OpenSourceSchools – the inaugural meeting

Oct 21, 2008

Miles Berry

A good meeting today up in London as part of the advisory group for the opensourceschools project that alphaplus consultancy are running for Becta. Given we had people with us from a couple of the teams that had failed to win the contract for this project, I was not alone in wondering whether it was any accident that the Institute of Arbitrators were hosting the event (Is this the right room for an argument?…), but in fact the gathering was a very amicable one, as most such occasions are: open source folk are a friendly bunch.

We started off discussing the ‘selling points’ of open source – a few creative tensions emerged here:

  • Open source is about low cost and reliability;
  • It’s about being able to adapt things to fit particular purposes and see how code work;
  • It’s about the social construction of a knowledge artefact.

Well, I guess all the above, but where should the emphasis lie in informing those not so familiar with the concept?

Some interesting tensions in thinking about low hanging fruit too: portable apps, webserver appliances or the infrastructure stuff – I suspect Windows and Office will be with us a while yet.

The wonderful Josie Fraser led a good workshop on community building, getting us to explore some of the dimensions along which communities place themselves, and thinking where we would see ourselves. It seems to me that what matters is a sense of purpose here – the open source projects which have been most successful in capturing a community around them (Moodle, Elgg, WordPress etc) have a good sense of how the community can contribute to the project – through features, forums, documentation, bug reports and the like, as well as hacking mods, themes, plugins and the rest; part of this is down to leadership I know, but as with open source in general, things get done because they need doing. I think the same is probably true of the more vibrant communities around the net – TES Forums, Edugeek and, I think, the informal Personal Learning Networks that seem to be flourishing on Twitter; much in common here with the traditional notion of a community of practice.

A good lunch round the corner, chatting about SIF, learning platforms and open source killer apps – ie where the best in breed is open source – not such a long list as one would hope, but it has to include Moodle, Elgg, WordPress, Apache, Bind and Firefox. I wonder what else?

The afternoon started with conversations about who the target audience for the project website would be, and what sort of thing they might want from it – our focus here was very much on the needs of those in schools  – SLT, teachers, technicians etc. Given the make-up of the group, or the terms of the project specification, it was perhaps not surprising that we didn’t really get to grips with how schools could contribute to open source development, either of content or code:

“Ask not what open source can do for you, but what you can do for open source”

The sense of empowerment that comes with suggesting features, writing documentation, spotting bugs or contributing fixes is a unique ‘selling’ point here.

As a group we spent a while being perhaps a bit too critical of the site’s present beta release – watch that space, but a few more case studies to come, I think, perhaps repurposing creative commons content from elsewhere. Looking forward, I hope there’ll be a few more face to face gatherings, perhaps along the unconference/teachmeet model – “How do you use open source” would be a good starting point for gaterhing the case studies.