Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Why open-source is changing the world.

Free and Open Source Logo,
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
One of the aspects of technology on which I expound frequently is the ability to get technology to do what you want it to do, rather than to use technology to do what the technology creator envisioned.

So what's the big difference there? I mean, the people creating the tools probably have a good idea of what they should be used for, right? iMovie is meant to edit movies. Google Earth is meant to be a "digital globe," isn't it?

Yes and no. I'm all for using digital tools for their intended purpose. If they're designed well to do a specific job, chances are they'll be effective at it. To me, nothing surpasses Apple in this aspect - their tools are well designed, and do exactly what they say they'll do.

But is that enough?

I hate feeling confined. I'm not claustrophobic physically, but I think I'm a technological claustrophobe. I don't want to be penned in to only doing things I'm allowed to do. If I can think of something cool that I'd love a tool to be able to do, I want it to do it. Now. It's definitely part of the culture of instant-gratification in which I thrive, but there's more to it than just gimme now!

As a creator, there is no possible way to imagine all the varieties of applications and uses for something. I've learned this lesson again and again as students creatively interpret assignments in different ways. It's something I encourage, and I try to build that accommodation into my evaluation tools. I want to evaluate the learning process, and I want my students to have the freedom to learn in new, unique and exciting ways. The more avenues of learning they explore, the more opportunity they will have to discover how they learn best (at least, in my own opinion).

And this is where FOSS shines.

Providing students new pathways of learning is along the same lines as providing users the opportunity to customize apps, add functionality, and explore and experiment. As Make Magazine put it in their Owner's Manifesto, "If you can't open it, you don't own it." I want students to own their learning. I want them to be able to explore, experiment, play. I want the freedom to do that with the tools I use, too.

Image: OpenClipart
Ultimately, I want the freedom to be allowed to break things. I don't want a guarantee that things will always work perfectly, because in my experience, those guarantees are hollow and empty. Things do not always work perfectly. But I want to be allowed to get into the nitty-gritty details, to try my hand at adding, improving, or changing the way something works. Letting users determine their own experience of a tool requires a creator to loosen the reins and trust that the user will make improvements.

And this, I think, translates into teaching in a direct way. As an educator, I often need to remember to "loosen the reins" and allow my students to create in new and unique ways. I need to encourage innovation, creativity, and enable my students to contribute their own voice to how learning happens.

Which is why I try to live in an open-source way.

I want to share what I do, how I do it, and how it works. Not because everything that I do is so wonderful - I know there's always room for improvement. What I'd like is to see my ideas spark something in others - whether it be my students, another teacher, or anyone, really. Someone who reads what I've written and thinks "Hey, that's a great idea. What if I..." Our culture is moving towards a place where ideas are no longer proprietary, but are as strong as the collective group who creates and improves them. By crowd-sourcing innovation, humanity will benefit. So loosen the reins, share what you're doing, and allow (and encourage) creative interpretations. Your life will be richer for it.