Open Source

Darren Kuropatwa at A Difference has been experimenting with wikis as a medium for helping to teach his students math. In this post, he has also started thinking about wikis as a medium through which teachers can collaborate on instructional materials. He has created BPRIME as a place for teachers to share best practices, including a repository for scholarly articles. It looks like a great way to share ideas (in an occupation where telling people how you do things can be perceived as a threatening suggestion that others must do it that way, too).

I think that the methods of open source software are another avenue through which we can harness the immense amount of creative teacher work that is occuring every day in classrooms across the world. Teachers (everywhere, I imagine) face a dilemma. Often (particularly in the humanities) they are expected to teach classes with no defined curriculum, so they must develop a ton of materials on their own. These materials rarely make their way outside of the individual's classroom. But teachers who work with published textbooks and all of the accompanying resources often do a similar amount of work: compensating for errors in the text or for units that don't work well, writing alternate assessments (to match their local standards or personal expectations, or because the canned tests have been too long in the public domain to be secure).

To quote the NCTM Principles and Standards, a curriculum is more than a collection of activities: it must be coherent, focused, and well articulated across the grades. I think it would be difficult for a random assortment of people to create, wiki-style, a coherent curriculum. But open-source software projects, like the many Linux distributions or OpenOffice, present a great model.

How would it work? As with OpenOffice, start with an existing textbook. Acquire the rights and the 'source'- digital versions in plain text and original photos. Release the source under a General Public License, allowing free alteration and redistribution. Manage the project using all of the tools and strategies of good software development, including a repository of all of the relevant documents and meticulous documentation of additions and changes. Encourage user contributions and peer review. Allow the development of different 'flavors'- like the different Linux distributions.

As more and more computers enter classrooms and homes, a greater number of publishers are putting their textbooks on CD-ROM. Perhaps this means the time is right to challenge the dominance of textbook publishers in education, and to encourage teachers to collaboratively self-publish in this manner.

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