Covering the space of open source projects and initiatives

Opening Schools to the Students

Open source schooling is more possible than you’d think.

I have recently started school once again, going to a fairly average North American high school here in British Columbia. While I have been out of the loop for a while (mostly homeschooled), I’ve come face to face with the realities of the public school system. While most people see the school system as outdated and old-fashioned, some even seeing the individual curriculum as outdated, it can be frustrating to know that as a student it’s difficult to get these changed, as the majority of the time the requirements are laid out by the government. This could be drastically improved by using the concept of “open source” to the school’s advantage, utilizing existing tools to allow students around the country to contribute to what should become a much more “optimized” and hopefully more engaging learning curriculum.

First, open source text books. These already exist, and are widely available on the Internet. However traditional school can be slow to pick them up for a variety of reasons, for reasons such as plenty of schools already have an existing stockpile of textbooks that the teachers - and district as well - know and can build and reuse material around it. It’s also likely that some schools are wary of the technology, opting to use more traditional and reliable physical books. There have been many campaigns to attempt to push schools in the right direction, including the #GoOpen Campaign in the United States, and Canada’s Open Education Initiative, but adoption is still slow. The ideal situation for open textbooks is to be able to do away with large, expensive books and allow for both easier - and cheaper - access to the materials and also have the choice to modify the text, either to bring it more up to date or to attempt to engage students more with relevant life events. This way, schools win, because they no longer have to purchase or store large numbers of textbooks, and students win, because it’s one less thing that they have to remember to bring to school, lightenting the load of the ever present backpack, and teachers win, because they can modify the text to match the lessons they want to give (hopefully not fact-wise).

Textbooks are only the first piece of the puzzle however. Another very important aspect of high school is not necessarily what is taught, but how. Lesson plans are an important aspect of getting the necessary information across to the students in a structured and effective way. The vast majority of the time, this is up to the individual teacher to put together, which means the quality can be affected from day to day events. It is also entirely possible to get a teacher who is completely incompetent and can’t put together a lesson plan to save their life. In which case, it would be very advantageous to give students the ability to see and either modify or put together a completely new lesson plan, which would be approved by either the teacher or the school administration. While in my head I envision the teachers putting together markdown documents of the lesson plans, that’s not necessarily the best way of doing it. Ideally, there would be a different, more optimized solution, which would allow all students to have their say and ensure they learn what they need to learn to pass the course. A student would be able to see the lesson plan as laid out by the teacher, preferably a day or so in advance, and be able to make changes and submit it to the teacher and school administration, so in the event the teacher decides it’s not a good lesson the administration can have the final say.

There is a pretty standard assumption that a school will have outdated technology. It’s just a fact of life at public schools, where IT budgets can sometimes be overlooked until the last minute. It’s incredible, because there is so much cheap and more than capable technology in the world that could completely replace some swathes of old technology in schools. It would also come with the added advantage of freeing the school from proprietary and outdated software that they often use for managing computer networks and student information, which suffers from slowdowns and possible security vulnerabilities. For many courses, it would be possible to replace entire computer labs with Raspberry Pis, which have grown to be more than capable credit card computers. While this might not work for more advanced computer courses, e.g animation, it would be more than possible to move courses like basic computer knowledge, web design and programming to the cheaper Pis, which while come pre-installed with Linux do have a (albeit stripped down) version of Windows 10 available. IT related courses could be moved to using GitHub for page hosting, allowing savvy students to make pull requests with new additions to the course - and would encourage the courses to teach the fundamentals of Git version control, which has been universally overlooked in the courses I have taken.

The added benefits to moving to a more open school system is that students can become better acquainted with not only what makes a school tick, but also educates them on the concepts of open source. It gives the teachers more flexibility, able to modify text for their lessons and allows them to gather very valuable feedback and ideas from students when they submit lesson plans. In the IT space, students can be introduced to concepts like version control and Linux sooner rather than later, and could open some doors for new courses for the school to offer.

All in all, moving a school to a more open plan could work - in theory. There would have to be some restrictions, and ultimately things like exams would have to be regulated by the government regardless. But the learning experience could greatly benefit from the concept of open source, and it’s exciting to see new advancements being made in this space.