|Vegas Pictures 2009 Canon 003 by AdolfGalland. Used under Creative Commons.|
The style of debate practised by the Today programme poisons discourse in this country. It is an arena where there are no positions possible except for diametrically opposed ones, where nuance is not permitted and where politicians are forced into defensive positions of utter banality. None of it is any good for the national conversation.You can listen to the exchange here, though I'm not sure for how long - but Linehan's irritation with the staged conflict is obvious. I'm not comparing myself to the man who wrote Father Ted and The IT Crowd, nor would I associate Dominic with either Linehan or Billington, but it struck me that we found ourselves in a similar position (I'm not sure what Dominic felt).
I'm not suggesting that any SecEd debate is somehow poisoned - it's not that strong. However, it struck me that having an "either/or" debate on something fairly crucial to schools who want to develop isn't that helpful for decision makers in those schools, who almost certainly won't follow either path, but instead plot a course between. We have plenty of schools who used to use commercial learning platforms and now use Moodle, and there will be schools who change the culture of their school using Moodle and then spend a sizeable budget on another tool in the future. I would loved to have had a constructive exchange of views with someone like Dominic, who is aiming for the same outcomes, using similar approaches, albeit taking a different path to that which I'd recommend. I often find the most interesting opinion pieces in newspapers are those which take the form of a thoughtful exchange of emails or letters from two contributors - which is where the "nuance" that Linehan alludes to might become more clear. If and when I can find a link to an example of this more constructive opinion piece, I'll replace this sentence with a link to it...
Anyway, here's the article as I originally wrote it (the formatting was changed slightly - to fit SecEd's publishing tool? I'm not sure) and some parts were edited out. It also includes direct links to the references. You can see Dominic's piece alongside this (well, underneath, which isn't significant) on the SecEd site, and I recommend that you read both.
Why choose an Open Source option over a proprietary Learning Platform?
When an author or commentator wants to highlight the differences between “commercial” and “open source” tools, some standard statements are often made about these broad categories to attempt to reinforce differences between the two. Such statements normally take these forms:
- “Commercial products are well-supported, proven, popular and are the route you should go down if you’re serious about [insert whatever function the tools in question are supposed to perform]. Quality and usefulness are directly proportional to how much you pay for something.”
- “Open source products are unsupported, flaky, unreliable and unproven. They are interesting, but only if you are at the geeky end of the spectrum, or have a room of tame geeks at your disposal. They’re cheap - and remember, quality and usefulness are directly proportional to how much you pay for something. Using something which is non-commercial is an indication that you’re not serious about the task that it’s trying to perform.”
The “open source vs. commercial” dichotomy is a false one, as to use an open source tool effectively requires spending at least a little time or money - and “commercial” simply means “someone makes money from it”. A better way is to see it as a choice  between “closed source” (where you as a user have a negligible influence over the direction of what you’re using - if at all) and “open source” (meaning you as an educator can influence,shape and, if you want to, even help build the world’s most popular online learning tool). Imagine asking Microsoft if they wouldn’t mind changing the way PowerPoint works because your staff or students always struggle with an element of it - unless your surname’s Gates or Ballmer (or maybe even Jobs) that’s unlikely to happen. With an Open Source project, you can really influence the direction of travel.
The “free” aspect of Open Source is often cited as a demeaning characteristic - if I had a pound for every time I’ve been told that we as a Local Authority only offered Moodle (an Open Source tool and the world’s leading Virtual Learning Environment) to our schools “because it was free or cheap” I’d be a rich man - actually, I’d probably have enough to pay for about a week’s subscription to some of the more expensive commercial alternatives to Moodle. We use Moodle due to its quality - not because of its lack of licensing fees. Choosing Moodle has given us genuine freedom - over our own destiny. We can change it or implement it if and when we want to and pair it with what we like (integrations with SIMS , other MISs, Google Apps for Education , Microsoft’s Live@edu , Adobe Connect , Microsoft Office  and many other tools are available). Our schools can start to use it when they are ready to, not simply because they’ve paid out for a significant contract whose clock is ticking.
Using Moodle as an example, you can pay for as much as you’d like to, including:
- training - someone to help or show you how to best use the tool;
- hosting - a third party to host the software - unless you want to host it in school;
- support - someone on the phone to talk you through how to do something;
- or none of these.
I’ve had the privilege of supporting all sorts of schools in using Learning Platforms effectively and have lost count of the number of staff I’ve worked with who have used Moodle in Singapore, Spain, France, Belgium to name a few countries - and been able to bring their resources with them to schools in England, without having to recreate them anew. In Australia, Brazil, the US, Sweden, South Africa, Finland and all around the world a community of learning teachers and educationalists can (and are) shaping the way in which new pedagogies are developing across the globe. Some, like the Open University, LSE, & hundreds of huge institutions  invest time, money & resource in Moodle knowing that this will feed back into its global community of users as well as benefiting their own. Others - small primary schools, voluntary organisations, faith groups, individuals - teach and innovate using the same tool on a more organic scale. Both ends of the scale contribute to and gain from a global project that’s open in all senses of the word. Whether you buy into the latest Government strategy  or not, most people would agree that this constitutes a pretty big Society.
Complete reference list.