Open Source is the Answer

I’ve been in the lucky position of being able to trial a couple of iPads over the last term with some of the teachers and students at my school. At the same time, I was in the unlucky position of not being able to attend an ICT network meeting last week (thanks, HSC marking!) where technology leaders from schools in my diocese gathered to share ideas about the viability of iPads as learning tools.

It’s funny to see so much education buzz around the use of these devices so relatively soon after their launch just a few months ago. Perhaps it’s not really that funny, though. After all, Apple really have a knack for creating hype around their products and with the iPhone a runaway success, what’s not to love about its new big brother?

For my part, I was keen to explore the affordances of iPads (and tablets generally), noting that where the iPad really shines is as an e-reader and instructional tool. My stand-out app remains MobileRSS, a tidy little RSS app that integrates Google Reader subscriptions and keeps me up to date. I’m also very pleased at the way the iPad nicely converges multiple proprietary e-book formats into the one device – all with a nice-sized screen.

Open and Closed: the Eternal Question

While it’s all well and good to pay Apple due attention for yet another game-changer, I remain resolute in thinking that teachers need to be well aware of the dangers of closed technologies, especially ones like the iPad that lock the user experience into the restricted functionalities of proprietary apps. Don’t get me wrong, apps are great (well, once you get past the thousands of ‘fart’ apps that have made relatively instant millionaires). Apple has shown us, too, that when you take proprietary software combined with proprietary hardware, things have a strange tendency to ‘just work.’ But with HTML5 around the corner and so much innovation happening with Web 2.0, I think our real attention should remain on the learning affordances of the open web and open source.

 

I had to do a bit of a technology double-take when I set up a netbook for a colleague this afternoon with Edubuntu, an open source operating system with a completely free suite of pre-installed literacy and numeracy apps. After only a few clicks of the mouse, I had three menus full of apps that rivalled – and dare I say, beat – many of the apps that I’ve spent the last few weeks sourcing, downloading, installing (not to mention paying for) on the iPads. Gobsmacked for choice, I’ve decided to set up a few machines at school with this operating system, knowing that kids can use the apps freely and safely to hone their typing, memory, vocab, grammar, spelling and maths skills. Apart from being free, Edubuntu runs very nicely on older gear – a great way to recycle some old laptops which have become otherwise unusable.

Funny how with no money, a few clicks and a lot less fuss I can have access to some excellent education tools supported by a community of developers who believe in donating their time and talent to education all around the world. Shouldn’t that be what good teaching is about?

Perhaps the real freedom is in knowing that at the end of the day, very little in technology has to be either/or thinking – both/and thinking works just fine for me. Maybe open source is just the thing for an open mind? 😉

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About Michael

Cellist, singer/songwriter, school teacher, nerd, recent scooter enthusiast and failed philosopher.
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