"An Open-Source World"? Where's The Open Source?

If we are to believe the early signs, 2012 may well be the year that British schools finally start to address the continuing shame that is ICT teaching. As I and many others have noted, the current approach essentially consists of sitting people in front of Microsoft Word and Excel and making them learn a couple of commands on the menus. It seems that the message has finally got through to the powers-that-be:

Imagine the dramatic change which could be possible in just a few years, once we remove the roadblock of the existing ICT curriculum. Instead of children bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word and Excel by bored teachers, we could have 11 year-olds able to write simple 2D computer animations using an MIT tool called Scratch. By 16, they could have an understanding of formal logic previously covered only in University courses and be writing their own Apps for smartphones.

(Or they might just sit down and write a new operating system kernel as someone else did a few years ago.)

Those words - amazingly – were pronounced earlier today by the UK Education Secretary Michael Gove as part of a long-awaited speech about the future of ICT teaching in the UK.

Most of it was simply catching up with the dreadful reality, and announcing the formal scrapping of the current format and replace it by an approach that gives far more freedom to schools, which is certainly to be welcomed. But there was one section in particular that stood out, not least because it was headed "An open-source curriculum":

Advances in technology should also make us think about the broader school curriculum in a new way.

In an open-source world, why should we accept that a curriculum is a single, static document? A statement of priorities frozen in time; a blunt instrument landing with a thunk on teachers' desks and updated only centrally and only infrequently?

In ICT, for example, schools are already leading the way when it comes to using educational technology in new and exciting ways – and they're doing it in spite of the existing ICT curriculum, not because of it.

The essential requirements of the National Curriculum need to be specified in law, but perhaps we could use technology creatively to help us develop that content. And beyond the new, slimmed down National Curriculum, we need to consider how we can take a wiki, collaborative approach to developing new curriculum materials; using technological platforms to their full advantage in creating something far more sophisticated than anything previously available.

In addition to that reference to "a wiki, collaborative approach to developing new curriculum materials", and the frequent mention of free online resources that are already available for educational use, Gove also had the following to say about some hot open hardware:

Initiatives like the Raspberry Pi scheme will give children the opportunity to learn the fundamentals of programming with their own credit card sized, single-board computers. With minimal memory and no disk drives, the Raspberry Pi computer can operate basic programming languages, handle tasks like spread sheets, word-processing and games, and connect to wifi via a dongle – all for between £16 and £22. This is a great example of the cutting edge of education technology happening right here in the UK. It could bring the same excitement as the BBC Micro did in the 1980s, and I know that it's being carefully watched by education and technology experts all over the world.

The reason Raspberry Pi can do all those wonderful things – and the reason it is so cheap – is because it is running free software. But open source was the elephant in the room – or should that be the penguin in the room? - during Gove's speech. Despite the excited description of the Raspberry, and despite the fact that the curriculum itself might be "open source" in some sense, there was no mention of the huge role that open source code could play in education, nor any explicit mention of any free software by name.

That's a real missed opportunity. By definition, open source code can be examined, learned from and then built upon – exactly what you would want in education. Open source is about collaborating with others and working together as part of a team – things that have been missing completely in the benighted current approach to ICT that has put off millions of students in this country from the idea of exploring computing more deeply, never mind making it their profession.

Open source is a perfect fit for teaching about computers, something that ought to be proclaimed loudly from every school rooftop. Its omission from Gove's speech might just be because he took it for granted that "in an open-source world" people would of course use open source, and that the era of "children bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word and Excel by bored teachers" is finally over. But in the light of the UK government's U-turn on open standards - and the relentless lobbying that Microsoft will doubtless bring to bear upon officials and schools – I'm not betting on it.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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