Open-source movement in education generating buzz

A recent story about about the technology revolution in education, and how Lawrence schools are preparing for it, generated some lively comments about the “open-source” movement in education, and the idea of providing free, or subsidized, internet access for low-income households.

In the story, I reported that the Lawrence school district is about to start pilot-testing a new web-based learning platform called Canvas. One commenter, who goes by the screen name “repaste,” strongly urged the district to consider open-source software to run that system.

Well, “repaste” should be pleased to know that Canvas is itself an open-source platform, distributed by a company called Instructure Inc. According to the company’s website, it’s released under a general public licenses, “for use by anyone interested in learning more about or using learning management systems.”

This being the holiday recess for schools, there aren’t many people in the district office available this week to answer follow-up questions. We are told by district spokeswoman Julie Boyle that local people here are customizing the software for for use in Lawrence schools.

But I think “repaste” was also trying to make a larger point, not just about the operating system of the Canvas platform, but also all the learning material that teachers and district officials will store there. The commenter points out correctly that school districts (not to mention other large organizations) pay large sums of money to companies such as Microsoft for the license to use their applications. Open-source applications, like those in the LibreOffice and Open Office suites, theoretically could save taxpayers a lot of money.

As someone who uses both proprietary and open-source systems in my work, I would agree that the argument has some merit. But one thing about the proprietary systems is that when you buy a license for them, you’re also buying access to professional, trained service and support. That’s a handy thing, especially for organizations with a large number of users and only a limited budget for in-house IT support.

Meanwhile, other readers picked up on the issue of equity and “bridging the digital divide” between households that have broadband internet access at home and those who don’t. They revived an issue that had been debated a few years ago in Lawrence about opening some kind of free wireless internet service that could be accessed by households that can’t afford other kinds of broadband service like cable or DSL.

That was apparently the idea behind the Lawrence Freenet project a few years ago.

For the time being, at least, it appears the Lawrence school district is leaning in another direction. Current discussions are focusing on the idea of providing access during extended after-school hours through existing school libraries or media centers or community organizations that provide after-school activities.

The idea of having an open, publicly owned internet service provider was tempting enough in the mid- to late-1990s that several communities around the country tried it, operating them as a public utility just like water, sewer and trash service.

Here in Kansas, the state launched a similar effort with a system called KanED, which provided broadband service — as well as access to specific content — to public schools, libraries and hospitals. It was managed by the Board of Regents with funding from a portion of the Universal Service Fund fee that telephone customers pay on their monthly bills.

Few, if any of these internet utilities had much success. And it’s probably fair to say that many ran into opposition from private-sector providers like cable and telephone companies that could complain about taxpayer-funded competition.

That was certainly the case with KanED. During the 2012 session, under pressure from cable companies and other private-sector providers, Kansas lawmakers passed a bill to effectively decommission the program. Schools and other users of the system are now being shifted to other providers, and the KanED broadband service as it has been known should be all but decommissioned by March 2013.