Open Source and Web 2.0

Nov 26, 2006

Miles Berry

The following was written for the new edition of Terry Freedman’s “Coming of Age: an introduction to the new World Wide Web“.

“The bottom up organization, where distributed, self-motivated individuals creatively collaborate and work together on shared problems, has relevance both in terms of the creation of digital technologies we use for education and as an approach that could be adopted as part of the teaching and learning process” (Bacon & Dillon 2006)

Open source software has its origins back in academic computer science in the 1960s, where writing code was more about intellectual creativity and contributing something to the common good than about commercial gain, and where the respect of ones peers was often reward enough. I hope that the parallels with web 2.0 already start to become apparent, as these are amongst the reasons why folks are only too happy to spend time blogging, adding to wikipedia or posting photos up onto flickr. Although much of the Internet is underpinned by open source code such as Apache, BIND and SendMail, and the Linux operating system has a high reputation for reliability and efficiency, open source has until quite recently been at the educational margins, with its principal appeal being free licensing, and thus savings in total cost of ownership (Becta 2005).

Whilst most of Web 2.0 is free too, in the sense of ‘free beer’, the ‘free’ aspect of open source code is more about free speech and other freedoms and just as much as not having to pay licence fees. The Free Software Foundation describe the four freedoms that using open source software brings:

  • The freedom to use the software how you want;
  • The freedom to change the software to suit your needs – this is the essential idea behind ‘open source’ – that the users have access to the program’s source code too, and can thus change any aspect of the program;
  • The freedom to distribute the software and thus help your neighbours; and
  • The freedom to distribute altered versions of the software and thus actively contribute to the development of the software through a distributed community.

Such freedoms have much in common with the sense of liberation felt by many as they experience Web 2.0: that suddenly the web isn’t about content and commerce, it becomes a place in which they’re free to share their ideas and creations, that their writing, recordings, images, etc become something valued by others, which enrich the common good, and which others can take, adapt, re-use and improve. Nowhere is this clearer than in Wikipedia, where the model of commons based peer production (Philips 2005) that is central to the development of open source code has been applied to writing an encyclopaedia. Comparing the way Wikipedia is written to the way a large open source application gets coded is a great illustration of the way Web 2.0 has made an experience similar to that of participation in open source development available to pretty much anyone.

  • For a start, Wikipedia is free in both senses – there’s no charge for accessing it, and under its Creative Commons licence, anyone can adapt and redistribute what’s there.
  • The motivation for writing or editing Wikipedia comes through factors such as recognition and a wish to contribute to the public good rather than financial reward, as with open source coding.
  • Development is distributed, self-organizing and split into fine-grained chunks, so that anyone who wants to contribute can find something they can do.
  • Each contributor’s unique skills and insights can be used well – with Wikipedia, some will have expertise in one particular area, some will take on responsibility for editing, others for organization; similarly open source projects will have folk working on aspects of the core code, tracking bugs, supplying artwork, taking a role in advocacy etc.
  • Distributed open source development has only been possible due to the efficiency of global communication that email provides, similarly Wikipedia has recognised that there needs to be a place (the discussion tab) where the text can be talked through as well as authored or edited.
  • Large open source projects have needed fine grained version control systems (such as CVS and subversion), which can track the changes being made by a distributed team of authors, and allow a roll-back to an earlier version if errors are introduced, which is mirrored by Wikipedia’s History tab, essential for maintaining the integrity of the text, as well as recognizing individuals’ contributions.

The sort of personalisation which Web 2.0 fosters, in which users go far beyond the realms of choice from pre-determined lists or limited customizations into a dimension of active participation and action (Leadbeater 2004), is also very evident in the world of open source software, where end-users not only have the freedom to adapt the code to suit their own needs, but through involvement in the development of the code have an opportunity to contribute their own unique talents and insights for the common good.

This is not to say that Web 2.0 and Open Source are equivalent. There are key differences, which have particular relevance for those seeking to explore Web 2.0 in educational settings. Although Web 2.0 and Open Source are, by and large, free for the end users, there’s far greater freedom to adapt and tailor applications if schools host the open source implementations of Web 2.0 functionality themselves rather than signing up to the hosted services out there on the Internet which, configuration options apart, are provided as is. Given that schools are rarely the target market for Web 2.0 applications, not all functionality will be appropriate to the classroom. A school hosting its own Web 2.0 applications also won’t fall prey to vendor lock-in as and when the present penchant for beta-programmes draws to a close and continued hosting starts to require subscriptions. Alternative Web 2.0 business models, such as revenue through targeted advertising, might worry some schools, or indeed parents, especially where the school has no control over the adverts being displayed. Schools take seriously their duty to protect the children in their care, and the data pertaining to them, and thus it might not always be appropriate to entrust profile and usage data to third parties, who are unlikely to have cleared all their staff with the CRB.

Most importantly, hosting Web 2.0 open source applications in-house gives schools the control they need over the make-up of the social network with which their pupils will engage online, and of the content to which their pupils will be exposed. Not every photo on Flickr or post on Blogger is one which would be appropriate to access at school, and whilst many schools appear to take the line that this means the whole site needs blocking, far better surely is to provide the equivalent functionality within the school’s safe, nurturing ‘walled garden’. Whilst a school’s hosted Elgg might not provide quite the same sense of excitement as MySpace or Bebo, there surely is a place for learning how to use social networking and blogging safely in a controlled and monitored environment – digital cycling proficiency, I guess; furthermore in-house hosting like this allows the school to focus the use of these powerful tools on educational aims and objectives, supporting the broad curriculum of the school. I know many see part of the appeal of Web 2.0 as allowing children’s work to receive a wider audience, but Shibboleth authentication makes it possible to allow access to the walled garden for pupils at other schools, and there’s nothing to stop schools moving some of the private content out onto the public web for a wider audience without exposing individual pupil identities in this way.

There is, though, a downside to this. It’s only fair to admit that it’s far easier to sign up for an account on myspace or flickr than setting up webservers, databases, scripts etc for oneself. That said, this is easier now than it used to be, with Ubuntu making a Linux webserver within the reach of most school techies, and projects like all set to take most of the hassle out of configuration and integration. Aggregating hosting across a cluster of schools, or indeed across a whole local authority, as in Buckinghamshire, makes things easier still, and goes a long way to providing a more vibrant social network and wider audience. Technician time to look after a webserver and setup the applications isn’t significant, but neither is it free, nor indeed is the hardware to run all this, although this doesn’t have to be anything very special, and thus an in-house open-source version of Web 2.0 is actually more expensive than free, hosted third party applications, although the gains through adaptability and child/data protection make this modest cost one worth paying.

Whilst not every cool new Web 2.0 application has its open source equivalent that can be hosted on the school network in this way, many do, including some of the most important ones.

  • Jabber ( provides a way for schools to host their own instant messaging system, providing similar functionality to MSN messenger or AOL-IM, also allowing voice over IP.
  • SquirrelMail ( is just one of a number of web-based email clients, that with a mailserver ticking away in the background, can provide a service similar to GoogleMail. There are plug-ins available for spam and virus filtering.
  • MediaWiki ( is the software on which Wikipedia (and a whole host of other wikis) runs, allowing schools or local authorities to set up their own wikis, perhaps as a child friendly encyclopaedia or, at staff level, for policy documents and collaborative lesson planning.
  • Scuttle ( allows a school to host its own social bookmark collection like, and even replicates’s API so that browser plugins will work seamlessly with this too.
  • Gallery2 ( at it’s simplest lets a school host its digital photo collection online, but it also allows users to upload their own photos and comment on others photographs, providing much the same functionality as flickr, but letting the school retain full control of its images.
  • Elgg ( provides a whole host of key web 2.0 technologies, like blogging, e-portfolio space, RSS aggregation, folksonomy tagging, podcast hosting and feeds, and social networking.
  • Although Moodle ( doesn’t feel very Web 2.0, with teachers remaining firmly in control of course content, a number of modules provide Web 2.0 functionality within the integrated VLE, so for example there’s support for podcasts, RSS, wikis, blogs and folksonomy tagging, and Moodle’s Workshop module provides an effective way of managing peer assessment of students’ work.

In fact, Moodle’s underpinning social constructionist pedagogy, the view that learning is most effective when learners actively engage together to create knowledge artefacts embodying their shared understanding, has much in common with not only Web 2.0’s provision for groups of users sharing insights and ideas, but also the collaborative co-production of software that is at the heart of open source. Back in 1993, Cunningham, Duffy and Knuth, writing about ‘The Textbook Of The Future’, listed some of the characteristics of a learning environment that would promote social constructivism, and I think it’s quite clear that these are characteristic of open source development too:

  • experience in knowledge construction, as not only open source programmers gain, but also those users who contribute to bug reporting, support forums, documentation wikis etc,
  • appreciation of multiple perspectives, as the community based approach to development and support provides,
  • realistic and relevant contexts, as open source programmers gain through solving real world problems,
  • ownership and voice, again contributions, however minor, to code and user support provide such an opportunity in open source projects,
  • a social experience, which because the code is open and developed through the active participation of a community, typically characterizes open source coding and testing,
  • the use of different modes of representation, the same project has many facets, such as the coding, porting to other operating systems, the interface design, documentation, support, website, advocacy, etc.
  • self awareness, as open source projects have captured people’s imagination, provided the recognition of a peer group, and met the needs of a wider group rather than merely serving a corporate bottom-line.

If these are things which we’d like to see in our classrooms, then certainly Web 2.0 can go a long way to providing them, but how much better is it to use software which has itself been developed through, and to some extent has come to embody, just such values and aspirations.


Bacon, S & Dillon, T (2006), The potential of open source approaches for education, Bristol, Futurelab

Becta (2005), Open source software in schools: a study of the spectrum of use and related ICT infrastructure costs, Coventry, Becta

Cunningham, D, Duffy, T, & Knuth, R (1993), Textbook of the future, in McKnight, C (Ed), Hypertext: a psychological perspective, London, Ellis Horwood

Leadbeater, C (2004), Personalisation through Participation, London, DEMOS

Philips, S (2005), Modelling Open Source Software, paper presented at FLOSSIE 05, Bolton