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Open Source in Education
Written on by James Fenn.
Last updated on .

The free software movement is well known in computer science for its belief in open or visible software as a crucial right. The movement heavily opposes common practices such as Digital Restrictions Management (DRM), which place restrictions on users’ ability to control the software that they use (2). This is particularly relevant in the context of higher education, where many publishers employ DRM to place important papers and resources behind a paywall. Publishing companies charge for access to certain resources, which has been shown to poorly reflect how much a paper is actually valued, having a measurable effect on researchers often stymied by paywalls (3). Many software tools that are necessary to complete coursework also contain such DRM, meaning that they cannot be used outside of the licensed environment provided by the institution they are sold to. The validity of free software as a solution is often debated, as many argue that these freedoms hinder the ability of businesses to make a profit and control their intellectual property. However, these arguments fail to take into account the context in which this software is used. Imposing such restrictions upon students and researchers has had clear implications for academia, unintentionally creating discriminatory practices that can gatekeep information and exclude certain groups from participating. While the arguments against the free software movement are clear, the presence of restrictive and exclusionary practices in higher education has much higher stakes for the academic community.

As an aside, there is considerable debate on the usage of the terms “open source” and “free software.” The term “free software” does not necessarily refer to the price of the software, but the freedom given to its users in terms of how the software can be used - specifically, “the freedom to run it, to study and change it, and to redistribute copies with or without changes” (9). Similarly, “open source” can be loosely used to describe software which is distributed under a permissive license, allowing the user to modify and redistribute it under certain terms. However, “free software” refers to software that fully abides by the values of the movement, which may restrict its use in applications that do not maintain the same principles (1). Free software licenses always contain a “copyleft” clause, designating that the software can only be distributed under the same license that it originated from, preventing its use in closed-source commercial applications. As such, free software is implicitly open source, but reflects the full values of the movement as opposed to solely maintaining an open distribution of the product (9).

Digital Rights Management has significant implications for the ways in which a student can access a particular material. It often implies that the material can only be accessed through a specific software or system that cannot be modified. In the publishing industry, this means that people with print disabilities might not have fair access to particular material. In situations where purchasing a product does not provide effective access to it, the material can only be used by modifying or creating a copy of the content. According to Elsa Kramer, “any DRM technology that monitors or restricts access to digital content also may interfere with the user’s lawful use of a copyrighted work, such as when synthetic-voice software is blocked from reading an e-book” (7). A similar problem expands across many proprietary software tools that use licensing restrictions to ensure their validity, preventing them from being used on particular systems or being adapted for specific tasks. The core issue is not a poor implementation of a service, but that implementing such services - or adapting a material to better suit a task - is effectively prevented by DRM even when it may be within the legal freedom of a user. Publishers argue that access to a material is only provided in a specific format in order to prevent illegal copying and redistribution. However, as Kramer points out, DRM is ineffective in this case; it often restricts law-abiding users more than it prevents illegal use - “just a speed bump in the path of those who would steal intellectual property.” Furthermore, these restrictions can drastically hinder academic research. If a program cannot reliably be manipulated by a user, how can it be guaranteed to operate consistently during a study? Or, if used in an experiment, how can the results be reproduced by an audience if the tooling is only available under a commercial license? In addition to harming legitimate research, this can create a barrier that prevents people from entering the field if they do not have the same access to many of the resources available in more privileged institutions, which actively detracts from the performance of the academic community.

The solution provided by open source software is that, while the purpose of an application may remain the same, the functionality is at the control of the user. Open source is a collaborative movement at its core, and many communities around it enable anyone to contribute meaningful discussion, which allows a vast and diverse set of opinions to influence the project. By releasing material to the general public, it increases the amount of interested parties and can improve the functionality of the software to a greater extent. In a paper discussing the impact of open source on accessibility software, the authors state that “each party may be acting in their own self-interest by contributing, but all benefit exponentially from the process” (5). This kind of “open governance” for software shows particular promise as a solution to these problems. The interests of the party developing a software are no different from the interests of the people that use it - under open source, these groups become one. Even if the majority of the community has a different opinion than that of a particular user group, a distinct benefit of open source is that most licenses allow derivatives or ‘forks’ of a software to freely exist (5). Provided that someone has the time and experience needed to do so, they can maintain a different version of the software to fulfill those needs. However, there is rarely a need to continually do this due to the inherent community nature of open source; it is in everyone’s interest to satisfy all uses so that their software becomes the most accepted, creating a shared dependency on the project and an obligation for all members to keep it running.

A common argument against the use of open source software in education is that, while it may be available for free, the actual cost of maintaining such a software is unknown and may be greater than the fixed price that their commercial counterparts are sold for. A significant cause of skepticism among universities considering such software is that “the need to hire programmers to supplement their IT staff would raise the total cost of ownership (TCO) of open source to levels that would probably exceed what they are currently paying to their commercial vendors” (8). However, one supporting factor of an open source model in education software is the ability for parties to determine specifically where their costs are spent. Rather than paying a licensing fee, that money is directly put into the software community, giving stakeholders a visible influence over the product. In a study concerning the perception of open source software in education, the author quotes a comment: “We don’t see open source as a cost savings. It just means that the costs that we put in can be directed to things that we need to see done with the applications” (8). This brings into question whether having control of the software is worth the potential costs that this argument describes. Commercially licensed software offers an existing product with no guarantee that it will continue to be maintained beyond a limited support contract, while an open source model implies a continued investment in the development of the software. Even though the higher overall cost may be greater, the value received from such a program may be exponentially improved. In certain situations, these costs could even work out to be lower, as Abdu Ibrahim describes: “the cost of Open Source Software, when managed carefully, can be considerably lower than alternative commercial packages; this is especially true where largely identical packages are used in multiple sites as is the case with educational organizations” (6).

Moreover, if students are more able to take advantage of a particular software because it is open source, it could benefit their education to become involved in supporting the tools that they rely on. A technology called “Open Courseware” provides an example of this, in which users are encouraged to make additions, corrections, and improvements to the course content as they take a class (6). Systems like this often receive criticism for the amount of freedom they provide to students and the amount of trust they imply - much like peer tutoring or class feedback models. However, what these systems rely on - and what has led to their success - is that students are often the ones that care the most about their education. A further argument explores a more fundamental integration with the student curriculum, using an open source process in a classroom community to facilitate discussion between peers. Michael Glassman and Min Ju Kang cover this approach in great detail, arguing that - even for non-technical students - integrating open source in an educational context can help students to embrace the new types of thinking and intelligence made possible by the internet. This involves somewhat of a transfer of course ownership from the instructor’s pre-defined expectations to the students’ current interests. This idea has often resulted in controversy due to the thought that giving students too much freedom in their own education may create a biased result in their own interest. However - the paper argues - there is a difference in freedom offered to students as part of an open source approach, in that the class relies on swarm intelligence to create a discussion that students choose to follow. In this approach, the teacher “takes a back seat and becomes a learner like everyone else, enabling people to become learners as well as to find solutions or, even, pose questions” (4). This approach has an interesting correlation with open source values that exemplifies the importance of applying it in an educational context.

The ability of open source to open up software and information for uses and groups that are often rejected by society is what makes it a crucial tool in education. Making critical research, information, and tools available for anyone to take advantage of is a goal that many have strived to achieve. However, there are still many factors that must be addressed before it can be effectively implemented at a large scale. For instance, while free software is arguably more accessible in certain contexts, the open source community often fails to understand the needs of non-technical users and the advantages can remain out of their reach. Many users might find terms like “open source” intimidating, or not have the need or incentive to learn what they mean. Other proponents of such practices understand this caveat: “There can be a considerable mismatch between the language used as a matter of course within an open source forum, and the language used by those seeking assistance” (5). Conscious shaping of community norms to alleviate these issues can somewhat improve the situation, but this remains a common problem in open source. Going forward, it is important to discuss these issues and how they relate to the use of free software in an educational context, as they have significant implications for the parties involved.

Source Citations

  1. "Comparing Motivations of Individual Programmers and Firms to Take Part in the Open Source Movement: From Community to Business", by Andrea Bonaccorsi and Cristina Rossi
    https://doi.org/10.1007/s12130-006-1003-9
  2. "International Day Against DRM (IDAD): Defending the Right to Read on Oct. 12", by Greg Farough, Free Software Foundation
    https://www.fsf.org/news/international-day-against-drm-idad-defending-the-right-to-read-on-oct-12
  3. "When Paywall Goes AWOL: The Demand for Open Access Education Research", by Seth Gershenson
    https://www.iza.org/publications/dp/12158/when-paywall-goes-awol-the-demand-for-open-access-education-research
  4. "Teaching and Learning through Open Source Educative Processes", by Michael Glassman and Min Ju Kang
    https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2016.09.002
  5. "Open Source and Accessibility: Advantages and Limitations", by Michael Heron
    https://doi.org/10.1186/2194-0827-1-2
  6. "Utilizing Open Source Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in Tertiary Institutions in Nigeria", by Abdu Ibrahim
    https://ijrp.org/paper-detail/493
  7. "Digital Rights Management: Pitfalls and Possibilities for People with Disabilities", by Elsa F. Kramer
    https://doi.org/10.3998/3336451.0010.106
  8. "Perceptions of Open Source Versus Commercial Software", by Shahron Williams van Rooij
    https://doi.org/10.1080/15391523.2007.10782491
  9. "Why Open Source Misses the Point of Free Software", by Richard Stallman
    https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/open-source-misses-the-point.en.html
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