Open Source and Public Education

This page will explore Open Source Communities as an ideal model of situated learning (Lave, 1988) to inspire school change.

How can School be like Open Source?

In Open Source, there are no "jobs" - there are things that need doing, and people volunteering to do them, or conversely, things people contribute to the community to see if others will value and use them.

Schoolwork--for faculty AND students--can be like this. For example, instead of requiring all students to complete the same work based on their age and enrollment, invite them to contribute independent study projects to a classroom community. Then, celebrate their independent academic pursuits by giving course credit for online work done from home that meets rigorous yet flexible criteria.

Contributing Value vs. Earning Grades

Classrooms are more like open source communities when each year builds upon the last, rather than re-setting the library of student through and work to zero for the next crop of students; where each student has a "digital portfolio" of best work, and that portfolio can be referenced by teachers.  This concept was introduced as the Cumulative Curriculum by Professor Robbie McClintock, then director of the Institute For Learning Technologies (Teachers College, Columbia University) in Power and Pedagogy: Transforming Education through Information Technology (1991).

This model of teaching and learning, where students and teachers build on the work of others who came before, is more authentic than the artifice of textbooks, workbooks and final exams.  Students, like teachers and everyone else, want to contribute value and have their contributions recognized.  Getting a grade or a paycheck may be motivating, but being appreciated for contributed value is moreso.

Competing for Grades vs Collaborating on Projects

Add new media and the "open source" cumulative curriculum concept to  Collaborative Learning (Edutopia), a student-centered teaching model with many flavors (Problem-Based Learning, Cooperative Learning, Project-Based Learning) and you get Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (Wikipedia).  In practice, this model is conducted using  Blended Learning (Wikipedia).  In short: classtime is spent orienting students to new cognitive domains and projects, and the actual schoolwork (the active learning time) is done from home.

If you are in a well-endowed private school, with one laptop per child, blended learning can happen in-school; but most public schools cannot afford the technical support to run 1:1 programs, much less the hardware and infrastructure.  Fortunately, it is a near-certainty (unless your school is in a severly disadvantaged community) that your students have a home workspace where they can go online without filtering, communicate with email, and do all the other things any 21st Century knowledge worker needs to do.

An Individual Teacher Initiative

If your school does not place the building and use of 21st Century Skills ( high on its priority list, Blended Learning for Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning is something you can start doing right now...without waiting for a bond-issue or a school-wide commitment to ISTE standards. Fortunately, there is a tremendous national movement towards doing just this, and no shortage of guidance and resources available online, in the form of professional learning communities hosted by organizations, school technology conferences, and online publications.

What is special about The Empowered Teacher is the technology we use to make this new learning environment powerful, manageable and safe (the Collaboratory), and the individual and group empowerment implicit in the Open Source model.  The learning theories supporting this practice include Constructivism, Social Constructionism and Connectivism.

Myth: "Open" means "No Standards"

Individual adherence to standards for participation and contribution is more important in open source communities than in standard school environments.  In a traditional school, many students, teachers and administrators can "get by" doing the minimum needed, because the structure of the organization is designed not to rely too much on individuals.  The effectiveness of the school will suffer greatly, but nothing forces individuals to do more.

In open source, by contrast, the community is strongly self-policing.  Consider Wikipedia, where vast energetic teams of reviewers vet changes and maintain the overall credibility of the site.  Anyone who has found themselves taken to task for contributing inappropriately in an online forum (by quoting a previous post in its entirety, for example) has felt the power of an activist community. 

Similarly, contributions to open source projects are well-vetted.  No code becomes part of the "core" of a project without rigorous testing and certification by an inner circle of expert developers.  "Contributed" code, which has not been adopted as part of "core", is vetted by the community at large, and there are two clear indicators of its adoption:

  • the "issue queue" of trouble tickets: how many are there, how quickly are they addressed, and how quickly are they solved?
  • the "user base": how many people have downloaded the software to test it out?  What is the quantity and quality of discussion on community forums about this software?

The most important standard in a school is student learning and success, but students themselves can partake in the open source ethos if their knowledge product (schoolwork) is:

  1. contributed to a classroom community as part of a learning project, rather than submitted for performance assessment alone;
  2. submitted in a series of drafts, improved in response to feedback from peers, teachers, and outside mentors (if possible);

School assignments are more like open source software when:

  • the decision to "release" the product (for community use, not just a grade) is made based on quality (after a stage of revisioning) rather than by deadline (though deadlines can certainly factor in), and
  • when quality is gauged by a community of reviewers, not just the author. 

If this sounds like the kind of learning environment you would like to see in your classes, let's talk about how to get there.

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