Don­na Ben­jamin round­ed a small group of us togeth­er to write a let­ter to Julia Gillard, Deputy Prime Min­is­ter and Min­is­ter for Edu­ca­tion. The result was wide­ly syn­di­cat­ed, hope­ful­ly build­ing some mind­share in the process. The Edu­ca­tion Expo proved to me more than any­thing else that FOSS is quick­ly becom­ing accept­able to the gen­er­al pub­lic — the trick is in how you pro­mote it.

So where to from here? How can we cap­i­talise upon the gains we have made?

Per­haps our great­est sin­gle weak­ness is the per­ceived lack of pro­fes­sion­al sup­port. I think OSIA should be doing more to address this (note: I’m not imply­ing that OSIA isn’t tak­ing this seri­ous­ly). Here’s an e‑mail I wrote to the osia-dis­cuss mail­ing list (which is unfor­tu­nate­ly subscriber-only):

The best thing OSIA can do is fight the pop­u­lar notion that there’s no
pro­fes­sion­al sup­port avail­able for FOSS. We can beat the TCO and Freedom
drums as hard as we want, but few organ­i­sa­tions are will­ing to entrust their
com­put­ing to ‘com­mu­ni­ty’ support.

I man­aged the Lin­ux Aus­tralia stand at the Edu­ca­tion Expo a few weeks ago, and
my impres­sion is that FOSS is on the cusp of main­stream acceptance:

https://dhanapalan.com/blog/2008/06/29/education-expo-report/

Schools are cry­ing out for ways to get bet­ter val­ue for their dol­lar, but they
aren’t going to even think about FOSS if they can’t get pro­fes­sion­al support.

If I run the stand again next year, I’d like to see some involve­ment from
OSIA. At the very least, we should have avail­able some leaflets show­ing that
yes indeed there is qual­i­ty, paid sup­port for FOSS.

Also note that FOSS isn’t Lin­ux. We got the most inter­est in the
OpenE­d­u­ca­tionDisc, a com­pi­la­tion of FOSS for Windows.

On the com­mu­ni­ty side, we can con­tin­ue to make FOSS more accept­able to school admin­is­tra­tions, bureau­crats and politi­cians. Here’s my idea:

My sug­ges­tion is for us to build a Web site focused on open edu­ca­tion in
Aus­tralia. We already have the per­fect vehi­cle: http://openeducation.org.au.
How­ev­er, at present it’s just a messy wiki more suit­able for our own
brain­storm­ing than for being a pub­lic-fac­ing resource.

The wiki should of course remain, but I pro­pose that we build a proper,
pre­sentable Web site that is direct­ly acces­si­ble via the
http://openeducation.org.au address.

Why do this when we already have http://linux.org.au/education? Open Education
is much big­ger than Lin­ux, and cer­tain­ly should not be anchored to it. Here’s
a short list of what it can include:

  • FOSS
  • (GNU/)Linux OS — on servers
  • (GNU/)Linux OS — on clients/desktops
  • open stan­dards
  • open languages/libraries/APIs
  • free content/culture
  • open learn­ing
  • open cur­ricu­lum

To be hon­est, I fear that we might be only hurt­ing our­selves by tying open
edu­ca­tion to a com­plete­ly Free com­put­ing envi­ron­ment. That might be a worthy
aim, but few insti­tu­tions are going to switch over all in one go. By offering
a migra­tion path (or paths), a school can migrate more com­fort­ably at its own
pace. We ought to be pro­vid­ing real choice, not just a bina­ry ‘with us or
with the terrists’.

FOSS (Fire­fox, OpenOffice.org, Scribus, etc.) can run on oper­at­ing systems
oth­er than Lin­ux. To use the recent Edu­ca­tion Expo as an exam­ple, we got a
lot of buy-in through the OpenE­d­u­ca­tionDisc, a com­pi­la­tion of FOSS for
Windows.

Also note how I split Lin­ux clients from servers. Lin­ux’s place in the server
realm is very sol­id, but con­vinc­ing an insti­tu­tion to accept a Lin­ux client
solu­tion is tougher. And by ‘client’, I mean either tra­di­tion­al desk­tops or
thin clients. The lat­ter are often cost-effec­tive and rep­re­sent a real
strength of Lin­ux, but are often over­looked or even have reg­u­la­tions working
against their adop­tion. On the serv­er side, we have some great educational
tools such as Moo­dle and LAMS.

Open stan­dards obvi­ous­ly include things like file for­mats and pro­to­cols, which
will become even more rel­e­vant as we see more appli­ca­tions (pro­pri­etary or
oth­er­wise) pick up stan­dard­ised meth­ods of infor­ma­tion exchange such as ODF
and PDF. This should also ease the inte­gra­tion of FOSS into pre-existing
envi­ron­ments. It also can include lan­guages and all things relat­ed. Why are
schools still teach­ing Visu­al Basic when they could be teach­ing Python?

The final three points all link togeth­er. Most notably, they are not dependent
upon tech­nol­o­gy at all. Your aver­age teacher isn’t a tech­nol­o­gist, and
should­n’t have to be. Knowl­edge can be shared and organ­ised open­ly just like
code. Wikipedia has proven that great things can be built if ordi­nary people
are giv­en easy to use tools.

Where to from this point? I sug­gest that we work towards get­ting a CMS running
at openeducation.org.au. We’ll have to agree upon a design and the message
that we want to pur­vey. Con­tent cre­ation should be sep­a­rate from technical
abil­i­ty, so the CMS should be sim­ple enough for any­body to contribute.

Here is some inspi­ra­tion from the UK:

The UK edu­ca­tion sec­tor appears to be much fur­ther ahead of us in terms of
embrac­ing open­ness, and I think we can take some lessons from their efforts.

To clar­i­fy one thing in the above, I wrote the text for http://linux.org.au/education, but I nev­er felt com­fort­able with it being there. So much of open edu­ca­tion has noth­ing to do with Lin­ux and Lin­ux Aus­tralia should­n’t be divert­ing its focus to dwell on it direct­ly. With a more inde­pen­dent Web pres­ence (in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Lin­ux Aus­tralia), I feel that we can be much more effective.

LotD:   Open sourc­ing Aus­tralia: OpenAustralia.org goes live