Thursday, June 17th, 2010 at 11:57am

The Greatest Success of Open Source is its Philosophy

Posted by Jordan Erickson

When it comes down to it, we work for the future of our children. The very purpose of our jobs, regardless of whether you are a superintendent, teacher, sysadmin or custodian, is to aid in the education of our youth so they may be prepared, motivated and creative in their adult lives. Working in schools gives us the unique perspective as to the forming of minds and how they solve problems now and later on in life.

What we do to solidify what we teach our students is important in an almost subliminal sense (a “practice what you preach” approach, if you will). Remember that, to the student, teacher and school are synonymous. If a health class teacher points out the importance and benefits of consuming natural juices as opposed to soda pop, it is hypocritical for the student to see vending machines filled with carbonated sugar water at lunch. It then becomes a choice of whether they listen to their teacher or opt for the convenience of the campus provided vending machine 20 feet away. It undermines the importance of the message you are communicating when your words aren’t backed up in the real world.

OK, let’s talk technology. Beyond the long drawn out and inconclusive arguments of technical superiority or inferiority of proprietary vs. open source software, there is the less obvious (but in my humble opinion much more important) examination of how people perceive technology as a whole. There is an overwhelming mentality of most non-tech geeks that computers are sealed black boxes. The language of software end user license agreements alone is enough to make you want to contact your lawyer before you click on the “I Agree” button. This creates a ‘hands off’ mentality of the end user when operating a computer, and that mentality is dangerous when you want to learn as much as possible. It instills fear, uncertainty and doubt, and manifests into shying away from digging deeper into how technology actually works. If there are security alarms embedded in the program, it’s probably best to not tinker.

Open source software is quite the opposite in that the philosophy behind it promotes (and the license legally enforces) the open sharing, copying and modification of program code. It engages the students on a technological level and tells them, “Hey, if you want to change how I work, go ahead. If I crash, feel free to dig into my code and fix it. If you do, please share your work with everyone so we can benefit from it too!” It also openly encourages the involvement and participation of everyone interested in the project to help create documentation, help out other users online, and generally become part of how the software evolves and gets better. This is a very important idea – from the ground up, open source software projects rely on the involvement of its community to prosper. By laying out every piece of the puzzle for everyone to see, discuss and collaborate on, there are no secrets and everyone is on the same level. This creates a motivation to give back to the community who provided the software for you, as you feel morally indebted. Many people start using open source software to fill a gap – and then become a part of that software’s community later on to help others fill that same gap (or even create a better gap filler)!

In an educational context, it is always important to stress the importance of collaboration, teamwork and open sharing of ideas. Unfortunately, there is a disconnect (no pun intended) with restrictive and binary-only software to these concepts. What students start to understand when using computers is that they are to obey their applications, period. They are not to ‘fiddle around’ in the filesystem (“Warning: This folder contains critical files!”) regardless of system permissions that are already set. They are not to copy, take home or otherwise use the software anywhere else but on the system in which it is already installed. They are not to openly explore the technology they are using to solve a problem or accomplish a goal. To me, this is hypocritical in an educational context.

There is a lot to be learned in the continued weaving of technology into real life, and it parallels many other areas such as personal morals and ethics. On the one hand you have personal power and hierarchy, and on the other you have total equality and a strong sense of power through community. Not to say that one is more productive than the other, but wouldn’t you agree that the latter seems that it would better represent the overall ideals our educational system strives to convey? To me, the greatest success I have felt from using open source technology in school is its philosophy. It is the feeling that I am creating a lasting impression that these methods work in the real world. Even if not literally expressed by students, they see that open source works on a much different level than other, more restrictive methods. They see that it works in a way that harnesses the power of collective knowledge. From this example they are able to transfer those ideals into other areas of their lives and manifest an open future for themselves and their peers.

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Jordan Erickson is a technical consultant and network engineer that contracts with California schools
to deploy energy efficient and open source solutions such as GNU/Linux and LTSP thin client systems.
He has owned and operated his business, Logical Networking Solutions, for 8 years. He is 29 years
old.

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