Open Source Learning Environments, they’re about STUDENTS DUMMY!

I was recently reading a literature review about open source in higher education.  If you can get your hands on a copy of the document I highly recommend it.  To summarize, Williams van Rooij identifies five reasons that all literature cite as to why open source in higher education is awesome-sauce:

  • Social and Philosophical believes (Education is thought it should be free so code / systems should be too)
  • Software Development Methodology Benefits (design in the open, collaboration)
  • Security and Risk management benefits (many eyes on code, collaboration again)
  • Software adoption life cycle benefits (less chance of lock in, constantly updated / improved by others, collaboration…again…)
  • Total cost of ownership benefits (reduction in cost because of distributed programmer base and their…collaboration)

Does anyone else notice a problem here though (other then Williams van Rooij)?  Other then collaborative and strategic mission blah blah, blah, WHAT DOES CODE COLLABORATION HAVE TO DO WITH STUDENT LEARNING?!?  Nothing.  She identifies that all these papers talk about how great open source is but they all attack the problem from the same angle — money, collaboration, lock in, risk assessment… essentially a whole lot of awesome manager bullet points on a PowerPoint slide.

  • We participate in Open Source
  • Our Students Use Twitter
  • Our Teachers Use Facebook
  • Our IT staff saved X dollars last year
  • We were able to do more with less resources
  • Insert bottom line and philosophy crap here

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Those are some great reasons to adopt open source software (OSS).  Open source technologies are all about community development and a culture that fosters open development; often times breeding more successful solutions.  My issue is exactly what the author find to be lacking in the research: pedagogical Reasons for educators to adopt OSS.  How does OSS improve the instructional transaction between instructor and learner?  How does it solve issues related to open education? How does it solve the growing divide we see between haves and have-nots when it comes to education?  Can it solve these issues? Can it even begin to address these problems or is it purely something great for tech circles to engage in and IT philosophers to write papers about?

The backing is coming in time. Admittedly what I’ll be posting is mostly collaboration commentary but phrased how we all need to be shaping the conversation — collaborative efforts directly impacting learning experiences.  Here’s some of the ways that  the whole educational process can benefit from a distributed learning environment.  OSS in house as well as free / open services available on the web.  I group all of these  under an umbrella term I am deeming an Open Source Learning Environments (OSLE):

  • Open software leads to open standards — If your unfamiliar with open education, SCORM, and OER, I suggest looking into them further.  These are all concepts born out of the open source movement in education.  They directly impact the student / teacher relationship because it reduces the number of times resources have to be re-created.  Someone, somewhere has written a lesson or whole course on everything from String theory to what is Chord progression.  It’s out there, search for it and let the open standards move that content between systems.  Or better yet, if it’s truely open just point your students to it for a lesson or two.  Seeds of my previous article are being planted all over the place…
  • OSLE embrace social media formats — Enter Vimeo, YouTube, Flickr, Picasa,,… need I go on?  Sure, these technologies are often times distracting, but OSS breeds transmission standards and formats that allow things like Vimeo and YouTube to display their videos within your course just by knowing the url (ala Embedded media fields in Drupal).  There’s a wealth of [legal] educational material on YouTube that provide a great way to have students react to documentaries and other articles.  For example, the white-house posts all most all media there in some form for a civics discussion or students can watch parts of Discovery and PBS programming for science concepts.
  • Improved teacher to student communication — We’ve reached a point where e-mail is impersonal and students don’t want us bugging them on their FaceBook, mySpace, and twitter social spaces.  But there are still great opportunities to leverage the power of social technologies to benefit student – teacher interactions.  We added online rubrics (open Drupal project) to several online classroom settings and now students get richer, more detailed feedback then ever before possible online.  New modules are created everyday for Moodle, Drupal, WordPress and the rest that hook better and better social services together.  Imagine an internal Gigya service for education and the potentials of optional, cross-posted participation.  Or, [and I just started looking into this] a diigo environment specific to a course environment in Sticky Notes (Drupal).
  • Improved student learning through collaboration — remember when collaboration was just setting up a wiki, giving people accounts and telling them to edit stuff?  Remember how painful that was to get setup, painful to manage, painful to teach people how to use the technology.  All those barriers are melting away.  Sites are 1 click creation, accounts are pervasive (openID, LDAP, co-sign), and the wall between the student and the teacher known as technology has turned into an open plain.  Students can set up their own OSLE on blogger or WordPress to create a semi-professional learning resource of their own.
  • Instant Online Portfolios — “I have all this great work I did in class” no longer has to be a problem.  Ideas aren’t trapped in endless Word files, presentation scripts, Drop Boxes (*dig) and Power Point slides.  Projects are collaborated on in Google docs, they’re discussed in Blogger, they’re viewable on YouTube.  Students can leave higher education with a toolbox showing everything they’ve been able to accomplish while in school.  Are you enabling their work to be portable through Views and pointing them to post to social services? Or are they still dumping their knowledge to a drop box?  The knowledge economy of the future will demand they be able to sell themselves and their ideas before they graduate.
  • Production Creativity — Do you remember early 2000 how long it took to produce a high quality learning resource?  Never mind the mindlessness of uploading HTML in DreamWeaver or Homesite (old school); how about creating a high quality video?  The cost of creation is so much lower (which is what social media is all about) but think of how much higher quality resources we can create as education providers now then before?  And for that matter, how many MORE educational opportunities we can create.
  • Distributed Learning Environments — How often do you see  “experience using FILL IN SPECIFIC TECHNOLOGY” on a job application and it not be something generic like Word or Word processors? For the longest time I heard from people “we need to unify the student experience” and I have ALWAYS disagreed.  Students are tweeting, IMing, texting, watching a movie, taking your course, and thinking about what they’ll do in an hour when they’re done reading…all at once.  They are distracted and constantly moving between frames of reference and environments.  Your branding changing a little bit when linking off to another system isn’t going to kill them; if anything it’s only going to help them be more marketable.  Diversify the learning environments and engage students in a variety of systems so they learn to utilize a wider skill set.  The more experience they have using a multitude of systems the better off they’ll be, their work environments are only going to be changing at an ever increasing pace.
  • Learning Experience Design — This is a philosophy that’s becoming more apparent at my place of employment — Learning Experience Design.  We don’t just want students to come to our bland –insert default theme here– course / learning environment.  We want students to get sucked into the material.  The more engrossing and engaging the EXPERIENCE, the more likely you are to get them to close twitter, their phone, turn off TV and focus on your content.  Embed YouTube and they’ll be in your material watching YouTube, not on YouTube watching LOL-Cats videos in between your lectures thanks to “related videos”.  Leverage open tools so you can leverage the magic that is good theme design.  Remember, like it or not we’re not just selling knowledge, we’re selling a commodity.

I’d love for someone to write articles proving some of the claims above so that they are more then just ‘best practices’ but that’s part of the point of writing this.  To get you to ask yourself, are you leveraging any of these approaches above or just a few?  Are you fully embracing the potential of an OSLE or are you just playing here and there to make your management happy?

Are you working towards another bullet point, or towards actually changing the lives of your students?

  • Your move


  1. Melissa · March 16, 2010

    Excellent post, Brian. You are right-we don’t often say “open source” and “pedagogy” in the same sentence. You made me go back to David Wiley’s video from the 2oo9 TLT symposium ( because he directly addressed open education.

    A few other pedagogical items things to think about:
    *There is a forced immersion in understanding the concepts of attribution and copyright, which is necessary for survival in any OSLE. In order to play, they have to know the rules.
    *OSLEs promote easy, instant access to experts, anywhere, anytime.
    *Students have more control and can direct their own education, which contributes to increased self-efficacy and deeper learning.
    *Increased accessibility. Anyone, anywhere can access OSLEs, which increases the diversity in a course, which enhances the learning and ties into your collaboration. Allows for social comparison, as well, which may motivate student learning.
    *Allows for improved instruction. Because the instructor may not have to create the content, the instructor has more time to develop other content, activities, or become more of a moderator or guide, which is sometimes a better role for the teacher.
    *Allows for peer review. Content created and put out there is open to review, criticism, input, and feedback from anyone out there. Just think…you could have an editor edit one of your blog posts and make it shine-for free! Everyone benefits. Feedback can be an effective motivator and promote achievement expectancies and behaviors, especially if it is credible.

    That said, you still have several camps of people out there. There are those who have always done it “this way” and they aren’t going to change. There are those who do it “just because I can,” but they do it for the wrong reasons. And then you have people who are working for change. And as you know, it’s a hard thing to swing change really fast.

    But I think it’s coming. I did a Google search for open source and pedagogy and did run across a few articles. And I even read that Moodle is built pedagogically around constructivist concepts, which I never knew. Here’s a nifty OER resource: that shows that change is happening.

    If you haven’t watched Wiley’s video noted above, you should.

    I love the idea of letting a student loose in an educational candy store where they could create a personalized learning experience by selecting from millions of available items, talking with millions of peers and experts, and then taking a simple assessment saying, “Yes! That’s exactly it! You’ve got it!” And they did it on their own terms.

    While the candy store may not be open yet, I think it’s just around the corner. At the same time, while we are waiting, we still have to work within the framework of our own current store, continuing to innovate as much as we can.

  2. Nate · August 26, 2010

    Excellent article. Thank you for not “geeking out” and forgetting that all this technology is SUPPOSED to exist to enable, not to ensnare.

  3. Pingback: Open Source Education Thoughts on Drupal Education |
  4. Marie Führungsverhalten · March 6, 2014

    Now some years have passed but your post still has my attention. A lot of people seem to believe that open source solutions for a better education are only another empty phrase. It seems to be an empty phrase that they gratefully embrace, starting to fill it with more empty bubbles. Yes, it still means that we have to make an effort to achieve the full potential of open source learning environments. So keep up the good work, and don’t stop your sharp criticism.

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