Open-source education: Lessons from cathedrals and bazaars

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Open is the new black in the world of education. From open educational resources (OERs) to massively open online courses (MOOCs) to Mozilla’s open badges initiative, there is tremendous excitement and buzz about how the philosophy of the open-source software movement might transform aspects of traditional education. As people explore these new frontiers, it’s useful to look back and see what lessons we might learn from the past. Eric Raymond’s seminal essay on open-source, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, is the best place to start.

Open-source principles for education

Raymond’s analysis of the open-source software movement is broken down into 19 separate principles. While some of these apply specifically to the process of software development, many are quite applicable when thinking about education. Here’s my take on the principles people in the open-education movement should be keeping in mind.

  • Every good work starts by scratching someone’s itch: In the world of education, the fundamental itch that needs scratching is the desire to benefit individuals and society through improved learning and better educational outcomes. If the only itch being scratched is the one to make money, you’re doing a disservice to the world.
  • Good programmers know what to write. Great programmers know what to rewrite (and reuse): Education is rife with wheel reinvention. There’s no need to create 100 versions of an economics 101 course if good content exists that can be modified or reused. This shift will be a tectonic one for many educators, who have traditionally viewed themselves as makers, rather than communicators and facilitators of learning.
  • Plan to throw one away. You will anyhow: People often deride open-source educational efforts (e.g., MOOCs) because they are not perfect on the first try. The reality is that no one gets it right the first time, and people should expect failures, which hopefully lead to evolution and improvement in open-education products and services.
  • Treating your users as co-developers is the quickest route to a good product: Students, educators and entrepreneurs need to collaborate in the creation of great learning tools, content and services. People need to actively build these bridges.
  • Release early. Release often. And listen to your customers: This principle is related to the notion of throwing one away. Imperfect solutions to educational problems that can evolve are better than perfect solutions that never see the light of day.
  • Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow: Bugs in the context of open education encompass bad content, usability of tools and effectiveness of services. Quality can only improve when there are more eyeballs on these things, pointing out what’s working and what’s not.
  • Treat beta testers as your most valuable resource and they will become it: Feedback loops need to be built between the creators of educational content and services, and those who use them. Students and educators are the beta testers of the educational world, and their voices need to be heard, loud and clear.
  • The next best thing to having good ideas is recognizing good ideas from your users: This point is a corollary to the previous one; feedback from students and educators is the best way to improve the content, products and services offered to them.
  • Striking and innovative solutions often come from recognizing that your concept of the problem was wrong: People often fall in love with their ideas related to products or content or services. Sometimes, we get it wrong, and it’s no different in the education space. Be willing to accept that your concept of the problem was wrong.
  • Perfection in design is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away: Many people complain about the poor user experience of existing educational products, content and services. Simplicity in design and usability are absolutely critical in the new world of open education.
  • Tools should be useful in the expected way, but truly great tools lend themselves to uses you never expected: People need to understand that their educational tools, content or services often lead to things they had never imagined, and that’s a good thing.
  • Many heads are inevitably better than one: In a sense, this principle encompasses all of the others. When you bring many perspectives into the discussion, into the design and development process for educational content and products, quality can only improve. In many ways, I would say this is the central ethos of the open-source movement, in software or education or whatever field to which these principles are applied. Individual egos must take a backseat to the power that can come from collective work.

Opposition from the Cathedral

Initial open-source efforts were not met with open arms by proprietary software developers. Many questioned whether such efforts could lead to the same level of quality software that could be achieved when under centralized control. Time has proven these concerns to be unfounded; the quality and success of open-source efforts like Linux, Mozilla and Android have clearly demonstrated that the bazaar model of software development can yield outstanding results.

The same distrust and cynicism can be found in discussions around open-source educational efforts. People in educational institutions state concerns about quality and efficacy, worried that the new move towards openness can’t meet standards of excellence. Transparency and openness can only enhance quality, though. Poor educational content and bad applications will sink to the bottom in an open world; high-quality content and applications will ultimately triumph. All it takes is time and engagement from a community striving for positive gains in education.

Cathedrals and bazaars co-exist

One thing that Raymond doesn’t really touch on in his essay is the relationship between cathedrals and bazaars, and the fact that they can co-exist. Open-source efforts like Linux and Mozilla have not destroyed the world of proprietary software; they live alongside them as alternatives. The same will be true in education. MOOCs and other forms of open online learning won’t destroy the traditional University; they will supplant and augment and offer a lower-cost alternative for those who need it. Open-education efforts will expand options and ultimately lead to better outcomes.

The future is uncertain and bright

It’s unclear where all of the open education efforts afoot will lead. It’s safe to say that many of them will fade away, but also that some will succeed. Many are concerned that open online learning efforts will lead to a two-tiered system of education (i.e., where open alternatives are relegated to lower-income learners, whereas costly bespoke education becomes the province of the elite). The reality is that this two-tier system already exists. Open education efforts seek to lower barriers to entry, while simultaneously raising quality, and it’s hard for me to see how this is a bad thing for society. Tremendous opportunity exists to do greater good for the learners of the world, and open education efforts are a critical part of achieving this goal.