What does the open source model offer to our schools?
"Open source" means more than "people can change it" and "free to use".
There's something also wonderful about the culture of open source organizations: the way communities form, establish norms, build systems, and induct new members, all for joy of sharing and contributing to a collective effort.
I think schools could be more like this, and this blog will be that exploration.
There are two kinds of 'products' in schools that could be considered as open source candidates: instructional products (curricula and lesson plans), and learning products (student work, by individuals and groups).
I'll start with instructional products: learning standards (a.k.a curriculum maps) and courseware (a.k.a lesson plans).
In http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/12/28/carnegie, I read an update about Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative, which makes courseware available for postsecondary study.
There are two ways to access OLI material.
- Open and Free access is granted for courses designed for individual learners who are not under the guidance of an instructor, and most of the content will be presented this way.
- Academic versions are customized by instructors from various institutions to create course sections for their students. Instructors have access to each student's work and progress. They may assign applicable grades and or credit. In return, a "low per-student maintenance fees" is assessed.
The first case may seem more like the "open source", but the second is actually so, because it involves:
- Three Concentric Communities: Maintainers to Developers to Users
- Iterative Development and Release Versions
In the case of OLI courseware, students are the users, Instructors are developers, and OLI staff are maintainers. Instructors make modifications and submit these to OLI staff, who them for adoption.
It is not clear to me how the OLI courseware model might be applied to public school lesson plans. However, the concepts of version control and circles of community review fit nicely onto the learning standards that inform lesson development.
Currently, each state creates a curriculum map upon which state testing is based, and individual schools (if they are inclined) develop their own versions to establish grade and subject standards for lesson plans and local alignment of instruction.
What if schools maintained local versions of the state curriculum framework, connected to the central storehouse with version control, and were able to submit modifications back for differential review and adoption by state review boards?
What if there were software designed to highlight the differences between the approved and modified versions (just like the "Track Changes" feature of MS Word) to help reviewers accept/reject changes from the field?
This would involve extra work by everyone, but result in collective improvement in ground-truthed standards far beyond what is currently possible. Teachers would contribute curriculum changes to their department or grade cohorts, who would perform the same review role at the school level that regional and statewide review boards would play for school submissions.
Is alignment of state and local standards, lessons and testing important enough to build such a distributed system? The hard part is not the software. It's the shift from bureaucratic, top-down governance to empowered, collaborative development.
If we expect teachers to adhere to state standards, and have those standards drive their professional work, they should be invited to participate in the development and review of those standards.