Open-source technologies hold great promise for education–but for this promise to be fully realized, a dramatic shift in thinking must occur, according to representatives from the ed-tech industry, nonprofit organizations, and academic institutions from around the world.

The occasion for their discussion was a symposium titled "K-12 Open Technologies Initiative," held March 8-9 at the World Bank Headquarters in Washington, D.C. The event took place in conjunction with the annual K-12 School Networking Conference hosted by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), a nonprofit organization that helps schools use technology to improve teaching and learning.

Co-sponsored by IBM Corp., which offers open-source code and content as part of its services, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which provides grants and other resources to support education, the symposium explored how school leaders and other officials could promote a greater understanding and awareness of open technologies.

The term "open technologies" refers to a wide body of software solutions, from operating systems and applications to instructional content and media–all of which are available with few or no licensing restrictions. The term also refers to software that adopts commonly accepted interoperability standards, as well as any hardware devices that make use of open-source operating systems.

Speakers discussed the legal, political, commercial, and technical issues associated with open technologies at length and with great enthusiasm. But participants were most excited when exploring the social implications–and how open-technology models for education can chip away at traditional educational hierarchies and institutions.

Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, the freely licensed online encyclopedia that permits users to write and edit entries, began the symposium with a discussion of his work in particular and open content in general.

Having the power to control and modify content, Wales said, gives educators more control over the educational process and encourages a greater degree of collaboration among them. Wales noted that proprietary textbooks deprive educators of this option, resulting in a situation where the publishing industry dictates to educators what content is offered–thereby prescribing how material should be presented and students engaged.

This is exactly the type of environment Wales said he hopes to discourage with Wikipedia.

According to Wales, Wikipedia has more than 1 million entries in the U.S. alone. All told, he said, there are now versions of Wikipedia in 214 different languages, 30 of which have at least 10,000 entries.

Though Wikipedia is perhaps the most well-known example of how open technologies can be used to create an organic, constantly evolving body of work, it also has been the subject of controversy, as critics have begun to question the accuracy of its entries.

Addressing these criticisms, Wales talked about accuracy in the production of Wikipedia entries and about the need to trust educational communities to produce high-quality content.

He said a study by the science journal Nature recently found that Wikipedia entries contain, on average, four errors per article, while entries in Britannica, a leading producer of encyclopedias, have an average of three.

Wales said the hierarchical model for how knowledge is imparted–wherein an established expert in a field is hired to compile and hand down information to others–is not infallible, and he suggested that other models like Wikipedia, while not yet perfected, hold great potential for the future of technology in education.

Calling attention to "the fallibility of truth," Wales said, is one of the more important qualities of Wikipedia, because it forces users to think critically about the nature of the resources they are using and to participate in the creation of knowledge directly.

He said suspicion about the motives and credentials of those who contribute to open-content initiatives is much harsher than the evidence, as a whole, suggests it should be.

"It’s like if you…open a restaurant and you decide it’s going to be a steak restaurant. As a steak restaurant, the customers are going to have knives," Wales said. "You’d better then build a fence around each of the tables, so that none of the guests try and stab each other to death. Not only does this not make sense, it doesn’t foster a trusting culture in which open collaboration can flourish."

With Wales’ comments as a backdrop, symposium attendees set out to discuss how free, open-source technologies might be leveraged in education–especially in K-12 learning environments–to provide more opportunities for students.

Participants agreed it was important to give students control of the technology by offering access to source code, while teachers emphasized a need for proper judgment in terms of discerning good content from bad, good work habits from poor ones, and so on.

Many American participants argued that the assessment requirements ushered in by the federal No Child Left Behind Act are too draconian and do not permit experimentation with open technologies in the classroom, forcing teachers to spend the majority of their time teaching to standardized tests.

Participants suggested that an "education tax" be created that would require a percentage of proprietary source code be opened up to the education community for development. They also suggested creating partnerships with vendors of proprietary applications to generate open, adaptable content for further use by educators.

In a video presentation shown to audience members, Martin Dougiamas–founder of Moodle, an open-source course management system (CMS) for schools–said one of the key benefits to using an open-source solution as opposed to a proprietary one is that users can customize the program to meet their specific needs.

Dougiamas said he based Moodle on a sound pedagogical principle: that people construct new knowledge as they interact with each other. He said he found he could not use Blackboard, a leading commercial CMS, in a way that permitted him the freedom to manage online courses as he wanted.

Dougiamas said Moodle, in contrast, gives educators and students the chance to collaborate in the construction of online learning environments.

Moodle, Dougiamas explained, is based on open standards, which means that it is completely interoperable with other systems, works by a set of common protocols, and has a defined workflow structure with a well-explained sequence of activities that permits the user to build and modify community web sites. The proprietary Blackboard model, he said, locks the user out of such opportunities for collaboration by not allowing access to the base code.

"Administrators need to be convinced that they can take the money they save from having to pay for a proprietary system like Blackboard and use it toward support," he said, addressing concerns about how schools can support open-source technology platforms.

Dougiamas said there are about 20 companies right now that pay him for the right to build training and services around Moodle, and "those companies are making money as well. And there are more of them every day. I’ve got & over 200 companies from around the world requesting to provide a Moodle-related service. I take a lot of care in making sure the services that will be offered are good ones."

In a session profiling the successful use of open technology in education, Helen King, international relationship manager for the Shuttleworth Foundation, spoke about how her organization uses open-source code and content to help educate children and train teachers in developing areas. Her foundation, she said, is a South Africa-based nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of education in that country.

Shuttleworth distributes open-source applications and curricula across thin-client networks from a central server and sets up centers where applications can be burned to a CD-ROM and brought back to computers lacking the internet speed or connectivity to download them, she said. The foundation is working to develop an affordable model to increase student learning and offer competitive skills in sub-Saharan Africa, where roughly 1 percent of the population have internet connectivity, King said. The low-cost, multi-platform solutions offered by open-source applications, and the professional development and high-quality educational content available through peer-generated open content, make such efforts possible in an economic context where purchasing comparable proprietary software and content is entirely out of the question.

"Open-source technologies provide low-cost access to training that makes our educators and IT specialists competitive," explained King. "It also permits for local control of curricular materials and technology that would likely not be available otherwise."


Consortium for School Networking

World Bank

IBM Corp.

William and Flora Hewlett Foundation


GNU Project

Nature Publishing Group


Shuttleworth Foundation