FLOSS Away: Free and Libre Open Source Software workshop report

An overview of Futurelab’s Free and Libre Open Source Software internal workshop

Teresa Dillon, Futurelab (Web Article)

In December 2004, Futurelab held a one-day internal workshop which aimed to provide us with a more in-depth understanding of the implications of Free and Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) for education. Invited speakers were selected from across Europe to present and discuss their view on FLOSS for learning.

The first speaker was Seb Bacon, co-founder and director of Jamkit in London, a web development company specialising in usable and accessible web solutions for the not-for-profit sector. Bacon provided a comprehensive overview of the history of open source and its development.

Drawing on Bacon’s presentation, open source can be loosely described as a movement or philosophy whose history can be traced back to discussions in the 1960s about how to develop software through open, cooperative, community based practices. It was not until 2000 that Eric Raymond, in his seminal book The Cathedral and the Bazaar1, coined the term ‚open source‚.

Open source generally refers to the practice whereby the software’s source code is accessible and ‚free‘ to use, modify, adapt and distribute.

The most commonly cited advantages of FLOSS are that:

  • bugs and glitches in the software can be identified faster and corrected
  • the source code can be adapted, used and reused in new ways; consequently it can provide users with tailor-made solutions
  • it potentially reduces costs of software
  • authors can achieve recognition by making their code available.

In relation to school computers such advantages are very attractive. This was evident from the presentation given by Richard Rothwell, Chair of Schoolforge and Head of Computing at Handsworth Grammar School in Birmingham. (Although Rothwell did not specifically discuss the work of Schoolforge, as an organisation that advocates the use and development of open resources for UK schools and colleges, it is worth checking out.)

Rothwell focused on the FLOSS practices that he has implemented at Handsworth Grammar School, which involve reusing hardware and teaching young people how to programme software using a combination of systems such as GNU/Linux and OpenOffice. Rothwell believes his approach has provided him with a model that is sustainable and cuts the costs of continually upgrading school computers. However it will be interesting to see whether the continual recycling of hardware can handle the next generation of multimedia software that will be arriving in schools over the next five years. It was also interesting to see how Rothwell’s approach provided young people with the opportunity to learn authentic, programming knowledge and skills that were applied in a meaningful way.

From a European perspective, Raymond Elferink (from Raycom in The Netherlands) presented a snapshot of the main aims and activities of the Special Interest Group in Open Source Software for Education in Europe (SIGOSSEE). The main aim of the group is to carry out research into key issues impacting on the development and implementation of open source software in education by supporting the community, through the dissemination of information and good practice. On a European level SIGOSSEE are an interesting and relevant group who do have their work cut out for them.

Dai Griffiths, from the University of Barcelona – also a key member of SIGOSSEE – discussed general issues of standardisation within e-learning. Griffiths drew on his research on the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM), which is a reusable learning content system for computer and web-based learning, to illustrate how this model could provide a framework for specification and standards within FLOSS. During the follow-up Q&A session it was clear that his work stimulated debate, with particular interest in how for example teachers could co-develop and create curriculum content using FLOSS methods. These practical discussions built on Bacon’s detailed historical overview of the area, and along with Rothwell’s presentation provided an example of how FLOSS could be implemented at a ground level.

Dr Timothy Hall (University of Limerick, also a member of SIGOSSEE) discussed the history of pedagogical design, reiterating how the ‚one size fits all‘ approach of commercial software development is not the most suitable for education and learning. Conclusions drawn from his discussions indicated that there is a dearth of systematic research that looks at the potential influences of FLOSS for learning, and on the whole the field would benefit from locating itself within ongoing, wider debates on pedagogical design.

Overall, as an introductory session to FLOSS, it was interesting to note that a field which was led by what Bacon described as a ‚bearded‘ fraternity of individual maverick thinkers and programmers, has become one of the most hotly contested areas of debate within education and the technology industry. Thankfully the mavericks have not disappeared; however, as the field grows there is a greater call for standardisation and consensus. Added to which the issue of interoperability is paramount. FLOSS provides a real and viable alternative to an educational market that is currently dominated by computing companies, who fail to provide users with greater levels of control and flexibility over their operating systems. In addition, although it is clear that the way forward is one in which both proprietary and open source software co-exist, how such a model would work practically and be sustained at all levels of the educational sector is still a major question.

To adequately address this, much work needs to be carried out. At a basic level there is a general lack of practical resources, which outline for teachers, school leaders, technicians and pupils the history of the area, current trends and future directions. Work needs to be done on providing a comprehensive framework through which the implementation and design of FLOSS software can be made understandable and accessible, for those not only on the ground level, but more importantly at a policy and industry level. Despite media exposure and the recognition by key organisations such as Becta and the DfES that FLOSS could be a viable means for producing software, key FLOSS practitioners and supporters need to consolidate their efforts. Structurally this is an interesting issue for FLOSS practitioners, particularly because the field is not necessarily the most harmonious body and work tends to be localised and sporadic. Consequently the field does not always help itself and that is why groups such as Schoolforge, SIGOSSEE, the Linux community and speakers such as Bacon who have an in-depth understanding of the area are so important, as they are providing the bridge between the FLOSS and proprietary software communities.

At Futurelab we believe this bridge is an important one to support. There is an increasing rise in the popularity and consideration of open source applications in all markets, from education to government, business and the arts. It is critical for all decision makers to understand what open source applications are and how they could provide innovative approaches to the co-creation of learning activities.

To address this, we will be producing a review of FLOSS for learning, its general history, how it has been applied to learning, current trends and practices in education and future directions. This document will be written for our key target sector groups – the software and creative industry, policy makers and educational practitioners – and will be available to purchase and download from our website from December 2005.

References

1. Raymond, E (2000). The Cathedral and the Bazaar. Sebastopol, California: O’Reilly and Associates

Links

General history and interest:
History of open source: www.opensource.org/docs/history.html
Eric Raymond’s homepage: www.catb.org/~esr/
Lawrence Lessig: www.lessig.org/blog/
Creative Commons: creativecommons.org

Education and general policy:
Becta open source and teaching: www.becta.org.uk/research/research.cfm?section=1&id=3197
UK Government policy and guidelines on FLOSS: www.ogc.gov.uk/index.asp?id=2190&
EU FLOSS forum: www.ossite.org

FLOSS educational practices, international examples:
School Forge: www.schoolforge.org.uk
Cardiff Schools: www.cardiffschools.net
Schools Interoperability Framework Association: www.sifinfo.org
SchoolTool: www.schooltool.org
The Association for Free Software: www.affs.org.uk/education/index.html
KDE software: www.kde.org
Linux in education: seul.org/edu

General resources:
Free Software Foundation: www.gnu.org
Free Software Foundation Europe: www.fsfeurope.org
Linux Online: www.linux.org
Linux UK: www.linux.org.uk
Red Hat: www.redhat.com
Debian software package (also used for education): www.debian.org

Note:  Web resources developed by Futurelab prior to 2011 used to be hosted by NFER, UK but were decommissioned, hence this is a reproduction from the archive.