Open-Source Hardware For Education

Yes – the title is correct. I meant to say hardware, not software. I read a really great article on TechLearning about a new 3-D printer with educational potential. One of the features of this printer, called a fabber, is that is is built in a clear case as an open source tool. According to the article, this “means you have access to their design specifications and can modify them and develop your own improvements.”

You can read the article here: 3-D Printing a Goo Goo

The printer itself is fascinating – priced and sized to be used in homes and schools, it also uses a wide range of substances from clay to goo to chocolate to cheese to create 3-D objects. So it is also safe.

In the article, Hod Lipson (one of the gurus behind fabber) pointed out the reasoning behind making this printer open-source. He speaks of how we are becoming detached from technology, possibly to the point of not understanding it. All because we can’t crack open the case and mess with a tool without messing it up.

Could we ever hope to see this approach take root and grow in other technology markets? Sure, there are other open-source tools out there, but they are pretty few and far between. Just like open-source software, open-source hardware will not be for everyone. But for those that could benefit from it (see article above for examples), we need to see more products like the fabber.

Open-Source in Education Myths Debunked

Erin posted a link in her Jaiku to an interesting article in Campus Technology about a report that claims that open-source software is “poised for surge in education.”

Great article. I am huge supporter of open-source applications, if you couldn’t tell by now. Of course, as I was reading the article, I hit the obligatory warning about the “pitfalls” of open-source applications. I’m not blind with love for open-source; I know it is not perfect. No program, whether open-source or proprietary, is going to be without its drawbacks. But many seem to be determined to paint all open-source programs with the same broad “pitfall” stroke. I wanted to look at two common myths surrounding open-source and debunk them a little bit (with quotes straight from the article above).

  1. “Maintaining and upgrading open source solutions is not a simple process.”

    Ever heard of the dummies series of books? I have been using open-source programs for years now, all as a non-IT person. I’ve never found them to be difficult to maintain or upgrade. I’ve never actually had to do any maintenance at all. That is like saying that maintaining a home computer is not a simple process. It all depends on what you get and how you use it – you may never have to maintain a thing!
  2. “There is no one at the end of a phone to help fix glitches–as with proprietary software.”

    People always seem to assume that if you don’t whip out the plastic when you are in the middle of doing something, then it is “free.” “Proprietary always gives you free support.” Ummm….. no…. nothing is free. They just roll the cost into the final product. Most medium to large open-source projects can point you to some company that you can pay to get phone support. Overall cost is going to end up being the same or less that what is rolled in to proprietary products.But, my question – is phone tech support ever really that great? It’s hit and miss at best. What if the person on the other end of the phone is an idiot? What if it is not 24 hour service, and you need help after hours? What if they have to put you on hold for an hour? This is assuming that a company even offers service – some don’t, believe it or not.

Hopefully, someday we will stop comparing open-source to proprietary and just compare product to product, regardless of the status of its source code. that’s the only fair way to look at this issue. Not all open-source programs are the same, just as not all proprietary programs are the same.

Go to MIT for free? WOO HOO!!!

Massachusetts Institute of Technology has launched MIT OpenCourseWare, “a free and open educational resource (OER) for educators, students, and self-learners around the world”” (MIT website). That’s right, anyone with an internet connection can access materials from MIT courses. I’m not talking about just a couple of canned PowerPoint presentations either, these are robust courses that have a syllabus, assignments, video and audio lectures, and study materials. Though you can’t get credit for taking these courses, and you don’t have access to the instructors, you can experience teachings from some of the greatest minds in the world. At last count 1,550 courses have been published. The plan is to have just about all of MIT’s undergraduate and graduate courses online by 2008.

What are the implications of this? In my opinion, this may be the single greatest initiative online education has witnessed. Granted, I am an idealist who truly believes that everything should be open source …including education. A world class education is no longer just for the privileged.

Not everyone shares my enthusiasm. I recently listened to a professor’s concerns about the effect this could have on her intellectual property. She feels that this may reduce the value of materials she develops. I understand her point, but I feel this is a bit shortsighted. If all course materials from all colleges are made freely available, think of the advances that could be made with this collective knowledge. Students, professors, and the general public would be able to sample new ideas and theories from leading minds at the click of a mouse. Synergies would be formed, debates would ensue, and discoveries would be made. Some may feel this has the potential to change the landscape of higher education. Would that be such a bad thing?

As a society, I feel there is far too much emphasis put on “checking the box” of getting a degree. There are a lot of people out there with a college degree who barely lifted a finger for the seven years of their undergraduate career. This initiative helps shift the focus from students attaining the tangible end result of receiving a diploma to students gaining knowledge. I wonder if this is the beginning of something big.

DrupalEd Steps Up To The Plate

Like it or hate it, social networking is one of the new EdTech buzz terms. Yeah – I know – there are more buzzwords now than anyone can seem to keep track of. But social networking is gaining the attention of many universities and institutions. And we’re not talking about your friendly neighborhood super teenie-bopper MySpace either. Projects like ELGG and Drupal have been offering full featured Social Networking tools for a while now. Tools that anyone can use to create their own social network for free.

Now, from the good folks that brought us OpenAcademic (reported here earlier – which reminds me that I forgot to reply to the nice email I got from the person in charge of OpenAcadmic. Doh!), we now have DrupalEd. The point of DrupalEd seems to be to combine the social networking tools of Drupal with a set of education tools to create an attractive (and free) alternative for educational institutions. Or, so, I think it is. It’s still new and needs documentation – but it looks promising. See more information here: Think of it as Drupal meets Moodle.

Now, I like where this is heading. And I love innovation. I think there is plenty room out there for all of the Moodles, Sakais, DrupalEds, OpenAcademics, etc of the world. But, I also want to point out that all features of DrupalEd either exist in Moodle, or are being developed this summer with Moodle’s partnership with the Google Summer of Code program. That being said, I still want to download Drupal Ed and give it a whirl.

I’m still waiting for a Moodle/Drupal/Gmail/Google Docs/Odeo Studio/Flixn/anything Web2.0 mashup. That would be the thermonuclear bomb in my book….

OpenAcademic: Do We Have a Revolution Here?

I’m not sure what to think of this one. It is still too new to really know. But I’m interested to see where it goes. I was in a conversation recently in a listserv (Listserv? Did I just way that? Yep, they still exist…) about the differences between Moodle and Drupal. Some one popped in a message that we should check out OpenAcademic – a project that combines parts of Moodle, Drupal, Elgg, OpenID, and MediaWiki.

Wow. That would be awesome. They don’t have a first release yet, but they do have many interesting thoughts on their site. Their tag line is “bringing education to all.” Nice. They also have a nice mission statement on the front page:

OpenAcademic — supporting learners, teachers, and institutions.

Create an intranet. Blog. Podcast. Manage the school website, and all the club websites. Create a private workspace. Manage a class. Share files. Give students the tools to build portfolios that cross academic years and curricular disciplines. Support teacher professional development. Communicate with parents. Build a safe social networking environment within your school community.

Well. There you go. If they can bring all that hype into being, this could be interesting. I also love this one statement from their site:

PLE/VLE/Social Learning Environment/CMS/LMS/Who Cares?

Funny. I agree. Ever been in a conversation with someone about learning software, and you call something an LMS, and they stop you and correct you that it is (add fake snobbish accent here) “really a VLE, not an LMS.” Well, excuse me….