Education is a funny old game, and one that seems to mystify even the closest of observers. Populated with policy, procedure, top-down advisory boards and a chain of hierarchical button pushers, education can be a tough cookie to understand. If you then roll into the mix the fantabulous world of IT, you have a sure-fire recipe for confusion that can be difficult to measure and improve. With so much technology, politics and vision kicking around, progress can be slow if not non-existent.

In the Open Source world, education has been pretty close to our hearts. For many, the Open Source ethos and the education ethos are symbiotic – the core foundations and ethics are intrinsically interlinked. Whenever I have been out speaking at education related shows or working with educators, I always like to ask why they do it, and what exactly gives them their kicks in their work. The vast, vast majority of people respond with “well, I want to make a difference”; a not totally unfamiliar viewpoint levelled by a great many Open Source people.

Despite such ambitions, the education world has largely approached IT from a who’s-got-the-most-tickboxes perspective. Computers are typically seen as logical devices that do specific things and run specific applications, and when different options exist, they are largely judged on comparative technical ability – this machine can do that, that machine can do this. This is understandable. Decision makers ultimately need to be able to quantify the things they are making decisions about, and IT lends itself to this with its blow-by-blow feature charts, spec sheets and plastic-haired salesmen.

The problem is that the current educational IT climate only seems to identify with these purely functional benefits of IT, and ignores the potential for community building, collaboration, self-motivation and social skills that IT can bring. Sure, kids need to learn how to use a word processor and a spreadsheet, but wouldn’t it be great if they could learn how to use computers to work together on projects, develop social connections, inspire each other and develop their own opportunities and benefits. It is less about using the computer as a tool to do something, but harnessing it as a platform to make amazing things happen.

Changing the formula

Part of the problem with current educational philosophy is that students are spoon-fed learning. This was no different when my straggly-haired younger self was at school and university – I showed up to classes, learned some things, did some coursework and sat some exams. This learning rota consisted of a periodic set of instructions that I had to learn and execute to carry on – you learn something, you get tested on it. Although effective at channelling facts into the brains of students, the process is not comparable with the learning requirements in industry. If you need to think on your feet, you need to be able to learn without being spoon-fed.

Within this context of learning, its artificiality becomes apparent, and students primarily learn within a set context and its rules and conventions. This kind of limited context became a problem when I started teaching people as part of my own work. One example was the PHP and MySQL courses I would deliver. Students would come into a pre-installed computer lab, spend two days of solid tuition and leave rather excited about the technology. They would then get home ready to make an Amazon-killer and not be able to install the damn software. Here, the artificial learning environment usurped the students in the real world, and I subsequently changed my course to cover such installation. Of course, there is always going to be an artificiality of learning environment, but this is where subsequent real-world, collaborative experience is particularly important (more on this later).

The major flaw with the current philosophy is that the priority is about achieving learning objectives and not growing character-building skills and motivation. Although spoon-fed learning is important to get people started learning, the sheer reliance on it is sacrificing the development of a thirst for knowledge and for the student to be motivated to learn on their own time. Of course, this is not the case in all scenarios, and many students are indeed naturally motivated, but from my own experience at school and university, and from working and speaking with students, there is a distinctive culture with many students in which learning is only something you do during the day when you attend classes. The whole point of education is to inspire and motivate learning, and to push yourself to do amazing things. I want to see students doing these amazing things and not just retaining facts.

The seed

So, how does Open Source fit into this picture? Recently I attended a day organised by BECTA, who are the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency. At the day, BECTA were seeking comments, advice and thoughts about how they should approach and recommend Open Source. BECTA are a central body in British education, and I was quite intrigued to see how the day would progress; I was excited that Open Source is hitting the radar hard. At the event were vendors (IBM, Sun etc), Open Source organisations (OpenDocument Fellowship, Schoolforge etc), and a wide range of educators and decision makers.

Throughout the day, the discussion covered a number of different areas, which included technology, policy and standards. As you can imagine, the majority of the discussion covered issues of policy. Education is hugely rooted in policy, like any other public service, and policy varies dramatically in different parts of the country. Although policy was a sticking-point in some cases, it seems that the barriers to Open Source are reducing. There was a very real impression that if a technical solution was capable of delivering in an educational establishment, it was worthy of consideration, and not going to be rejected on the grounds that its not from Microsoft or RM.

At the beginning of the day there was an open discussion session and much of the commentary and feedback was about policy and functionality. It seemed that for many of the people there, the policy and bureaucracy was one hurdle to cross, and finding something functionally equivalent was another hurdle. Here the classic problem of black-and-white feature comparability reared its ugly head. This is where someone may be using, for example, Microsoft Word as their word processor, and when they are decided upon a replacement for Word, they judge the replacement in matching every single feature that Word offers. The problem with this method is that invariably the user requires a lesser percentage of the facilities in Word, and fails to find out if the potential replacement can actually solve those specific problems. In scenarios such as this I always recommend that a feature requirement plan is drawn up for today and a predicted feature requirements list for the next few years. It all boils down to reasonable, grounded, objective research.

While sat there listening to and participating in the discussion, it really struck me that the real advantages and benefits of Open Source were being lost. Sure, Open Source Operating Systems and applications can largely match current proprietary solutions, but lets not ignore the incredible community, collaboration mechanisms and massive enthusiasm that is present in all Open Source projects. As I stated earlier, education is all about inspiration and motivation, and here we have an inclusive community that is built upon merit, hard-work, motivation and quality. Why on earth are we not harnessing this in education and exposes our students to these benefits?

Plan of attack

One of the problems I have discovered when explaining how Open Source communities work is that most people assume there is some kind of blueprint. Well, there isn’t. Sure, Open Source has reared its head in software development, and there are different methods of working (benevolent dictator, dictator, committee, membership board etc), but the Open Source ethos has spread to many different areas and not just beards and sandals subjects – this all makes the ethos particularly suitable for education. Examples of this are free media, podcasting, graphic design, movie development, writing, political movements, activism, legal issues and more. Just Google for Lawrence Lessig, Elephants Dream, Creative Commons, Groklaw, Wikipedia, Defective By Design, DeviantArt, Make Magazine, LUGRadio and OpenStreetmap to see this kind of diversity. Open Source is not just about code – it is about a culture of working together to make things happen.

As far as I can see, there are four major character building benefits that can be gleaned from the Open Source ethos:

Community Skills – Community is the backbone behind Open Source and free culture. When people work together, potential far beyond that of the individual can be achieved. An example of this is Wikipedia. A community of thousands of people around the world have decided to care about making a free encyclopedia driven by free and open collaboration in which anyone can get involved. This is a fantastic opportunity for students to not only experience working as part of a team and part of a community, but to also learn the conventions and culture of community. In many situations I have seen new people join a community without an understanding of convention, and consequently ham-fist their way forward and frustrate certain corners of the community. In virtually all cases though, the person is taught the conventions of the community and grows to understand the differing views, culture and personality that makes the community thrive.

Collaboration – The Open Source ethos is all about working together. As you would expect, collaboration hooks in closely with community skills, and the two are closely interlinked. For many students, collaboration is relatively limited and restricted to other people in the class. Sure, there is the ability to collaborate there, but it fails to capture the range of skills, experience and culture issues that real collaboration encompasses. As an example, with Jokosher, a team of of people from a range of different countries, backgrounds, age groups and skill groups work together to make Jokosher happen. This diversity helps make a better project and improve the people that are part of the project. In virtually all scenarios, the collaborative process helps you to learn the subtleties of give and take, the ability to cater for destructive or problematic personalities, better ways of working and organisational skills. Every one of these abilities is sought after in industry. Wouldn’t it be great to see students working on Blender animations with other schools, working together on essays, sharing experiences and stories in collaborative networks, attending days and seminars given by experienced collaborative workers, and importantly, learning how to make collaboration a primary skill that pushes you up the employment ladder.

Teamwork and Leadership – Again, connected to the previous two areas is teamwork and leadership. Teamwork cannot happen in a vacuum. It is an iterative, progressive process that grows organically in different ways. This cannot be accurately captured within the restrictions of a classroom environment. Part of the challenge here is in managing destructive cases such as people who don’t deliver, inferior work quality and problematic personalities. Part of the reason why this is not effective within the artificiality of the classroom is that the lecturer/teacher will enforce a certain set of rules that are intrinsically followed by the students. As such, the challenges of team work will not rear their heads quite so dramatically as no one in the class wants to get into trouble with the lecturer/teacher. In volunteer collaborative Open Source communities, this is not the case – no one can tell you off and threaten to call your parents in. As such, personalities and problems need to be effectively managed based upon merit and not wielding a stick of power. This is where true leadership often kicks in. I would love to see students experiencing these skills and challenges as part of their learning.

Developing a productive process – Open Source is fundamentally structured on merit – if you are good, you get on, if you are not so good, people help you to improve. This meritocratic process is built on the back of peer support and encouragement. Open Source communities have an implicit subconscious investment in getting new people to be a part of the community. When new people join, existing members will typically advise and recommend methods and practises that can not only improve their contributions to the community, but to improve their skills and abilities which all helps to benefit the community itself. From this peer support typically comes more effective and productive methods of working, figuring out problems quicker, better understanding of structure, social skills, project management abilities and planning. This imparting of knowledge is akin to a grandfather passing on old war stories to his grandchildren so they always live on – each community fosters new blood to keep the project fresh and compelling. This is a tremendous opportunity for students to learn and grow organically. With this peer advice there is no formal learning or syllabus and it is entirely relevant to context and skills. With it, the student learns how to learn by themselves and develop that all important thirst for knowledge.

Cracking open the potential

This all boils down to motivation. The problem is that motivation is a tough nut to crack, and it doesn’t come naturally to everyone. At the heart of being motivated is having something you are passionate about. If you don’t have a passion for something, its difficult to get all that excited about life. When you find something you ‘click with’, motivation and excitement can come charging through, and they can open up opportunities everywhere. The essential skill is in helping students to find something they get excited about and allowing the motivation to prosper. The Internet has gone a long way to opening up the world to students at school, and it can help in planting the seeds of motivation, but education needs to take those seeds and make them grow.

Open Source is not just about feature sets and tick boxes, but about growth in skills, potential and developing an ability to think on your feet and mobilise. The whole point of this essay is to foster the idea that Open Source is much more than software alone – it is a formula for people to improve themselves and take part in active communities that make things happen. There is a huge potential for our students to grow from this help them to reap the benefits that so many Open Source contributors have inspired from.

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