Monday, December 31, 2007

What I've Learned About Ed Tech from Open Source Software

(Cross-posted from TechLearning)

After my first post to TechLearning two weeks ago, I've had more and more time to think about the basic idea which had formed in my mind and which was expressed in that post: that the new technologies of the Web will have a greater impact in driving educational change than pedagogies will. A good comment dialog at TechLearning, on here, and by the ever-thoughtful Glenn Moses have challenged my thinking and helped me to better understand why I have come to this conclusion--and it turns out, many of my opinions (an my ultimate optimism) have been greatly influenced by my experiences with Open Source Software and education.

I've spent the last four years as something of an Open Source Software (OSS) evangelist to schools, and I'd like to propose that the reaction of the educational technology community to OSS might be helpful in some understanding of what the role of technology in education has been, why schools find it difficult to change, and how and why change occurs when it does.

I've run the Open Source lab areas and speaker series for the CUE and NECC shows for the last three years, and am the director of CoSN's K-12 Open Technologies initiative. At pretty much any ed tech show I go to, I live in an Open Source bubble, spending most every waking moment discussing Open Source Software and its progeny, the open technologies of the Web. The number one lesson I've learned from that work is that there is typically a huge gulf between those who are responsible for acquiring and maintaining computer equipment, and those who are expected to use that technology to teach. It's one thing to keep computers working, available, and virus-free, and quite another to actually figure out how to use them for teaching purposes. While there are organizations that do a good job bridging that gulf (the technology curricular specialists like Laura Taylor in Indiana or Marci Hull at SLA in Philadelphia), I quickly came to see how separate the two worlds are.

This has been confusing to Linux and OSS advocates for years. In a world without marketing budgets, they have been accustomed to being able to slowly turn the tide on proprietary software through a personal and grass-roots "conversion" process where success depends on discussing the virtues of OSS and working individually with folks who then become part of the "team." So, of course, these evangelists have typically gone straight to the teachers--those poor, overworked, and really-without-decision-making-influence teachers--thinking that the teachers would understand the virtues of OSS, would start using it, and then schools would adopt it in a widespread movement of educational liberation. Little have the evangelists realized how separated those teachers actually are from being able to have an impact on the corporate-like decision-making on educational technology.

Until I understood this division, it doesn't make sense to me that schools wouldn't immediately adopt OSS. The fundamental principles of the Free and Open Source Software movements (I'll link to Wikipedia to spare the tempting history lesson) are in such harmony with the ideals of education that one would imagine an wonderful synergy as students and teachers learn the values of sharing, collaboration, and intellectual freedom inherent in the use of OSS. Schools would immediately save thousands to tens of thousands of dollars on software licensing fees, could put old computers to reuse, could build high-powered computing clusters, and could have students learning and helping to build many of the most prominent software programs of the new millennium through open code in an apprenticeship model. Indeed, the vocational opportunities alone would be so seriously and significantly better were there such an adoption by schools of OSS that one can only come to the conclusion that pedagogy does not drive technology adoption in most schools, it is rather the marketing and selling of technology that drives technology adoption.

My understanding why schools find it so hard to change actually comes out of watching the successful adoption of certain OSS programs. No matter when we've held a conference session in the last three years on the Open Source e-learning program Moodle (even if it's the least session of the last day, when most people have already cut out to catch flights or make it home that day) we are always "standing room only." It's pretty amazing. Moodle has done more for raising awareness of OSS than any other program that I know. It wasn't until this year's K12 Open Minds Conference in Indiana, when a world-wide panel of Open Source experts was gathered for a pre-conference brainstorm session, that it suddenly became clear to our group that the adoption of Moodle by schools actually demonstrates a pattern for Open Source adoption in education (and likely everywhere else) that had not been clearly articulated before: by and large, OSS programs are adopted by schools when they are "non-displacing," that is, when the OSS program is not displacing or replacing another program. One might remark that Moodle is displacing proprietary competitors (Blackboard, for instance), but most schools looking at Moodle can't even consider the cost of Blackboard, so in effect, Moodle is adopted because it is not replacing or competing with any another program.

This lesson is significant, and it's not exclusive to schools by any means. When a software program has been installed and in use, and when training programs have been held, templates built, lesson plans made, and routines established, it would take a HUGE increase in benefit to switch from one program to another. As long as OSS programs merely duplicate existing programs, no matter how much money might be saved, or how much "freedom" and collaboration encouraged, it really doesn't make sense from an administrative standpoint to switch programs. While there may be some notable exceptions (I'm thinking of Randy Orwin at Bainbridge Island School District, who made an agreement with the teachers that if they would switch to the OSS Office program, he would use the savings in licensing to run professional development workshops in the summer), they are exceptions. For most people, the cost of making the switch would seem to outweigh the benefits--again, I believe, because the pedagogy is not the driving factor.

For Open Source folks, this means that while we might be thinking that the adoption of Moodle and other OSS programs in schools reflects a pedagogical drive, it most likely reflects a market condition. And if my over-simplification of the dynamics of educational technology has any truth to it, it helps to explain the history of computer adoption in schools and give us an understanding of why it is that the computer has not actually transformed education--because the implementing of computer technology is largely driven by practical, and not pedagogical, concerns. In fact, it now seems quite understandable that most folks look at the money that has been spent on computers in schools and would say that we have been "oversold" on technology (hat nod to Larry Cuban) at the expense of other important academic or extra-curricular programs. The computer, most of my neighbors would say, has not transformed education, nor do they expect it to at this point. And while this may not appear to be great news for educational technology or for Open Source, I am actually very optimistic.

Here's why: In an interesting twist, once OSS does find its way into education through providing a non-displacing functionality, it often brings with it changes in pedagogy. In my experience, teachers in school who are using Moodle largely report a change in their teaching styles because of the collaborative and constructivist elements that are "baked into" Moodle as a part of its Open Source heritage. One of our European guests at the Indiana conference indicated that in his experience it takes three or four years after implementation of OSS programs for educators to even begin to understand what "Open Source" actually means and why it is beneficial--but they do begin to understand.

Web 2.0 technologies also have a collaborative revolution "baked into" them, and because their use is so dramatically different than traditional uses of the computer, they are almost all "non-displacing." I don't believe their adoption will be constrained in the same way that OSS has. Even the programs that have strong legacies of traditional functionality--like collaborative documents--are still so different than what we are used to using in schools that I don't believe they will face same practical hurdles to adoption that OSS programs have faced. Of course, they have their own battles to fight--mostly on the safety and liability issues--but they represent such a radical culture shift in the creation of content that I don't believe it will be possible for schools to ignore the transformations that are taking place in how we learn, collaborate, and connect on the web right now. These technologies will be brought into education, and they will bring with them in their wake the pedagogical pedigree and heritage of the Free and Open Source software movement which helped to build them--a culture of contribution, with amazing new opportunities for teaching and learning.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

It's the Technology, Stupid...

(Cross-posted from

OK, I don't even let my own kids use the word "stupid" around the house (if my 9-year old says that someone used the "s"-word, she means "stupid"), but for those of us who remember the 1992 presidential campaign, the phrase reminds us of the importance of focusing on what really matters.

For the last year or two, I've been in an internal dilemma over the importance of technology versus pedagogy, and I think I've just reached a breaking point. There is just no question in my mind now that we are witnessing the initial phases of a social, cultural, and scientific change that will rival--and likely eclipse--the advent of the printing press. And it is not because of the pedagogy. While this change confirms some core beliefs that many of us have with regard to teaching and learning, and reopens the door to implementing them, the cause of this dramatic change is technological, specifically the read/write Web (or Web 2.0). It is the use of the Web as a contributor as much as a consumer of information.

Last week I was in Denver, attending a KnowledgeWorks Foundation small-group brainstorm "Re-imagining Teaching for the Future." Through a series of exercises intended to construct scenarios about future forces that would affect the roles of teachers, we tried to imagine what teaching and learning will be like in 10 - 15 years. I suggested that the depth of integration of technology into formal education would be a significant factor in teachers' roles, but was told that in this particular kind of scenario building, that technology is almost never considered a critical force, because it can be assumed it will be adopted.

I beg to differ. I'm not sure we can make that assumption. Mike Huffman from Indiana calculated that his state had spent a billion dollars on computer technology over ten years, with the less-that-stunning result that each student had access to a computer for 35 minutes a week. Using a bottom-line approach to computing, with the goal of actual classroom and curricular integration, Mike and his colleague Laura Taylor have been helping to provide low-cost immersive computing in Indiana--but I get the feeling they still fight every day to keep their program. Our inability in our own small worlds to see the larger picture of dramatic change taking place because of the Internet and the read/write Web threatens to keep us on a path of continuing to see computers as an accessory in the classroom. I'm personally not convinced that schools are ready to adopt the computer as the new learning medium. They should, however, and the longer it takes us to recognize this important reality, the more we will wonder why we didn't act sooner.

I'm unsuccessfully trying to remind myself to be patient. Tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of the blog (see It's actually the 10th anniversary of the word "weblog," as there have been forms of communication that were blog-like that preceded that day in 1997 when Jorn Barger coined the word. However, I think we can all agree that the blog has only recently burst upon our collective consciousness, and many of the other Web 2.0 tools can only be categorized as being in their infancy. But for anyone participating in Twitter, or Ning Networks, or any of a hundred other social technologies that create dialog and conversation, there is an amazing sense that we are in the middle of something of huge human significance. Ten years may not be that long, but if we have to go through ten more years of debating the value of computers in education, we're in trouble.

Yesterday I interviewed Lindsea (16), Sean (16), and Kevin (17), three of the youth bloggers who have started Students 2.0 (see David Jakes recent post). Sean was in Scotland, Lindsea in Hawaii, and Kevin in Illinois--all on Skype. I've posted the 25 minute interview on my site (along with a previous one by "Arthus" that generated quite a comment firestorm at, and it's well worth the listen; but here I'm fascinated by the role of technology, in this case, in promoting student voices and their perspective on education.

From Sean: "What's happened over the past few years, and in society, with technology and the web becoming a lot more important, I'd say that the stuff I'm doing at home [rather than at school] is right now a bit more relevant, in terms of the skills I will need later in life.... At the stage at which we are at school, I would say that we are not dumb, we've matured a bit, and I think we should have some form of say in what's happening... "

From Kevin: "It's an interesting model, the way school continues to operate, as opposed to the infinitely more learning that we can do outside of the classroom... I think that technology is a very important part of education today, and because of that the shift from the traditional student-teacher model is creating a whole bunch of new possibilities. The web is not the only method by which that will happen, but it is a very important one as well... At the core of everything else, all the technology usage, it's all about creating learners, not just students who are able to interpret the facts that the teachers just preach to them in the classroom... There are 300 - 400 teachers in my school district, maybe only a a handful, I can probably count on one hand, who actually read blogs, let alone write them." -Kevin, 17 years old, Illinois, USA

(Lindsea had less to say because she had to leave the interview early to get to class. She was on a world-wide Skype interview from her computer at school, cool as a cucumber, with all of the noise of a school campus in the background.)

Kids like Kevin and Lindsea and Sean are flying metaphorical jet planes overhead, while we're largely using computers in schools as the equivalent of earth-bound tricycles. And then we're wondering why the computer hasn't transformed or improved education. As Connie Weber has written about an encounter with another teacher in an amazing series of notes about the evolution of her homeroom class, "I got the feeling she thinks 'computers' are a 'subject' and that there should be a lesson on 'computer use' with a beginning, a middle, and an end, then perhaps a test on topic coverage. Oh dear." (Connie's candid notes about her journey into a new paradigm of teaching that started with a social network for her class are on my must-read list for anyone interested in the future of education and learning.)

For some reason that my wife has never understood, I saved every paper I wrote in high school and college. They are still in a box in my attic. "Why?" my wife keeps asking. In my heart, I think I know why. Because I had something significant to say, and I could never bear to throw them away because I never really felt that what I had to say was heard. (Chalk one up to profound insights while blogging.) Most of them only had one other reader than me: my teacher at the time. When our youth write today, their audience can be so much broader and so much more real. It may not be a huge audience, but even if it's a few others scattered around the country or the globe, their writing is much more about communicating effectively with others than mine was. As content producers as well as consumers, their relationship with information is so much richer than mine ever was at their age. I don't want my children to be attic-box writers. I want them passionately, actively engaged in learning and communicating--like they are more and more in their use of the Web, which takes place largely outside of any formal educational setting.

Do I feel shy about advocating increased use of technology in education because of curricular, administrative, teaching, safety, and financial impediments to adoption? Yes, a little. But when I re-frame the context, and ask if I am willing to devote my passion and energy to a complete rethinking of education in light of the impending read/write renaissance brought about by the Internet, it's an unqualified yes. Bring on the revolution.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Solution to Information Overload

Edward Abbey is quoted as having said, “The best cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.”

In this world of blogs, wikis, social networking, RSS, and Twitter, I'd like to appropriate the phrasing and say that: the answer to information or content overload is... to create more content.

Why is that? Because in the act of creation, our relationship with information changes. In becoming a producer as well as a consumer, we start to ride the beast instead of just being dragged along by it.

There is no stopping information. The explosion we have seen will pale in comparison, I believe, to what is coming. And being part of its creation will give us both meaning and context.

Celebrating Educational Blogging

On December 17th, 2007 (according to Wikipedia) the phrase "weblog" will celebrate its 10th birthday.

A growing body of educators believe that blogging, as one of the great entry points into the "read/write" web (or "Web 2.0"), is having a transformative impact on education and learning, and that we are at the start of a new cultural and scientific renaissance that will be defined by the participatory, contributive, and collaborative nature of the Web.

Please share your ideas, stories, support, or celebration for the blog in education at, or add your voice here below:

To add your comments, click on the "record" or "type" buttons. (Don't worry--you can practice, erase, or re-record during the process. Clicking the record button does not lock you in!) If you want to leave a video message, you can do so using the buttons with the camera icon. To use a telephone to call in your message, click on the button with the phone icon. To "doodle" on the map, click on the "doodler" (circle surrounded by smaller circles) that shows up once you start recording!

To link directly to the Celebrate Blogging "VoiceThread," you can use the URL

To put the Celebrate Blogging VoiceThread on your site or blog (large version), use the following embed code:
<object width="800" height="600"><param name="movie" value=""></param><param name="wmode" value="transparent"></param><embed src="" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" wmode="transparent" width="800" height="600"></embed></object>

To put the Celebrate Blogging VoiceThread on your site or blog (smaller version), use the following embed code:
<object width="480" height="360"><param name="movie" value=""></param><param name="wmode" value="transparent"></param><embed src="" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" wmode="transparent" width="480" height="360"></embed></object>

To put the Celebrate Blogging VoiceThread on MySpace:
<embed src="" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" wmode="transparent" width="800" height="600"></embed>