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.