Open Source/Open Course Learning: Lessons for Educators from Free and Open Source Software
Type of work: Article (outreach)
Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) has transformed the software industry. As noted by other authors in this issue, academic information technology (IT) is already realizing many benefits by adopting open software; such benefits include reduced cost, absence of user restrictions and vendor lock-in, and consistency with traditional academic values of openness and sharing. The greatest benefit of the FOSS movement for educators, however, is not cheaper or better software but the model it provides of a social, cultural, and legal framework capable of harnessing IT to improve learning.
At this point, some may object: "Universities have been using IT for a half-century and hardly need a new model." But formal education has used IT principally to support administration and research and has been slow to adapt it to improve its core business of teaching and learning. Traditional learning is still too passive, too parochial, too hierarchical, and too artificial. By harnessing IT effectively, educators can make instruction more graphic, dynamic, and active than it is now. They can introduce students to real-world experts and real-world problems and create communities of practice that promote learning. Others may object that a huge amount of online content is already available at no charge, so open source learning is old news. But price is the least important issue in open source learning, as a review of the factors critical to the success of FOSS will make clear.
In the model I outline below, the characteristics of FOSS that have contributed to its rapid rise and success serve as the inspiration for grassroots, open-source learning communities—or more succinctly, open course communities—that would be capable of transforming education just as FOSS communities have transformed the software industry. To be sure, the participants and domains of FOSS communities are not the same as those within the open course communities I envision, and consequently the former provide a pattern for education to emulate rather than a precise blueprint. Nevertheless, in light of the similarities that do exist between these two worlds, I believe that the FOSS-inspired approach can revitalize educational practice.