Blogging from K12 Open Minds! Sitting in a local elementary school in Michigan City, IN, back in a row of tiny classroom chairs for the first time in years. It's a small gathering with many friendly people, and I'm liveblogging everything I can.

Randy Orwin's presentation: Open Source? What is this thing and why would I want to use it?

Randy is presenting remotely via Elluminate, as he got back from Australia last night. He started with the definition of open source, drawing on two sources; the OSI's definition and the FSF's definition. (Yep, he's using "open source" to refer to both. I have no objections, but I can think of a few friends who'd probably spring to their feet right now and clarify the difference, and it makes me grin.)

As Randy talks about the FSF's four freedoms (running the program, studying it, redistributing it, and releasing improvements back to the community), I'm reminded of Ian Bicking's recent post and the story of how he was captivated by the philosophy of Free Software as a teenager. I wonder what balance different K12 teachers have between the philosophical and the pragmatic, and how they've struck that in regards to technology in general and open source in specific - and how much they get to think about such things at all. After all, talking about freedom is great, but if your 4th grade class is struggling to read, there's not much time to think about, say, the implications of distributing your patches back upstream, let alone be aware that such a thing exists.

He pulls up the the OSI definition, which is is far more extensive and includes antidiscrimination causes - and I think, for the first time, about how they'd appear to a classroom teacher - the school my aunt teaches at is a Quaker one, and if you take out the references to technology and software, the OSI definition sounds strikingly familiar to the brochures that the Friends School hands out.

I wonder who the other attendees in this room are? My guess is that most, if not all, of them are teachers; that seems to be the case for most of the attendees here today, according to the "who's here?" roster. I wonder what their experience with open source is. Are they new to the idea? Are they, like me, curious how Randy will frame it for K12 education?

Randy presents 4 main "selling points" when pitching open source to the audience.

  1. Free (value added)
  2. Edit the source code
  3. Equity for all students
  4. 21st century philosophy

In speaking about #3, equity for all students, Randy talks about how now you can send programs home with students, how that barrier is now a nonissue - I think that's the thing; it's not that these barriers are insurmountable... one can find donors to fund licenses, one can work around a limited number of software seats... it's that a lot of tiny little walls to climb accumulate to make you utterly exhausted. Wipe them all out, and you've got clear running. (I note that this point assumes that hardware availability is not an issue, that we can take the having of computers in a sheltered, power-available environment for granted, and the issue now is what they are and what software we can get to run on them and how to get them connectivity. In some places that's true; in some places it's not.)

Randy's list of characteristics of 21st century learners that open source fosters: I wonder where this list is from.

  • Inquiry
  • Collaboration
  • Community
  • Project based

Now he is talking about ways you can contribute to open source communties (I use the word "communities," he's using the singular "community," probably in order to simplify things a bit, though the many overlapping groups of people within open source are hardly monolithic). Randy lists four ways teachers and students can get involved.

  • User
  • Beta tester
  • Documentation creator
  • Code contributor

I love how he explains that students can get involved as well - sometimes to a greater degree than teachers, and often independent of them. Sometimes, kids will rocket off on their own, and go far deeper into something than their teacher can follow, and that's okay. Not only okay, but fantastic and encouraged. He also emphasizes that all these roles make valuable contributions, but I still feel (in the ordering of roles in that list, in the minds of people for whom the "source" in open source predominates) like there is an unspoken hierarchy. (Question independent of this presentation: should there be? Is code king? As an engineer, my reflex reaction is to shout "of course!" - but then I think about how quickly and without thought that response comes up, and want to spend more time unpacking it and seeing why that is, and if I actually believe that.)

Randy moves on to talk about how one school (in Bainbridge, Washington) implemented open source. They started with touting the value add, the cost savings - selling by pragmatists, to pragmatists. They targeted early adopters and found a creative first use of open source technology to start, which in this case was streaming the US presidential inauguration via VLC.

He's talking about bumps in the road now; most of them are not technological bumps, but mental ones. The changing of attitudes and mindsets is the hard part - tech staff, teachers, students, and parents alike. He's talking through how you might coach someone through thinking about the software; how do you walk somebody with a question through, how do you mediate between technologies and people? It's a challenging sort of interface to be; I think about how many people are, skill-wise, able to bridge the gap - they have the knowledge of technology, or the deep rooting in a classroom, or both - they have the skills to bridge the gap, but don't. Because the opportunity cost is too high. It takes too much patience, too much time, for far too little payoff; this kind of mediation is exhausting, and volunteer devs and classroom teachers are already overworked. How do we lower that cost?

There seems to be a common theme in Randy's notes about the gap between where we are and where we want to be, whether he's talking about specific technology implementation cases in a specific school or the far broader notion of public perception. I'm searching for a term to describe it. He brought up the challenges of getting last-mile connectivity... is that the term I'm looking for? They're tiny, tiny blocker bugs. I think the feeling is "so close and yet so far."

I think this may be the effect of having two worlds trying to meet. Each has their own problem solving strategies; each builds the bridge out as far as they can from their own island - to run with the "bridge" analogy, each side has their own tools and techniques, with one side building a suspension steel bridge and the other raising an elegant wooden arch - but the strategies we use will only span out from one side so far, so we reach the center and realize that our current methods won't close the few remaining feet, and now... we need to find a different way to reach across.

Some brave souls have begun to fling themselves across the gap, and some people have laid planks or tightropes down, and others have gingerly inched across them, but we've yet to find a way to make these bridges consistently complete, with arches that nobody has to think about walking across, bridges that don't make people take deep breaths before they start out. (On the other hand, maybe we want that; maybe it means that those who cross have thought about the crossing, long and hard. I don't necessarily subscribe to this point of view - as with a lot of things, I think my balance point is somewhere in the middle - but it's another notion to consider.)

Randy's list of support models is so fantastic that I'm just going to reproduce it here without further comment, other than that I've seen 'em all, and there are tradeoffs galore, but beyond my ability to discuss in this post and still keep up with Randy's talk.

  • Guru with time to spare
  • No guru, but someone with the nose of a bloodhound and time to spare
  • Guru/bloodhound with no time to spare
  • Full meal deal

The top instructional titles on Randy's list are Moodle, Audacity, OpenOffice, The GIMP, and Freemind. The top server side titles are Linux, Apache, MYSQL, Drupal, PHPESP, and PHPList. When he posts these lists, the Elluminate chat bursts into activity, with people mentioning the software that they use, saying thank you for new leads... it makes me look forward to the 75-software-programs-in-75-minutes session later on - that's probably going to be absolutely crazy energetic!

And now it's time for questions.

Q: Would you recommend using Linux servers, or Windows/Samba?
A: It depends on what your staff is comfortable with.
Q: What would you recommend as a transition time to allow for this kind of switch to open source?
A: (I missed the exact length of time stated.) It depends on the type of switch; are you adding optional tools they can choose to use, presenting alternatives that they can choose to use... or completely replacing what it is they know? The latter is the hardest and the longest time is needed for it.
Q: What can't be replaced with open source right now?
A: The only thing missing that teachers really need is on the video side. We don't have video editing, etc. programs that are both open source and at a point where they are usable by classroom teachers yet.
Q: Do you consider Google Docs to be free?
A: I use Google Docs. It's important to note that it's free as in no cost, but it isn't open source.
Q (this one was mine): How can projects present better interfaces to schools?
A: Get schools into the community to make those interfaces themselves. Get students involved. (Note to self: I should talk with Randy more about this - it's an area that fascinates me greatly, and this is a chicken-and-egg problem that I haven't found a good way to contribute to the cracking-of.)

End of talk notes. I may have misheard/misinterpreted/just-plain-missed things - if someone reading this spots something, please let me know so I can add/correct it, or point me to somewhere if there's a better place to post these sorts of notes (I'd rather them be on a central K12 Open Minds wiki than on my blog, and so on).