Open content at fsoss07
The purpose of this paper is to examine, review and compare two of the talks given at the FSOSS07. Having had little prior exposure to open source, upon examining the list of speakers for the FSOSS I was surprised by the myriad of topics to be presented and even more surprised to find several common themes among them. As there were many talks that I would like to have attended, many of which conflicted, I was forced into the difficult choice of selecting which events to view. I settled on a theme of usability and education, both topics important to me in my current employment, however even this had one or two conflicts. Regardless, armed with a pen, several tasty, chocolate filled croissants and some truly awful stuff posing as coffee, I set out to absorb as much as possible. Among the events I attended were “Open Content: Shared curricula in a web 2.0 world” and “Open Sourcing education in South Africa” which shared some similar insights that I will discuss in the comparison section. I chose to review the open content event as it is directly related to my work, indeed I have been in meetings with some of the presenters. I chose education in south Africa event because it seemed closely related and I wished to gain more insights into the similarities and differences.
Speakers: Diana Condolo, Susan Learney and James Humphreys
Although this talk was divided between three speakers, the main purpose was to examine open content and a shift to a learner-centric model of eLearning. This consisted of explaining what open content is, how it is different from open source and demonstrating and example of open content in eLearning. The speakers, including Kevin Pitts who could not be present due to another conference, were all Seneca faculty members and eLearning specialists. The speakers expounded the opinion that open content is a useful way to bring variety to the classroom and to share efforts in creating this variety. It utilizes a very open source style philosophy of sharing, co-operation and the idea that knowledge belongs to everybody. To that purpose, they demonstrated CLEA, a tool which allows educators to quickly and easily create a variety of online learning objects based on a set of common templates, with the application guiding the user through the process of creating an object from scratch, or modifying existing materials to suit their own needs. The use of pre-defined templates limits the variety available in the objects, but takes advantage of the fact that once a student or educator has learned the tools and interface once, they can reuse that knowledge in the other objects created there. In addition it allows the educators to take advantage of work done by others who may have created an object very similar to what they intend to create. CLEA differs from open source in that the source code is not available for modification, but the material that is used in the application may be changed for each object. In addition to creating new objects, it acts as a repository so other educators may use objects that have already been created, allowing them to share efforts with others.
Another example of similar open content they mentioned is the MIT open courseware site, which has published content for a vast number of courses, including slides, labs and exams. While the intent of sharing educational resources is similar, an important difference in the case of MIT’s open courseware is that the content is freely available, but it is not meant to be collaboratively edited, therefore resembling free software more than open source. This is still a major step towards open education, as a major hurdle is that many institutions view the information they teach in a very proprietary manner. This is somewhat understandable as they must often compete for scant resources and many see little motivation to spend them developing material others will use for free. Over time this seems likely to change as other institutions slowly realize that it means they can also take advantage of these free resources, thus spending less of theirs developing tools that have already been done.
While the speakers did not specifically state their views on open source in particular, it seems that they collectively viewed it as a very useful way to share efforts and to take advantage of collaborations with others, including gaining access to skills an individual educator may not have. So, while CLEA is not really open source, it shares the same basic principles of collaboration and sharing. It and other projects like it allow many educators in different fields access to interactive software materials they would most likely not be able to create on their own.
Open Sourcing education in South Africa
Speaker: Mark Surman
During this talk, Mark discussed a variety of topics including open technology, open learning and open content, specifically how they are being addressed in South Africa. Mark is an open philanthropy fellow with the shuttleworth foundation, an organization dedicated to “social and policy innovation in the fields of education and technology”. The focus of the talk was on examining three shuttleworth foundation initiatives aimed at using open source concepts to improve education in South Africa. One of these was LAMS (Learning Activity Management System), an application which works in conjunction with Moodle or Sakai to organize courses based on learning objects that can be drawn from other repositories. An interesting concept he discussed is the idea that those who exist in a collaborative environment (i.e. facebook) will naturally take a similarly collaborative approach to learning. For this he gave a example of two people who are attempting to use MIT’s open courseware to teach each other the subjects. One of the initiatives being attempted by the shuttleworth foundation is Kusasa; a framework to teach students analytical skills through computer modeling, growing progressively more complex over time and using several increasingly complex languages as a basis. The intent being that the students will collaborate, in pairs or larger groups to help each other understand the concepts. Another of the concepts discussed was how educators could take advantage of open content systems like open courseware to create free textbooks which, being communally written and freely redistributable, would allow more people access to quality education.
His feelings towards open source are clearly that collaboration and cooperation can utilize untapped potential and help people take advantage of the skills of others and that the collaborative nature of open source should not be limited to programming and education, but will become prevalent throughout our society. Indeed, that society is already changing to take advantage of collaboration, for which he provided the example of wikipedia. One of the efforts being made toward this end is ‘the Cape Town declaration’, the exact text of which is not yet available, but basically states a commitment to open, quality education for all, with a focus on a collaborative process to education.
While these two talks were focused more on open content than open source, they did still address applications of open source philosophy. They both espoused the benefits of collaboration, sharing and taking advantage of the efforts of others. Both noted that open courseware systems, such as MIT’s are closer to free software than open source, as the material is provided for free use, but there is no room for external committers to make changes or contributions. A difficulty identified in open education is that many institutions treat the material they teach as proprietary and are hesitant to give it away freely.
These presentations gave me a deeper understanding of some of the various ways of applying the concepts used in open source. Prior to this symposium I was under the impression that my only exposure to open source came from DPS909, however these speakers served to remind me that I spent my coop term developing objects which qualify as open source. While they were designed to by open content, so that educators without programming experience could edit a simple text file to change the material presented or add material in a new language, the intent is that the source would be available, so that those with the necessary skills could adapt it to their own needs.
Other observations about the symposium
Several other interesting things occurred during the symposium, including some surprising revelations about the open source policies of different companies. It is interesting to note, and was brought up in class, that it seems to be accepted for open source projects to try to hook users while they are children in an effort to get them to continue being users as adults and even convert their parents, but if Microsoft did the same thing it would (and has been) vilified as brainwashing. There were also some interesting rationalizations by people trying to stretch the definitions of open source to include their projects, despite the decidedly closed nature of the source code. The symposium also offered an opportunity to discuss my project with both the people who worked on a very similar one last year, which lead to a big eye-opener about just how much I don’t know about it. Environment Canada also presented a novel reason for converting a project to open source. Upon realizing they didn’t want to compete with the private sector, and only had a handful of users they converted the software to run on external systems, set up a bi-lingual wiki and released it under the gpl licence. Part of the rationale was that the taxpayers had already paid for this product to be developed, so they shouldn’t have to pay again to use it. This resulted in a grand total of one bug being fixed by an external contributor. Another concept that was echoed under several topics was the idea of creating harmony out of chaos. Different speakers said it slightly differently, but the basic meaning remained that, with the vast number of contributors, contributions could easily degenerate into chaos. With proper leadership, that disorder can be combined into useful cooperative (if not coordinated) contributions.
The talks examined here, and others at the symposium, led me to a greater understanding of the ideals behind open source. I now understand the essential differences, and similarities, between open source and open content, as well as those between free software and open source. Finally, while I have encountered people in the past who are dead set against open source, and many who feel it is the be all and end all of the universe and that all software and indeed all information should be openly shared, I was quite entertained to find that the Canadian government has perhaps the most pragmatic view I’ve encountered yet. To paraphrase, it doesn’t matter if it’s open source or not, as long as it’s the best tool for the job.
--Pcal 17:46, 2 November 2007 (EDT)