Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Open Source is as much about the people as the product

[here's the original version of the Guardian Soapbox piece which was published on 8th January 2008. I think it reads better, but then I'm not really qualified in this area...]
BETT: A Tube journey with a nose in an armpit which isn’t yours; more free pens than you can shake a memory stick at; a quest commissioned by your SLT to return with a Golden Fleece in the form of a Learning Platform. But wait, what am I really doing here?
Think about things which have transformed your school, or at least part of your teaching. What do they have in common? Did a piece of software or hardware revolutionise your school on its own? I doubt it. Whatever a vendor at the BETT Show might try to tell you, even as you flick through their glowing case study – liberally seasoned with words like 'personalisation', 'transformational', 'Every Child Matters' and the like - it's not expensive products which transform learning, teaching, or even a school, it's people. We know this, that’s why we’re here. But what now?
Open Source tools are free, inferior, DIY versions of commercial ones, aren’t they? So how could tools like these help build capable people? Commercial vendors describe cheap, amateurish, unreliable solutions hosted in a corner of a room – or, according to a DfES/DCSF representative, “boys playing in garden sheds”– caricatures which say much about their authors. However, the significance of “free” in Open Source is not the financial aspect, but the freedom to work as you wish, on your terms and in your own style rather than as determined by the software market’s received wisdom. For those of us who rely on Open Source solutions in the arena of Learning Platforms, the organic nature of the tools we’re using leads to something which makes sense to hard-pressed teachers who want to work together and share resources – collaboration. Making such tools available to schools without the “we’ve paid a lot for this so you’d better get on and use it” expectation allows us to support staff in their thinking, planning and pedagogy, rather than encouraging a headlong rush to use something because the financial clock is ticking and the next budget review is due.
So with this in mind, what’s the reality of a “free trial”? You must take time to nurture and develop the use of a VLE or Learning Platform across your whole school rather than follow the unsustainable pace of the geeky and the keen. But for how long? A month? A term? A year? However long the trial is, rest assured that it won’t be long enough to properly evaluate the nature of the product – or, more importantly, the culture and readiness of your school to use it to work in a new way. For that privilege, you’ll have to pay. One school signed up for a “comprehensive” Becta-approved learning platform provider only to find that the VLE element wasn’t up to scratch – not the sort of thing you discover in a trial period and an expensive mistake to make.
No matter what a vendor might tell you at BETT, all competent learning environments have similar capabilities – and hence are all as vulnerable to failure due to an ill thought-through implementation in a school. The best remedy for this? Build capacity in the people you work with – invest in their CPD rather than a product. So, if you’re at BETT, or even if you’re not, think about what really builds capacity in your school. Think for yourself, work with others, ask awkward questions and who knows, you might return with a golden fleece.

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