the networks and communities of educational, curricular and pedagogic ‘developers’ which school leaders and teachers have the potential to become, if given the necessary encouragement, opportunities and freedom. Loose communities of teachers working together to develop educational resources, schemes of work or other educational innovation would foster creativity, ownership, and the legitimate peripheral participation [ref] necessary for professional development, as well as being a highly cost effective way of producing some great educational benefits over and beyond education technology. As Hargreaves (1999) has it:

“Transfer is difficult to achieve for it involves far more than telling or simply providing information… This is most easily achieved when a teacher tinkers with information derived from another’s professional practice.”

In practical terms, what’s needed now is a shift away from Crown Copyright schemes of work, National Strategies and glossy commercial schemes and resources to local or distributed networks of teachers, technologists and pupils working together to produce the ‘public knowledge artefacts’ which embody their understanding of their subjects and of pedagogy, and which can be freely adapted and re-used by those working in similar, or widely different schools elsewhere. Rather than spending public funds on commercial schemes, consultants and developers, why not fund just a few cover periods, or pay a little overtime, for teachers and their colleagues to work together to develop these materials for their pupils and for others’?

Just as the Internet made it possible for worldwide communities of developers to work on open source code together, so the web provides at least some of the mechanisms for collaboration on open content: we have a whole host of creative commons licenses to choose between; wikibooks, wikijunior and curriki have made a fine start to the collaborative development of online texts and learning materials; web 2.0 repositories like slideshare, flickr and blip.tv provide support for creative commons licensed content; and many universities are starting to share their content openly, including at least some materials from the Open University here. I’m optimistic that the National Digital Resource Bank will encourage local authorities, schools and teachers to share materials, Vital’s Open Course Movement approach to some of their ICT CPD courses bodes very well, as does their default Creative Commons licensing. Perhaps even more impressive is the willingness with which teachers engage with collaborative projects happening beyond institutional boundaries such Tom Barrett’s Curriculum Catalyst, Doug Belshaw’s Move Me On and the TeachMeets.