Archive for January, 2006

Maybe there is such a thing as a free lunch! Open Source software and the learning process.

January 14, 2006

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This is an article I wrote about a year ago, for an online conference on education and new technologies. I commend other papers to you, and will be summarising some of them in future blogs. I will be updating this paper to reflect more recent events and trends.
iNet online conference papers

[International Networking for Education Transformation (iNet) is the international arm of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust.The Trust is playing a key role in the transformation of secondary education in England and features one of the largest networks of schools in the world.]

Opening Remarks
This paper sets out to provoke discussion and debate.

Some of what I say will be rejected out of hand by any number of readers. Some will reject the notion that programs that don’t come from big multinational companies could “work”. Still others will say that open source programs are not user-friendly or stable enough for schools. Some of these arguments are valid. However, we know as educators that it is important not to dismiss ideas out of hand, simply because they are open to challenge. Without challenge, we keep doing what we always did. My aim is to encourage debate, and open up some possibilities for those who (like me when I was in a school) know little or nothing about open source software. Now, let me take aside for a second those who (like me two years ago) think of open source software as “for geeks only”. You think open source means terminal windows and command-line typing with arcane commands? All jargon and symbols, and no pretty icons? You might want to look at this site, where there is a shot of the desktop I use to run most of my open source programs:

ScreenKDE

Ignoring the untidiness of the icons it probably looks comfortably familiar, like your own desktop.

Let me say, I don’t claim to be a “guru” in the area I am writing about: far from it. I am a “newbie”/”noob”, a real acolyte in my 50s, learning from people less than half my age, and enjoying it. I discovered open source software when I needed a driver program for my old scanner, and I have since had some small involvement in a few of the many forums which flourish around the world, with open source enthusiasts exchanging advice and learning.

I also want to make it clear that I am not naïve: I don’t imagine that open source programs are about to seriously take on the “biggies” any time soon, although open source software provides some interesting models for us as educators. Furthermore, most of what I say here is not original, or even very new. For instance, I (and I hope others) would be interested in hearing from schools which have already committed to using open source software in their everyday computing. I think that there are growing possibilities there that we should be considering.

Open Source Software is…
Did you know that you could legitimately get hold of a sophisticated office suite which runs on any operating system, and pay nothing for it? Or that there is a completely free program called GIMP which does most of what that other famously expensive photo-editing program does? I wrote this paper using a program called NeoOffice/J, a port to the Mac OS X operating system of a program called OpenOffice.org* . I got it for nothing, although I have since donated a small amount to the developers to encourage their work.

The suite includes a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing and database, and it is more than capable of doing everything you need an office suite to do. I didn’t need my employer to pay anybody for the rights to this program. I didn’t need to pay for it. I obtained it without need for secret codes or passwords, and without breaking any copyright laws. Any student could get hold of the latest versions of this program at home, and use it legitimately without need of payment. And they can help develop and improve the program, learning as they do so. I am currently helping develop the NeoOffice program by providing feedback to the developers – and they are listening and responding, sometimes immediately! If I had the skills and knowledge, I could get hold of the source code, and make changes to it to suit my needs. I have actually dabbled and done a little of that.

These programs are called “Open Source” programs. The “Wikipedia**” defines it this way: “Open source refers to projects that are open to the public and which draw on other projects that are freely available to the general public. Open source or open-source software (OSS) is any computer software distributed under a license which allows users to change and/or share the software freely”. These programs have been developed online by groups of people (mainly volunteers), who work together with the goal of developing their own software. Most, but not all, of that software is “freeware”, i.e. it doesn’t cost money to buy. It is called “open source”, because the source code is able to be modified by others.

How it works
This enterprise is not totally altruistic. There are people who make their living from this open source software industry, and there are businesses wholly committed to it. Many of them (like Sun Microsystems) appear to have a synergistic relationship with the “free” side of their industry, where they support the volunteers working on OpenOffice.org and its program development, then sell a more “refined” version of the program. As the Wikipedia reference puts it, “OpenOffice.org is based on the code from an older version of StarOffice that was acquired and made open source by Sun Microsystems with the aim of breaking the market dominance of Microsoft Office and allowing Sun access to rapid development at reduced cost.”

Sun initially “ open-sourced most of the StarOffice code-base. The resultant open-source codebase is developed as OpenOffice.org and is contributed to by both Sun and the open source community. Sun then takes a “snapshot” of the OpenOffice.org code base, integrates proprietary and third-party code modules and markets the package commercially”.

So, Sun continues to develop and sell its own parallel version called StarOffice alongside the free OpenOffice.org. To some extent, Apple has done the same with its new operating system. Its OS X operating system consists of two main parts: Darwin, an open source Unix-like environment which is based on the (open source) BSD source tree and the Mach microkernel, adapted and further developed by Apple Computer with involvement from independent developers; and a proprietary Graphic User Interface (GUI) named Aqua, developed by Apple.

Beyond applications and programs of all types, there are in the open source world whole operating systems, which rival both Windows and Apple OS X, and which have been developed as open source. Generally speaking, they are based around Linux, which is a Unix-like system.

What it might mean for education
This open source software industry has the capacity to play quite a significant role in education:

Firstly, there is the issue of possible widespread adoption of open source software. This is currently being driven more by governments than the private sector. In Europe and Asia we have governments who are adopting open source policies, requiring or encouraging their departments to use open source programs in their many thousands. This is scary for companies whose profits are tied to “growing their installed base” of customers. Just imagine if the US government decided to adopt such a policy! There has been a massive move in Germany to reduce the reliance on one or two huge US software companies, such that tens of thousands of desktops in government offices through Germany have been migrated to Linux operating systems ( see various articles on this via this source ). And being on Linux means that they have access to mostly open source applications, and not many commercial ones, certainly not Microsoft Office and similar Windows applications.

By way of response, we are also seeing litigation from huge commercial software companies claiming that open source software breaches (their) patents in one way or another. The battle is joined. In Asia, the impetus towards open source software is stronger for a number of reasons:

“Pakistan is employing open source software in public schools and colleges, and hopes to run all government services on Linux eventually. There may also be broader, geopolitical implications. The spread of open source culture affords some leverage for these countries when companies from the developed world bid for government contracts (since a low-cost option exists), while furnishing an alternative path to development for countries like India and Pakistan that have many citizens skilled in computer applications but cannot afford technological investment at “First World” prices. In this sense, open source culture refers to a new situation in which the power relationships rooted in traditional intellectual property are disrupted not just illegally (e.g. file-sharing or piracy) but also officially and openly, as free software can remove the developed world’s control of various technologies.”

“Whether this course of development is viable remains to be seen. The Ministry of Defense in Singapore began switching its computers from Microsoft to open-source software in 2004, while South Korea, China and Japan agreed to cooperate in creating new Linux-based programs. The makers of proprietary software in developed nations have followed these trends and discouraged the use of free software.”

I am sure we will watch these developments with interest. Some of our governments in Australia have made tentative steps in the open source direction. These have sometimes impacted on schools, but not to the extent it has in those other countries mentioned. On the other hand, some schools are already using Open Source software because of costs, accessibility and because of its adaptability to their needs.

Secondly, we have the potential of co-operative or collaborative development of programs, which provides an exciting real-life model of learning. You engage, you participate, you help develop the program. This can apply to teachers developing courses, teachers and students developing courses and programs, students working cross-sites to develop programs and courses: the possibilities are enormous. There are already students participating in software and course development like this. Are yours? I suspect this will be one of those instances where the universities take the lead, and schools adopt the model. Imagine the authentic learning you could provide for your students by allowing them to link up with other learners around the globe who are making something together, something that other people will use.

Many educators are also developing “elearning” tools tailored to the needs of particular learning groups or courses:

“Open-Source software can be freely adapted by any organisation or individual to explore a new idea about learning or technology, or to change the behaviours of software to address their own learners’ particular needs.” ( see http://www.ossite.org/ the site for Open Source Software in Education, developed by the EC sponsored SIGOSSEE and JOIN projects).

There are plenty of exemplars around, fostered by the open-ness of the Web, and lots of instances of the Internet being used to expand learning possibilities through “open learning” (see e.g. this MIT site, committed to OpenCourseWare. Again, current examples tend to be more tertiary-based than in high schools (or primary schools!), but I would expect this to change as exit teaching students come into schools with a background in co-operative course/software development.

Thirdly, in terms of the impact on learning and schools, there is the issue of intellectual/ cultural/ linguistic hegemony, adopted from Gramsci’s (1971 and earlier) theories of hegemonic elites. A google search on “hegemony” and “software” will lead you to a rich mine of articles on this topic. The general thrust of this “hegemony” school of thought concerns the ways in which large software companies can actually affect our thinking, prejudices and emphases by the way their programs run, what sites or functions they direct us to, how they demand we spell or phrase, what languages we use, what decisions they have made for us about important information or cultural artefacts etc. Until quite recently, it seemed likely that at some stage, a small number of commercial software programs would become predominant in schools throughout the world. The growth of the open source movement (in Asia in particular) now makes this much less likely.

If education is the next big global market, then software companies have their eyes on how they can efficiently control that market, and they do so by standardisation. On the other hand, because open source programs are open, they can be adapted to local conditions, and uses. They offer a means for educators and their students to avoid the hegemonic influences of software standardisation, while still developing the technical skills to be able to adapt later to any similar closed source programs.

Two of the key questions for this conference concern the use of new technologies to personalise learning, and developing infrastructure that is “reliable, sustainable and available”. The potential for a combination of open source programming and open course development holds tantalising promise in these areas. Yes, courses can be personalised, learning can be personalised, and yes, programs can be delivered that make the infrastructure sustainable and available. “Reliable” is more open to debate at this stage.

Open source software also provides intriguing possibilities in terms of two other “key question” areas: spreading effective practices between and across institutions (indeed, across the globe) and developing home-school links that empower the players in the learning process. Certainly, if the technologies are more affordable then they are more accessible, and if they are more adaptable to local conditions and culture they are more empowering.

Parting words
ICT enthusiasts are often accused of deluding themselves about the importance of the object of their enthusiasm, where their allegiances to their preferred software are rather like those of a sports enthusiast for his/her favourite team, or a motoring enthusiast for his (generally his) favourite car maker. In that sense, are Open Source enthusiasts like Trabant enthusiasts, or the supporters of the Irish cricket team***? Or are they actually onto something that might make a difference for our students as both global and local citizens?

Notes:
* Why the funny name “OpenOffice.org”? It was apparently called OpenOffice originally, but there was a trademark problem. My screen in the mac version, NeoOffice/J, looks like you would expect a modern, sophisticated office suite to look.
** The Wikipedia is an interesting case study in the democratic evolution of the Web. In itself it is a case of Open Source development, not of a program but of a free online encyclopedia. As it describes itself, “Wikipedia is a free-content encyclopedia written collaboratively by people from all around the world. The site is a wiki, which means that anyone can edit articles, simply by clicking on the edit this page link.” I have quoted extensively from the Wikipedia in this document. Whether you believe that in its current state of genesis it has academic credibility is up to you to decide. I would have to say that careful reading of many sections demonstrates a generally cautious approach to the reporting of opinion and the differing views of opposing sides in the ICT debates.
***The Trabant was a small, low-powered, plastic-bodied car made in East Germany, now fondly remembered by a dedicated but not huge cult following around the world. I think even the keenest supporters of the Irish cricket team would have to admit that they will never command the attention that Manchester United does.

About the Author:
The author has recently retired after a career of more than 30 years as an educator in South Australia, including 15 years as a principal. His original background was as an English and Humanities teacher. Since retiring, he has had the opportunity to follow up a number of interests in ICT, including developing websites and talk lists, discovering eBay, and converting old super 8 movies to DVD format. This paper grew out of some experiments in Open Source software over the past year, when Adelaide had a cold, wet winter.