Thursday, September 28, 2006

Interviews with Maddog Hall and John Selmys; Coming Up--Doc Searls and Richard Stallman

This week I've spoken to Jon "maddog" Hall and John Selmys about Free and Open Source Software in schools. Their recorded interviews are linked below. Tonight at 5pm PDT I interview Doc Searls (see to participate or listen real-time), and on Saturday, October 7, I'll be interviewing Richard Stallman at 7:30 am PDT.

Maddog (and he told me only his mom calls him Jon) is the Executive Director of Linux International, and even though I was struggling with a flu bug, he did a great job of succinctly communicating the value of Free and Open Source Software in education.

John Selmys is the organizer of the Seneca College Free and Open Source Software Symposium being held in Toronto this coming October 26 - 28.

While Maddog gave a great overview of the theoretical value of FOSS in schools, John S. gave a somewhat discouraging practical report on the lack of progress for FOSS in Toronto schools. In many ways, the combination of these two interviews is reflective of the reality of the situation with Free and Open Source Software.

Now, I know I must sound like I'm beating the same drum over and over again the last few weeks, but as Maddog was talking about the grassroots kind of assimilation that the FOSS world hopes for into the classroom, and John S. was talking about the top-level decision-making that is precluding FOSS from getting to the classroom, I couldn't help but continue to reflect on Larry Cuban's remarks from a couple of weeks ago. The lessons seem to be:

  1. Decision-making about technology in most schools is not made by the teachers themselves, but by higher-level policy-makers. And this is a political game, with lots of money at stake.
  2. Teachers are extremely busy (it was a little heart-wrenching to hear John S. talk about the restructuring in his area that has made it even harder for teachers). We cannot place the burden on them to learn about and integrate technology into what they do, as most simply don't have the time and are measured on other factors.
  3. There are early-adopter teachers who are utilizing technology actively in their classroom, but their adoption pattern is not the same as the average teacher, and so attempts to roll out technology initiatives on their experience historically haven't proven effective.
  4. Even though billions of dollars have been spent on educational technology, the computer has not really penetrated or transformed the average classroom experience.
  5. For technology to be truly integrated into the classroom, it will have to be so reliable and easy to use so that average teacher can participate in a grass-roots movement to bring it into the classroom, since it will likely buck the trend of decision-making at higher levels.

Now, I am sure that this is an oversimplification, but to me this last point really helps to explain why FOSS has not made more inroads in the classroom. It's not going to come from the top, since even though the cost savings and the openness of FOSS would have value to the school or district, the existing proprietary vendors have a financial interest in keeping their programs in use. And it can't come from the bottom, because to the average teacher, Linux and FOSS are no easier to use than their existing computer tools and the cost savings and openness are not as important to them. Linux, in particular, is significantly less difficult to maintain from an administrative level (where the decision-making won't necessarily be about that), but at the classroom level can even be harder to use for a teacher because it is unfamiliar.

So far I've focused on the classroom, but the computer lab (or technology training program) is another story that I'd still like to figure out. Maddog makes some great points about the use of Free Software (which is his preferred term) for training.

  1. Free software can be given to the students, and so there is no economic barrier to learning or to continued use outside of or after school.
  2. Much of the technologies that drive the Internet and the Web are based on Free Software, and so teaching these programs would be much more advantageous to students.
  3. Free software teaches you three times: once when you use the code, once when you investigate what it does and how it does it, and once when you improve it to make it better (particularly for the older students).
  4. Free software introduces students into the world of collaborative programming.
  5. Free software allows students to create their own computer labs (a la LTSP).
  6. Free software allows students to investigate everything from embedded systems to supercomputers.

I'm particularly fascinated by the potential for computer and programming classes to provide students with the opportunity to work on collaborative programs that would benefit their community. If you are seeing this done, would you please let me know so that I might focus some attention on it?

Listen to the Maddog Hall WebCast in MP3 format
Listen to Maddog Hall WebCast in Vorbis OGG format

Listen to the John Selmys WebCast in MP3 format
Listen to John Selmys WebCast in Vorbis OGG format

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