What Education Can Learn From Open Source

Paul Graham recently offered the interesting essay, “What Business Can Learn From Open Source“. It’s a worthwhile read, and our educational institutions could easily adapt some of idea from the essay. I have taken the liberty of adapting this essay focused on business to suit the educational environment.

Re: school servers

At this point, anyone proposing to run Windows on servers should be prepared to explain what they know about servers that Google, Yahoo, and Amazon don’t.

While there are various excuses as to why schools continue to use Windows on the desktop (mostly due to perceived ‘hassle’ and the cost of re-training teachers to the Linux environment), I know of very few reasons as to why schools should continue to use the costly and inferior Windows server environment rather than a LAMP configuration. Schools are charged not only for the costly server software, but also the network client licenses (charged to every machine that connects to the server) AND server support. Sure, there are ‘deals’ but FREE is even a better deal. As for support, see the always available, free and helpful open source community.

Re: intrinsic motivation

I think the most important of the new principles business has to learn is that people work a lot harder on stuff they like…. There’s a name for people who work for the love of it: amateurs. The word now has such bad connotations that we forget its etymology, though it’s staring us in the face. “Amateur” was originally rather a complimentary word.

And the word amateur should still be seen as a virtuous pursuit, whether it is related to academics or sports (see death of the NHL). And to support amateurism in schools, teachers need to embrace and support opportunities for meaningful learning such as blogging. And I love the alternative term that Graham suggests to describe those that write online. Rather than the fad term ‘bloggers’, why not ‘writers’ instead?

Re: school/home divide

That is one of the key tenets of professionalism. Work and life are supposed to be separate. But that part, I’m convinced, is a mistake.

Being involved with open source programming, for most, is not a 9-5 job. It’s a passion, and the ideals of which extend well beyond the act of programming. Whether you are involved in open source programming, involved as a developer of open content or participate in other open publishing activities (e.g., blogging), it’s likely that values involved in such acts extend into your everyday life. Values expressed through sharing, cooperation and lifelong learning are sometimes characteristic of those that develop or publish shared content, and such values often extend into the ‘real’ lives of such individuals.

Re: knowledge is both constructed and fallible

The third big lesson we can learn from open source and blogging is that ideas can bubble up from the bottom, instead of flowing down from the top. Open source and blogging both work bottom-up: people make what they want, and the best stuff prevails. … open source software is more reliable precisely because it’s open source; anyone can find mistakes.

Teaching should not be based on an information transfer model. The Internet, and the emergence of Web 2.0, provides an extraordinary opportunity for students to research, analyze, critique and write new content … content that is transparent and available in formats that can invite further analyse, critique and republication. To add to this, a couple of famous quotes from the open movement should be noted as they help to describe knowledge creation as being largely reliant upon problem-solving via individual and social networks. First, Linus’ Law, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” denotes that given a wide-enough developer/tester base, problems are easy to characterize and solve. And directly related to this quote, but in the context of open content, is the lesser known Arnison’s Law which reads “given enough eyeballs, problematic content is shallow.”


These are just a few of the direct lessons that can be applied from the open source movement as derived from the Graham’s article. This is a question I am pondering to a much greater extent through my open source study, so feel free to extent any of these ideas or provide your own if the urge arises.

  • This is a great extension to Graham’s original essay. With regard to the first point, school servers, I would guess that the reason why Windows is the dominant platform for servers in schools is that most school IT staff have training in Windows but very little in any of the Unices, including Linux. This is hardly surprising, given the amount of money that the large IT corporations spend on developing training curricula and promoting their programs. On the Unix side, the only big corporation that offers any kind of training is Sun Microsystems, but their training is not included in any post-secondary curriculum, to the best of my knowledge.

    Despite this inequity, I’m optimistic that the momentum of Linux in Europe, Asia and Africa will create the incentive for training in Linux to be included in post-secondary IT curriculum.

  • Great post, Alec — thank you. I wish I could get my kids’s distance ed school (here in BC Canada) to embrace open source, but they seem to be completely and utterly beholden to Microsoft and to proprietary software. It drives me up the wall, and I don’t know what to do — I’ve tried pointing them to my blog entries on e-learning as well as pointing them to other blogs of interest, including yours, but they’re too comfy in the pocket of commercial developers. Most of everything they offer only runs on Windows, and it’s clunky, stupid, and costs way too much money. Couple this with often second-rate content, and it’s enough to make a person give up on public distance k-12 education and go back to home/ unschooling….

    I’m reading your entry in conjunction with Teach and Learn Online ( http://teachandlearnonline.blogspot.com/ ), aka Leigh Blackall in Australia, who today has a post about firewalls and security (see http://teachandlearnonline.blogspot.com/2005/08/break-down-fire-wall.html ) and how/why this is having an effect (negative) on the education system. I know that in our distance ed. school’s environment, the firewall/ security issue has been a big problem — for a brief period last year, the school’s server was pirated by a porn site because the firewall went down temporarily — and I feel that somehow the kowtowing to Microsoft products and to proprietary software generally is somehow connected to this paranoia around security. Falsely, no doubt, since nothing is as vulnerable as the MS stuff, but somehow the perception is that if you paid a whole pile of money for something, it’s “safer” than the materials available for free.

    Rob, I can only hope that your optimism is rewarded and that Linux / open source will win out in the hearts and minds of all those techies and others currently in the system, trained on Windows, and willing to stay in that fold because it’s so comfortable for them… I see all this energy around OSS and innovation in the blogs/ sites I visit, but I see very little of it on the ground, in the distance ed. school my kids are using here.

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  • Alec

    Rob, yea, great point on many of the techs not having the resources to switch (e.g., more comprehensive IIS/NT4/Windows2000/etc. manuals available than some of the popular Linux distros). This is going to be one of the tough barriers for Linux in schools as while Yahoo/Google/Amazon all run on Linux servers, look at their resources. Schools obviously have that type of clout … in fact, many schools are separated from each other. Sounds like a good enough reason to develop a community of practice or networks between technical support people in the province aside from the regular Linux support fora.

    Yule, I am hearing your concerns about some schools not changing, and one of the things I have analyzed recently is that there are those that consider some school techs to be frozen in some sort of proprietary wasteland … MS training occured sometime prior to the dot.com bust, and for many … that was the jist of the training one will get. If a Windows NT server works … it’s running, you know it well … why change it (the rationale may be)? I guess it’s a combination of factors that decide what technologies are adopted in schools … admin, teachers, tech. preference … and unfortunately, lesser so the students. And of course, there’s the old rhetoric … “no one gets fired for buying IBM”, and like thinking, that makes innovation too risky, and certainly not supported.

    My opinion … schools need R&D to some level. They need knowledgeable, flexible techies who can work with visionary teachers.

    Current system:
    Visionary Teacher: “I’d like to do THIS … is it possible?”
    Techie: “No, we cant’ do that … it’s too risky and insecure, and we can’t do it on our current system”.

    Future system:
    Visionary Teacher: “I’d like to do THIS … is it possible?”
    Techie:”Well, I’ve never tried anything like that, but I know it’s possible. I will see if I can get support and advice from my trusted network of peers, and find out what’s possible. Are you able to help me understand how this might look in the actual classroom, and therefore, help me tweak it?”

    I’m not trying to put all the blame on the techs. There are various factors … including fact that we often don’t have “visionary” teachers that are literate enough with technology to even know what questions to ask. I’m just trying to demonstrate one particular instance. Obviously, it’s much more complex.

  • You nailed it with the conversation between the visionary teacher and the techie, both in terms of the old model that all too often still is and the new one that could be! ;-)

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  • Nice job. I think you did a better job commenting on this than I did.

    I’ve been using K12LTSP in classrooms for over a year now. I set up a terminal server and 5 thin clients, did my site. Anyway, I think that Linux is a viable replacement for Windows and (and here I recognize my zealotry) I don’t understand how anyone uses it for useful work when the virus/worm problem is as bad as it seems to be. One of the coolest things is that wherever a kid sits, all their stuff, their files, bookmarks and so on, are there when they log in.

    The issue of servers, especially file servers, also gets me riled up. If students can’t easily save their files on a file server, they won’t. Using a computer in a lab is a real drag. I say that we take away the tech’s hard drives and make them use the exact same configuration as the students do. Within weeks everyone would have seemless file sharing.

  • Ed Montgomery

    Just thought you might want to check out a fellow canuck’s linux ranting on education, etc., with many links to articles about linux and education…! :-)


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