Saturday, April 29, 2006

Open Source in Education: The Coming Tidal Wave

I just finished reading the Futurelab report "Open Education: The Potential of Open Source Approaches for Education." It was one of a number of reports on Open Source software in education that I had downloaded to my computer and planned to read through quickly when I had time, expecting to find just another positive appraisal of Open Source software in some specific educational program. Instead, I found myself captivated, taking a couple of hours to carefully read every word and take notes.

This report is a must-read.

Most discussions of Open Source software for education focus on what I'll call the "first wave:" the cost-savings to schools of using Open Source programs that provide comparable functionality to commercial or proprietary software, both for use in the classroom (e.g., OpenOffice productivity suite) or for school infrastructure (e.g., Apache web server). This will save schools money, and will also allow students to use the same programs at home without the financial burden or having to purchase commercial software. I believe that this first wave will be of tremendous benefit while not requiring any dramatic changes in how schools operate.

I can also see that there will be a "second wave" of influence from the Open Source movement: the awareness of and dissemination of teaching material, inspired by the licensing methodologies of the Open Source movement, and made possible by the incredible connectedness that the Internet provides. Educational institutions, publishers, and teachers will share and collaborate on teaching materials and methods. I am not a teacher, but I would imagine that this is already happening to a great degree informally, but will continue to be formalized and will grow.

But it is the "third wave" that intrigues me, and which I think could bring about the most explosive, exciting changes to how we think about education. Open Source software is built through a peer-production system, and the influence of this methodology could bring incredibly positive benefits to the world of education. Imagine: students who work on collaborative projects that utilize and build on the technologies of the Open Source movement, but also contribute back to those same resources. As schools begin to use tools that have been created by individuals from all over the world (think of Wikipedia), students will naturally become builders themselves because that is how these Open Source or Open Technologies work--they ask for, and encourage, the users to become contributors. From knowledge-bases to actual software applications, think of the excitement of not only learning about something, but becoming a contributor. I can imagine incredible possibilities: a student who helps modify a database accounting program for a local homeless shelter, a study group that focuses on a significant historical event and looks at online source documents to detail one particular aspect of that event, or a class that works to create online documentation for a new programming language.

One small story may help to demonstrate how exciting and motivating this can be. As a family history buff, some years ago I received an email from a woman asking if I had ever heard of a Kate Hargadon (my same last name) who had been the traveling companion of her grandmother on the Titanic. This intrigued me, so searched the web to find that all the Titanic websites had information on a young woman, spelled "Kate Hagardon," 17, from Ballysodare, Co Sligo, Ireland who boarded the Titanic at Queenstown and who died in the sinking. Because all of the members of the "Hargadon" family trace back to County Sligo in Ireland, it seemed possible to me that "Hagardon" was actually mis-transcribed from "Hargadon." I wrote the Irish Titanic Historical Society, who had someone look up the original passenger manifest, and found that "Kate Hargardon" was in fact "Kate Hargadon." All of the historical sites were informed, and for many years every mention of "Kate Hargadon" carried a footnote acknowledging me as the "historian" who had discovered this.

You can imagine how much fun that was for me. And, truth be told, it wasn't anything earth-shattering, but it was me being involved in history in a very real and tangible way, and making a concrete contribution. This is the kind of excitement that I imagine that the "third wave" of Open Source will bring to education. I believe it will mark the beginning of a wonderful period of learning and contributing for students.
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