The potential of open source approaches for education

Apr 22, 2006

Miles Berry

Seb Bacon and Teresa Dillon have written an interesting paper on “The potential of open source approaches for education” for Futurelab‘s new Opening Education series. Their brief is not so much about using open source software in education, as taking some of the ideas behind open source development and seeing how they would support wider educational agendas, an area which I’ve long been interested in, as I think there are clear parallels between open-source development and social constructivist/constructionist pedagogies. Similarly, the FLOSS model of a “bottom-up organisation, where distributed self-motivated individuals creatively collaborate and work together on shared-problems” seems one way of effecting personalised learning in a productive way which continues to recognise a social dimension.

They give a good overview of the field, with an excellent summary of the history of the FLOSS movement and the priciples underpinning it: “It is in this conception of software, as expression rather than as a form of machine, that the origins of FLOSS software lie”, and provide an excellent bibliography for those wishing to do more academic reading within this still underexplored area, some of which I certainly hope to follow up.

Although there’s mention of Schoolforge-UK, Richard Rothwell, Cutter and Schooltool, they’re less successful at scoping the present state of the art: there are some mistakes and some glaring omissions in their list of ‘commonly used FLOSS solutions within schools’, and there’s no serious treatment of open source web-based applications, or the wider Web 2.0 arena, where the peer review, distributed and interconnected networks, and commons-based peer-production that characterize FLOSS development are already seeing wider expression, in many cases (such as wikipedia) with strong educational elements. Furthermore, it’s in these areas particularly, with applications like mediawiki, moodle and elgg, and underlying technology like Apache and PHP, where FLOSS is way ahead of the commercial developers. Without analysing this area, I think it would be difficult for the authors to substantiate their view that:

“Looking through the myriad applications available, one notices that many simply replicate existing proprietary products with little improvement, and in some cases are actually worse”

The real strength of the paper is in looking at ways of applying the FLOSS, peer-production approach to education more generally. They focus on three areas:

  • Learers as knowledge builders, where the parallel between social constructivst pedagogy and epiestemology and FLOSS development is relevant, as is the futurelab vision for personalised learning as a way of giving the learners themselves more control of their learning. They highlight the idea that the way the Internet has been leveraged in distributed FLOSS development is now something available to pupils and teachers, and I’m inspired by the notion of large groups of pupils breaking down big problems into smaller chunks and working together towards a solution. They also highlight the potential that the blurring between users and developers common in FLOSS projects has to allow children to move on from simple Logo programming, something I know Ian Lynch encourages through his Platinum INGOTs with Open Office, and that Darren Smith has had his sixthformers working on for Moodle. There’s also an interesting parallel made between FLOSS programming and game ‘modding’. I know that involving young people in software design has long been on Futurelab’s agenda, and it’s great to see them now recognizing the opportunities that FLOSS presents in this area.
  • Teachers as a community of professional practitioners, here the idea is to take the notion of a community of practice, such as develops around the larger scale FLOSS projects, and apply it to areas of interest to teachers, such as open content development (something schoolforge-uk have been interested in, and which we’re seeing take off now through wikibooks, although little of this has a UK education focus) and knowledge sharing, with reference to David Hargreaves concept of innovation networks. Whilst we’re seeing growing use of the web for sharing and disseminating resources and practice, the FLOSS model takes this a stage further, by facilitating collaborative production.
  • Hybrid models of innovation, in which there’s far more intermingling of user and developer communities, with educators (and potentially pupils) contributing to the development of educational software that actually does what teachers want and embodies educational values. They’ve tracked down an excellent quote from the original consultation document for the e-strategy,

    It is essential that the new pedagogies for e-learning are developed with the education workforce in the lead…. Commercial suppliers usually employ teachers at some stage in the design process, but unless the partnership is close, and educational requirements lead the development, there is little chance of achieving either good pedagogy or profitable products.

    Wouldn’t it have been great if Becta’s Learning Platform people had paid attention to this? There’s also a recognition that different commerical models are needed to sustain FLOSS projects than proprietary code, with the challenge being to find some way of recognising the value of contributing to the common good, rather than the intellectual property model: given that most schools IT is funded out of the public purse, this can’t be too difficult.</li> </ul>

    The report conculdes with a number of questions related to these three areas. I think that we’re already seeing in Moodle a great willingness of at least some teachers to start writing high quality interactive content themselves, as Moodle equips them with the right tools to make this not that much harder than word-processing a worksheet, and in a number of cases helping out with documentation, advocacy, support and, at least in a few cases, programming. The fact that the software has been developed by fellow educators is a great enabler here, but I fear that the ‘you don’t need to know how the car works, you just need to drive it’ culture which we hear promoted through official channels is a barrier for many.

    The real insight with wiki was that providing authoring tools alone wouldn’t be enough to enable peer-production, that some form of version control was as important for content as it was for code, where CVS and it’s successors has been the key enabler for, I guess, pretty much all FLOSS projects with more than just a couple of developers. I think it would be great to see this sort of version tracking applied to more interactive online content, such as SCORM packages, LAMS sequences and Moodle courses, as a necessary technical step to facilitate collaborative, distributed co-creation of learning resources.

    My ongoing work with NAACE on learning platform CPD is one way of exploring the notion of community of practice as the means of supporting or delivering CPD in a way that’s far more personalised, both in choice and voice terms, than the traditional linear content delivery approach, and should be a rich area for applying FLOSS notions more widely.

    In terms of resourcing and policies, the good folk in HE seem to have done most of the work already, and I can see no reason why JISC’s approach to open source can’t be repurposed for the schools sector – having as the default position that publicly funded IT projects should be open sourced for the public good makes sense to me. The commercial sector will still be able to make a living through providing services like training, support and customization.