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.


  1. Steve,
    I have to admit to one more reason that OSS is hard to sell to edtech people like me - I'm a little intimidated by it. Words like Linux and Ubuntu are kind of scary. And the "technicians" in the system are so overworked that helping me install Moodle is last on their list of things to do.

    "Pedagogy does not drive technology adoption in most schools" I hate to sound pessimistic, but unfortunately, pedagogy doesn't drive a lot of things that happen in schools. Maybe Educon2.0 will help us to find ways to put pedagogy first. Hope to see you there.

    Happy New Year!

  2. Anonymous6:42 PM


    I tried to post a comment already so forgive me if this is a duplicate.

    I am beginning a MA in Education with an emphasis in EdTech and I look forward to using your blog as a resource. Thanks for bringing the concepts of EdTech and FOSS together!


  3. Well said. But the next step is how? I wonder how we can implement all this? Do we wait for the digital natives to make it mainstream? Or do we work on the digital immigrants?

  4. Steve, I had the fortune of meeting you at NECC 2007 in your OSS lab; you had the thin-clients set up with one server... it was pretty neat to see.

    I enjoyed your thoughtful post. I am seeing changes with our use of Moodle... folks who use it, naturally find their way to Web2.0 tools and don't freak out.

    We're in an all-Mac environment and like Elizabeth says.. .the OSS movement can be scary--less to the teachers, more to the techs. Our dept. can't/won't support OSS that requires maintenance. Part is unfamiliarity, part is anxiety...

    But your observations and experiences are encouraging. As I began playing this weekend with Edubuntu, I am encouraged the progress, fit and finish...


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