Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Open Minds, Open Source, and Success in Indiana


Mike Huffman, kicking of the K-12 Open Minds Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Last week, 300+ educators (maybe 350?) gathered in international hot-spot Indianapolis for the first K-12 Open Minds Conference, focused on the use of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS or OSS) in K-12 schools. The brainchild of Mike Huffman and Laura Taylor, this conference was actually a bolder move than it might sound--and maybe will be looked upon as the "shot heard 'round the world" in starting to really solidify the compelling financial, technological, and pedagogical reasons for using OSS in schools.


I arrived a day early to facilitate an international round-table discussion on the development of a road-map for implementing OSS in schools. Extensive resources on the conversation of that day are available on the wiki, where Jim Gerry added a huge contribution to the day by taking great notes, and Scott Swanson took photos of everyone to help us remember the day. Scott also provided an invaluable service to the conference as a whole by acting as the unofficial photographer: see http://www.flickr.com/photos/tags/k12openminds07.

Those sessions at the conference that were recorded have been posted in a "podcast" section of the wiki, both in .mp3 and .ogg format. Since I wanted to get them up quickly, we could still use some help in identifying the speakers and the session topics. It was literally impossible to choose between the many, many compelling sessions at the conference, so hopefully the recordings will help folks like me who wanted to go to them all.

A list of my personal "take-aways" are below. Hopefully this is just the start of a continued dialog.


Personal "Take-aways"
  • I need to start developing a talk on "why Open Source Software is so important to education." One of the fascinating themes of the conference for me was the degree to which OSS advocates are really wearing two hat. Engaged and passionate, they themselves are examples of the true learning and accomplishment that comes from the collaboration allowed by the Internet, and they have a fundamental belief in "constructivist" learning and the ability of technology to help facilitate or open the door that that kind of learning. Without even discussing OSS, they wear the hat of caring about education, and about the role of computing in schools, at a time when twenty years of computers in the classroom not really changing educational outcomes is leading many others to question the value of computers in schools at all. A natural corollary of the first hat is their ability to see the value, both educationally and financially, of using OSS in that context. This OSS advocacy is a second hat. Wearing both, OSS advocates, like the adopters of Web 2.0 in education (only just slightly geekier), are passionate about the opportunities for positive change in an educational world that seems to be somewhat adrift and resistant to modifying itself based on the enormous cultural shifts we are seeing elsewhere that the Internet has brought.
  • There is a huge need to be able to share successful practices. Unlike commercial or proprietary software, where a sales force and support team interact/sell/support, most OSS projects have only passionate users to try to communicate the value of the the software. Both formal and informal mechnisms are really needed. Whatever studies around the world there are that verify the value of OSS in education need to be aggregated (and sometimes translated) so that administrators can study them and point to them when making significant IT decisions. While "advocacy" of OSS on an informal level is still very much needed, practical successes need to be measured and documented for formal decision-making, and this will be a good role for the roadmap team.
  • We don't involve students in their own education as much as we should, and while the buzzwords around "engaged and passionate learning" indicate the need for this, it's really in OSS that we can see a model for the truly productive and essential involvement of students in a community of practice. OSS models "apprenticeship" learning and contribution. OSS has 21st-century skills "baked in."
  • We need to be much more attuned to how technology decisions are made in schools. We need to "Be Like Mike," looking at the Indiana model for selling the solution: "Indiana has spent a billion dollars over 10 years, and the average student spends 35 minutes a week on a computer. In order for technology to be transformational, we need to create affordable and scalable models for computing." Of course, the answer to affordable and scalable is substantially going to come from OSS, the pedagogical benefits of which will also become apparent. But if there is general agreement that it takes 4 - 5 years for the understanding of the value of "freedom" and OSS to come, then leading with the message of "freedom" will be significantly less effective than leading with the message of affordability and scalability.
  • We need to be clear that there is a difference between the acquisition cost benefit of OSS and support/maintenance costs. Without support, maintenance, and training, OSS will not actually succeed in K12, and if we try to sell OSS as completely free, we may actually do more harm than good. We need to be clear on the costs, and the importance of, support, maintenance, and training.
  • Hopefully, OSS will also usher in a change in how commercial vendors deal with schools. As was said at the conference, commercial software and hardware vendors "still think they are in charge." As the model for providing value in school computing improves, so will the services offered from the commercial side.
  • Related: Everybody is looking for solutions. Teachers are looking for tools that will help them to get their job done easier or better. Same with administrators. "Freedom" may be great and philosophically compelling, but if we're not solving problems, we won't be given the chance to show what else OSS offers.
  • There is huge value in "killer" apps, for the reason above. These were called "non-intrusive" at the conference, but another phase that better captures the idea is "non-displacing" applications. These are applications like Moodle that can be adopted and are immediately helpful, but don't require leaving another technology behind, or fighting a paid sales force. Moodle does have competition, but the cost difference between Moodle and Blackboard is so dramatic that they might as well be different kinds of products. Content management systems are in the same boat: Joomla, Mambo, and now Drupal don't really have cost-effective competitors, and so can be adopted with little or no resistance.
  • Governmental legislation regarding the need for open standards and open document format has had a real impact where it exists, and lobbying for such should be an active part of our efforts.
  • The practical skills relating to job employment from being trained in OSS should be promoted more widely. Students who learn Linux, Apache, PHP and MySQL, etc. really do have immediate career paths if they want them.
  • Even though we may live in different countries with somewhat different political/cultural/economic situations, there is still a large degree to which the hurdles to OSS implementation are very similar, and it is important that we find ways to work together and share information with advocates doing work in other countries.

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