Tag Archives: edtech

Giving Away Things to Give Away Things

Welcome to draft one! I greatly appreciate feedback, questions, and help making it better!

Brief Background on Free and Open Source Software

The term “open source” was coined in 1998 by Christine Peterson to create a business friendly replacement to “free software.” Both of these phrases referred to software released under a license that ensures and protects the Four Freedoms of Free Software, which were originally outlined by Richard Stallman in 1986.

  1. The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose
  2. The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish.
  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
  4. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others. By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

These freedoms provide a basis to understand ownership and force us to examine the concepts of property and access in the context of software. Software licenses, at first blush, are about software and source code–who owns the code, who can use it, what they can do with it–but they also cover the same philosophical and theoretical ground of any law or policy used to convey and protect ownership. Software licenses, like all intellectual property licenses, attempt to deconstruct and make sense of the difficulty in defining ownership of the ephemeral: ideas, thoughts, time, and labor.

Software licenses matter because they identify who owns the bits that make up software, and how much they get to dictate what you do with it. This includes the software that runs your computer, your car, your smartphone, coffeemaker, pacemaker, printer, nuclear development facilities, and much more.

Today, the Open Source Initiative maintains a list of licenses that are considered “open source.” The Free Software Foundation maintains a list of licenses called “free.” These lists overlap almost entirely. All of these licenses are balanced against these four freedoms. WIth the FSF, this relationship is explicit and openly philosophical. The OSI, instead, uses the Open Source Definition to create it’s list, which describes the anatomy of what an open source license looks like in practice. At the heart of every license we call “open” or “free” is a deep and unrelenting commitment to the rights of every individual who interacts with the world through computers.

In business especially, we frequently talk about open source as a development model: we are able to build a contributor community that does the work we cannot or will not do; anyone can use a platform or piece of software to do what they want; it spreads the medium and the message. While frequently discussed as such, open source is not a developmental model. The development model we use is enabled by the ideals of open source, due to the licenses we use that actualize these ideals.

Free and Open in Education

The relevance of free and open source software (FOSS) in education is predicated on the understanding that education is a human right that must be protected, empowered, and enabled against social restrictions (governments, societal norms), resource restrictions (infrastructure, materials, access to teachers), and restrictions in ability (dyslexia, blindness, other neuroatypicalities).

There are practical benefits that come from using FOSS licenses when we–as organizations and individuals–create education technology. We can build a strong ecosystem of development and features We have different perspectives on education, and a broad knowledge of pedagogy and best practices that influence design and implementation. Mixed-contributor software, with many stakeholders who have their own values and audiences, is strengthened by the same things that often create messy code and complicate interactions between technologies: a diverse, engaged community.

There are also “non-technical” (a term I hate) practical implications to the relationship between FOSS and education. When discussing content, open licenses enable wonderful things, like translations of course materials, and use in classrooms, all of which broaden the impact of educators and education opportunities to learners.

The tools used to protect freedoms and rights form their own symbiotic relationship. The First Amendment, in part, relies upon the integrity of the fourth (unlawful search and seizure). It is impossible to have the freedom to discuss and formulate ideas if you don’t have spaces where you can do so without fear of reprisal. Similarly, the ability to give away education (to enable the rights of the learner), relies on giving away the tools that make this possible. Giving away the software that enables learning is only worthwhile if others have the resources to know how to use it.

But the larger issue is that which takes us from the conversations about multi-stakeholder development and access to resources to the philosophies underlying our mission.

Philosophical Stuff

Our work as educators and those building tools to support educators is based on the understanding that education is necessary for the present and future, for progress and the constant search for Good, and Doing and Being Better. This mission has put universities, especially, in a position where they are not just protecting the idea of education as a human right, but supporting it and furthering the cause.

The Important Part

You cannot truly have access to education if the tools and systems used to deliver it are things which, by their very nature, restrict your rights. By ensuring that the platform and materials used to change the ways we share knowledge are open and accessible to everyone, we create a world where no one’s education can be restricted or taken from them. In doing so, we create a new standard for how the world teaches itself and each other.

We’re working hard: we are creating course hosting systems and learning management systems with FOSS licenses. We are making platforms for hosting, exhibiting, and sharing all forms of content used in teaching and learning. Though using FOSS licenses, we are giving away things that enable others to give away things–by making these tools and resources free, open, and accessible, it is possible for educators and education institutions to give everyone what they need in order to learn. Let’s keep it up.

Further Reading

This is a random list of things that have inspired some of these ideas.