There have been a few posts I've encountered recently that have resonated with me. If I had more time to write, I could probably get a response together in a more timely way, but I'm more like the socially awkward person you meet who interrupts a conversation to respond to a comment that was made ten minutes ago. I don't really keep pace with the ebb and flow of the blogosphere.
But with that said, I enjoyed reading Clarence Fisher's post on The Death of Big Ideas. I then encountered Chris Sessum's thoughts on Investing In What Works, followed by Deborah Meier's post over at Bridging Differences where she talks about how "we can learn even from people whose work we often despise."
I include these posts to try and give a sense of what was swimming around in my head when I read Miguel Guhlin's comment; Miguel's comment is short, but it provides a good jumping-off point for some of the trends I have been observing in both education and the educational blogosphere for a while -- at least the last two years, possibly longer.
In many ed-tech blogs, there is a lot of talk about open source. Some of the people talking about open source even blog about open source, even posting solutions or thoughts about the specific issues they face. However, very few educators get involved in meaningful ways within open source communities within the actual open source community -- and by this, I mean that very few educators spend time engaging within the actual infrastructure set up by the open source communities to support users of the various open source tools. And to clarify, I am definitely not saying that every person using an open source tool should be actively involved in the community behind that tool. That's unrealistic, and, frankly, unnecessary; not to mention the very obvious reality that teachers have limited time to start with.
However, implementors of technology programs would have a lot to both gain and offer. The process of open source development, and the conversations within these communities have direct implications for education. When I was teaching, I supported classes using Phorum, Moodle, and Drupal. Each of these applications has different strengths and weaknesses, but the process of learning from and within the various communities around these applications made me a better teacher. So, when Clarence Fisher says (in his post, linked from above), "Blogs are not new anymore. Neither is Voicethread or flickr or wikis. But what about curriculum design, and power and democracy in classrooms?" this resonates with me for two main reasons: first, the lack of any support for this type of questioning was one of the factors that led to me leaving the classroom; and second, this open structure that Clarence describes is precisely what exists within the Drupal community. It's an amazingly liberating experience to be able to work in this space, and the irony is that the experience many edtech bloggers describe as ideal (in general terms: openness, transparency, and a flattened hierarchy) have been humming along smoothly for quite some time as part of the open source ecosystem.
On a practical note: folks implementing technology in schools could learn/borrow from open source communities. For example, tech integrators could learn more strategies for end user training, and about effective means of documenting the systems they build. They would also be able to contribute to discussions on usability, and would be able to get more conversant with how to set these various applications up within their own infrastructure. None of this involvement requires any knowledge of how to write code.
The challenge: for most of us, we need to chart our own path through the knowledge that is already present in open source communities. But, given that many bloggers describe charting an individual path through knowledge as the ideal for students, it's hard to see where that isn't a good thing.
In his comment, Miguel says a couple other things that merit highlighting:
So, with 250 Joomla sites around my neck, Drupal seems interesting but you don't switch over to a whole new system overnight when no one else knows Drupal in your organization (and I'm ignorant of that, too).
If any organization has 250 of anything (and I'm talking in general terms, from web sites to Matchbox cars) then it implies that a significant amount of resources has gone into building that collection. If an organization has arrived at that place more or less by accident, then I would surmise that there are greater dysfunctions within the organization that need to be fixed before even the best web presence could be used effectively. But before any change should be considered, a solid needs analysis should be done, and at the very least this needs analysis should account for available staffing, in-house talent, budget, organizational priorities, strengths and weaknesses of the current site(s), and whether the sites are meeting the needs of the organization. After these (and likely other) items have been considered, an organization is ready to address any questions about change.
And: if your current technology solution is "around (your) neck" things could probably be working more smoothly.
But when the dust settles, Deborah Meier really says it best: "Enough already, let’s have the courage to rethink what we have wrought instead of just turning the screws tighter on an indefensible system we happened upon." This applies equally to educational reform and tech infrastructure maintenance. Mistakes or non-decisions of the past should not dictate the terms of the present or the future.
While I appreciate offers of help, it seems like Drupal is for a district that hasn't tried anything yet but is ready to make the plunge.
Any tool adopted by any organization will have barriers to adoption, ranging from data migration, end user training, reallocating or acquiring infrastructure, to organizational expectations management. This is as true of Drupal as it is of any tool, regardless of whether it is open source or proprietary. If you start looking at numbers of what it costs to implement and maintain a piece of software on your infrastructure, using an open source tool can bring real cost savings (along these lines, I love it when people describe Sharepoint as a free tool). Educators have spent too long chasing the elusive free tool, only to be surprised when the tool goes away or shifts license terms. It's not like the cost of free tools has gone unnoticed or unremarked. But more on that later.
The notion that Drupal in particular -- or open source in general -- will complicate data migration doesn't hold up. If anything, open source tools leverage open standards more thoroughly, and allow for greater access to data, than their proprietary counterparts. For example, Drupal is far more open than Ning, Whipple Hill, FinalSite, Blackboard, Blackbaud, Schoolwires, or any of the usual suspects.
Also, what about the argument that Drupal installs should be hosted by web providers (e.g. Siteground) that have Fantastico and can support upgrades/updates, etc. relieving the load from school district staff which lack that expertise?
Outsourcing the hosting infrastructure (ie, servers, server maintenance, firewall, and internet connectivity) can make sense in some (not all) circumstances. However, a school should NEVER have their site on shared hosting. On most shared hosting accounts, your site is one of hundreds or thousands competing for server resources. A school's infrastructure should be on a VPS at the very least. On a VPS, your site is guaranteed resources. More importantly, the level of support for a VPS is generally greater than for shared hosting.
As for using Fantastico to maintain a site, I don't recommend it. Drupal's install process is not enormously complex, and should certainly be within the reach of a technically competent individual. The same is true for code upgrades. If a school or district lacks the expertise to do this in-house, or is unwilling to devote resources to get time/training to learn how to do this, then they should probably rethink their relationship to their web presence. For what it's worth, the ease of upgrading has gotten progressively easier over the last several years. Four years ago, with Drupal 4.6, upgrades made me mildly nervous. Now, with Drupal 6, upgrades are much less complex, to the point where they are approaching routine.
Controlling Our Own Destiny, and Next Steps
As two widely read educational bloggers have noticed recently, using a free proprietary tool has some risks. The tool can go away, or it can change its license terms (For what it's worth, I like both Google and Voicethread, IMO, both companies are completely in their rights to do whatever they want -- within obvious ethical bounds, of course -- to have their businesses succeed). This won't happen with an open source tool, as when you install and run an open source tool -- even on outsourced infrastructure -- you can always access your data, and with Drupal, your data is accessible in a variety of open formats.
Perhaps 2009 will be the year when people turn the corner and begin to take student privacy and data control more seriously. Perhaps 2009 will be the year when the educational blogosphere begins to stop its crow-like pursuit of the shiny thing, usually in the form of some new free tool that will really! really! solve everything. Perhaps 2009 will be the year when we finally, truly, learn that the medium is not the message, and begin to move beyond the language of school and educational reform into the hard, timeconsuming, emotionally exhausting, risk-laden work of true reform (and again, hats off to Deborah Meier -- if you haven't read her piece, go there now). Drupal can be an incredibly powerful tool in helping support and drive educational reform. I have long believed that Drupal has been poorly understood within the edtech community, but that's a different, albeit related story.
The potential of the educational blogosphere is incredible, not in the sense of a unified movement, but in the sense of an incredible diversity of opinion, and a sincere desire to help people learn more efficiently. However, as Clarence Fisher notes: "I haven't seen a massive, new idea in the edublogosphere for a good long while now."
In the meantime, if there are educators who want to get started using Drupal, come on over to the Drupal in Education group. Ask questions. Get involved. Make mistakes with us. Learn. We're all here to help.