NCES brief from 2010 on managing PII in student education records.

This is a technical doc - need to review this in more detail.

Facebook, Privacy, Summit Public Charters, Adaptive Learning, Getting Into Education, and Doing Things Well

7 min read

One of the things that I look for within schools is how solid a job they do telling their students and families about their rights under FERPA. One crude indicator is whether or not a school, district, or charter chain contains any information about FERPA on their web site. So, when I read that Facebook was partnering with Summit Public Charter Schools, I headed over to the Summit web site to check out how they notified students and parents of their rights under FERPA. Summit is a signatory of the Student Privacy Pledge and a key part of what they do involves tracking student progress via technology, so they would certainly have some solid documentation on student and parent rights.

Well, not so much.

It must be noted that there are other ways besides a web site to inform students and parents of their FERPA rights, but given the emphasis on technology and how easy it is to put FERPA information on the web, the absence of it is an odd oversight. I'm also assuming that, because Summit clearly defines themselves as a Public Charter school that they are required to comply with FERPA. If I'm missing anything in these assumptions, please let me know.

But, returning to the Facebook/Summit partnership, the news coverage has been pretty bland. In fairness, it's hard to do detailed coverage of a press release. Two examples do a pretty good job illustrating the range of coverage: The Verge really committed to a longform expanded version of the Facebook's press release, and the NY Times ran a shorter summary.

The coverage of the partnership consistently included two elements, and never mentioned a third. The two elements that received attention included speculation that Facebook was "just getting in" to the education market, and privacy concerns with Facebook having student data. The element that received no notice at all is the open question of whether the app would be any good. We'll discuss all of these elements in the rest of the post.

The first oversight we need to dispense with is that Facebook is "just getting in" to education. Facebook's origins are rooted in elite universities. The earliest versions of the application only allowed membership from people enrolled in selected universities - Ivy League schools, and a small number of other universities.

Also, let's tell the students interacting on these course pages on Facebook - or these schools hosting school pages on Facebook - or these PTAs on Facebook - that Facebook is "just getting in" to education. To be clear, Facebook has no need to build a learning platform to get data on students or teachers. Between Instagram and Facebook, and Facebook logins on other services, they have plenty. It's also worth noting that, in the past, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has seemed to misunderstand COPPA while wanting to work around it.

Facebook - the platform - is arguably the largest adaptive platform in existence. However, the adaptiveness of Facebook isn't rooted in matching people with what they want to see. The adaptiveness of Facebook makes sure that content favored by adverisers, marketers, self promoters, and other Facebook customers gets placed before users while maintaining the illusion that Facebook is actually responding directly to people's needs and desires. The brilliance of the adaptiveness currently on display within Facebook is that, while your feed is riddled with content that people have paid to put there, it still feels "personalized". Facebook would say that they are anticipating and responding to your interests, but that's a difficult case to make with a straight face when people pay for the visibility of their content on Facebook. The adaptiveness of Facebook rests on the illusion that they allow users to select the content of their feeds, when the reality of Facebook's adaptiveness as manifested in their feeds is more akin to a dating service that matches ads to eyeballs.

Looking specifically at how this adaptiveness has fared in the past raises additional questions.

Facebook's algorithms and policies fail Native communities.

Facebook's algorithms and policies fail transgender people.

Facebook's algorithms and policies selectively censor political speech.

Facebook's algorithms and policies allow racism to flourish.

Facebook's algorithms and policies ruined Christmas (for real - maybe a slight overstatement, but I'm not making this up).

Facebook allowed advertisers to take a woman's picture and present it to her husband as part of a dating ad.

Facebook's algorithms and policies can't distinguish art.

Facebook's algorithms and policies experiment with human emotions, without consent.

I could continue - we haven't even talked about how Facebook simplified government surveillance, but you get the point: the algorithms and policies used by Facebook tilt heavily toward the status quo, and really miss some of the nuance and details that make the world a richer place. In an educational system, it's not difficult to see how similar algorithmic bias would fail to consider the full range of strengths and abilities of all the students within their systems. Facebook, like education, has a bad track record at meeting the needs of those who are defined as outside the mainstream.

In educational technology, we have heard many promises about technologies that will "disrupt" the status quo - the reality is that many of these technologies don't deliver more than a new UI on top of old systems.

There Is An Easy Solution Here

Fortunately, none of these problems are insurmountable. If Facebook released the algorithms to its learning platform under an open source license, no one would need to guess how they worked - interested parties could see for themselves. Facebook has done this with many projects in the past. Open sourcing their algorithms could potentially be an actual disruption in the adaptive learning marketplace. This would eliminate questions about how the adaptive recommendations work, and would allow a larger adoption of the work that Facebook and Summit are doing together. This wouldn't preclude Facebook or Summit from building a product on top of this work; it would just provide more choices and more options based on work that is already funded and getting done.

It's also worth highlighting that, while there will be many people who will say that Facebook has bad intentions in doing this work, that's not what I'm saying here. While I don't know any of the people doing work on the Facebook project, I know a lot of people doing similar work, and we all wake up wanting to build systems that help kids. In this post, I hope that I have made it very clear that I'd love to see a system that returned control of learning to the learner. Done right, adaptive learning could get us there - but "doing adaptive right" requires that we give control to the learner to define their goals, and to critique the systems that are put in place to help learners achieve. Sometimes, the systems around us provide needed support, and sometimes they provide mindless constraints. Adaptive learning needs to work both ways.

Open sourcing the algorithms would provide all of us - learners, teachers, developers, parents, and other people in the decision making process - more insight into and control over choosing what matters. Done right, that could be a very powerful thing.

Education Suspended: The Use of High School Disciplinary Records in College Admissions

This study looks at use of disciplinary data in the college admissions process, and how this is used to keep kids out of higher ed

Ed. Data-Mining Research Effort Wins Federal Grant, Raises Privacy Questions - Digital Education - Education Week

A research repository of as much learner data as possible. And to the best of my knowledge, the CMU DataShop uses a non-standard standard. What could ever go wrong?

Where The Sidewalk Ends: Wading Through Google's Terms of Service for Education

11 min read

Google Apps for Education has been very popular in K12 and higher ed. The service is free, and Google makes some carefully phrased claims about how Apps for Edu does not show ads to users within the core suite of Apps. These claims are often repeated with less nuance by consultants who have been certified to train schools and districts on using Google Apps. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the reality doesn't live up to the sound bite. In this post, we will examine the loopholes that permit data collected from students with Google Apps accounts to be used for non-educational purposes.

Google has five main issues that complicate absolute claims about what Google does or doesn't do with data collected from people within Google Apps for Edu.

We'll get into more detail in this post, but the tl;dr version runs like this:

Google defines a narrow set of applications as "core" Apps for Edu services. These services are exempt from having ads displayed alongside user content, and from having their data used for "Ads purposes". However, apps outside the core services - like YouTube, Blogger, and Picasa - are not covered by the terms of service that restrict ads. The same is true for integrations of third party apps that can be enabled within the Google Apps admin interface, and then accessed by end users. So, when a person in a Google Apps for Edu environment watches a video on YouTube, writes or reads a post on Blogger, or accesses any third party app enabled via Google Apps, their information is no longer covered under the Google Apps for Education terms.

To put it another way: as soon as a person with a Google Apps for Education account strays outside the opaque and narrowly defined "safe zone" everything they do can be collected, stored, and mined.

So, the next time you hear someone say, "Google apps doesn't use data for advertising" ask them to explain what happens to student data when a student starts in Google apps, and then goes to Blogger, or YouTube, or connects to any third party integration.

Background

Google has been making a concerted effort to improve its privacy practices in education. In early 2014, it came to light that Google was data mining email in education products. This was followed up a few months later by the announcement that Google would no longer display ads in core Google Apps, and would no longer scan emails in Apps for EDU.

This shifted practice appears to be the origin of the claim that "Google doesn't collect any data on students." This post by Tracy Mitrano gives a more detailed overview and background.

There's A Hole In The Bucket

In an earlier post last week, I explored some basic issues with even finding the Google Apps for Edu terms of service. In that post, I also outlined some quick and easy fixes for some of the more basic problems.

One of the problems identified in the earlier post has been fixed in the last week: the link to the page that outlines the core services now actually points to the correct location. The list of apps covered under the core Apps for Edu terms includes Gmail, Calendar, Drive, Hangouts, Sites, Contacts, Groups, and Google Apps Vault.

The list of additional services not included and covered under Edu terms includes Blogger, YouTube, Maps, Custom Search, Picasa, and Web History.

So, if a school using Google Apps for Edu wanted to do a unit on digital citizenship and time management and use Web History as a teaching tool, the only way to do that would be to throw student data into Google's normal terms of service, where student data could be mined and sold.

Additionally, while Google's specific terms for edu state that search data would not be scanned for "Ads purposes" it looks like searches via any custom search appliance would be scanned and mined. I'd love to get clarification from within Google on how data in custom searches is handled.

When the administrator of a Google Apps for Education instance enables non-core services covered by different terms of service, it's not particularly clear to admins that different terms apply.

When end users access these services, they do it under the umbrella of their Google Apps account. From an end user perspective, it doesn't make sense that these services would be under different terms, and the login process does nothing to highlight that users are entering a different part of Google's corner of the web, governed by different rules. We go into additional detail on how this works later in this post.

Integration with Third Party Apps

The issues outlined above for non-Core apps are worse for third party integrations available through the Marketplace.

Third party integrations are enabled by admins within the Google Apps Admin console. Once these apps are enabled, users within the Google Apps domain can access these additional software packages. "Integration" usually starts with single sign on and a common identity between the Google Apps domain and the third party vendor, but it could potentially also cover sharing contacts and other data. It's not always clear and obvious to Google Apps admins that they are creating an environment where learner data is flowing to third party vendors. Additionally, when a learner or teacher accesses an app that has been enabled via Google apps, it feels like part of a unified experience. It's a great user experience, but it's a data privacy nightmare. Because the integration is clean, it feels like part of the same system, which implies that the same rules would be in place.

However, every time a learner accesses a third party app via their Apps for Edu account, their data flows to the third party vendor, and is governed by the terms set by that vendor. Google's rules no longer apply.

Let's Talk About "Ads Purposes"

In their education-specific terms of service, Google makes the following statement about data and ads:

Claim of no ads

1.4 Ads. Google does not serve Ads in the Services or use Customer Data for Ads purposes.

This statement sounds pretty good. Google doesn't serve ads.

However, it's worth remembering that not serving ads is not the same as not processing or mining data. You can mine data, and derive benefit from what you learn in the process, without serving ads. It's also unclear what exactly "Ads purposes" means - it is vague to the point of meaningless. Google could improve this individual issue in two ways. First, they could define exactly what they mean when they say, "Ads purposes." Second, they could define exactly how they process data collected within the core Apps for Edu suite, and how they use that data.

In section 2.2, Google buries a reference to Non-Google Apps Products in the Compliance section (emphasis added):

Non-Google Apps terms

2.2 Compliance. Customer will use the Services in accordance with the Acceptable Use Policy. Google may make new applications, features or functionality for the Services available from time to time, the use of which may be contingent upon Customer's agreement to additional terms. In addition, Google will make other Non-Google Apps Products (beyond the Services) available to Customer and its End Users in accordance with the Non-Google Apps Product Terms and the applicable product-specific Google terms of service. If Customer does not desire to enable any of the Non-Google Apps Products, Customer can enable or disable them at any time through the Admin Console.

By burying the concept of Non-Google Apps Products, Google makes this element of the Apps for Education terms unnecessarily complicated.

In section 16 of the terms, Google lists out nearly fifty separate definitions, including this one:

Link from section 16

"Non-Google Apps Product Terms" means the terms found at the following URL: http://www.google.com/apps/intl/en/terms/additional_services.html, or such other URL as Google may provide from time to time.

So, for those playing along at home, Google starts with an absolute statement in section 1. They undercut that statement in section 2. They then provide the link to the actual terms in section 16, but the link is buried within nearly 50 other definitions.

When we follow the link to the Non-Google Apps Product Terms, the first point finally spells out the condition that allows user data from within Google Apps for Education to leak into more permissive terms of service:

Not covered. At all.

Not Subject to Google Apps Agreement. The Additional Services are not governed by the Google Apps Agreement, but are governed only by the applicable service-specific Google terms of service.

After knitting together related clauses from three different sections of the terms of service, and following a link to a completely separate set of terms, we finally see that the terms make a clear distinction between core Apps for Education, and everything else. However, because all of these apps appear in the Admin Panel of Google Apps for Edu, and in many cases the person administering Google Apps is not the person in charge of vetting terms for Google Apps, this difference is, at best, unclear.

So What Does All This Mean, Again?

We've covered a fair amount of ground in this post, and gotten deep in the weeds in Google's policies. The way the policies are written, it seems like one clear absolute is that ads will not be displayed alongside user content.

It's not entirely clear, however, what Google does do with any data collected from the core apps within Google Apps for Education.

It is also clear that as soon as a student or teachers leaves the narrowly defined limits of core Google apps, their data is up for grabs to be used for advertising, or any other purpose defined in Google's general terms of service. Unless a Google Apps for Education account is set up in an incredibly locked down setup, it's hard to see how learners can avoid - or even know - where their information is going, and the terms under which it is being used.

But the clear takeaway: as soon as a learner strays outside the core Google Apps offerings, their data can be used for a range of non-educational purposes.

Suggested Improvements

There are a range of ways that Google's terms for education could be improved. The suggestions here are the tip of the iceberg, and ONLY address the issues that make it difficult to understand exactly what Google is doing. Once Google has improved the readability and transparency of their terms, we could go into more detail on specific ways that the terms can be improved to protect student privacy.

To improve some of the issues listed here, Google should:

  • Explain exactly how learner data will be scanned within the core Apps for Edu purchases;
  • Extend the education terms of service for all other Google apps that aren't currently covered as part of the Core apps suite. If there are applications that Google owns where this is not possible, they should be removed from the free offering list and treated like any other third party integration;
  • For third party integrations and Google products that use a different terms of service, add a step into the process for Google Apps domain admins that highlights and explains that all end users will be sending data to a third party, to be covered under different terms;
  • On a regular basis (every three to six months?), Google should email an apps report to the purchaser of the domain and all domain admins summarizing the enabled apps, and which ones fall outside Google's core Apps for education. This way, unused apps could be pruned, and in the case of staff turnover, the existing setup could be reviewed. This would also allow domain admins the chance to review privacy policies and terms of enabled apps within the domain.

There are a host of other things that could be done that include editing the terms of service for clarity. However, the issues highlighted in this post provide some easy starting points.

Privacy Rights in the Education Achievement Authority

1 min read

While doing some research for another blog post, I was looking for information on COPPA, FERPA, or student privacy in Michigan's Education Achievement Authority.

It appears to be in pretty short supply.

EAA Privacy Policy - you get nothing!

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Big Data, Education Policy, and the General Audience

3 min read

One of my major motivating factors in writing a book on data and education policy through the lens of inBloom is to make the details of education policy more accessible to a broader audience.

It should surprise absolutely no one that many discussions about educational issues take place among people who are deeply immersed in education or edtech, and that the people engaging in these conversations have deeply ingrained beliefs that are unlikely to change. When I talk with people outside this bubble, they express a degree of confusion and horror - confusion about what the actual issues are, and horror at what appears to be the intractability of vaguely defined yet strongly held convictions.

From watching - and participating in - many education policy discussions over the years, I'm no longer surprised when these conversations take place in an ahistorical present. This does everyone a disservice; no one wins when we don't at least acknowledge what the current situation is, or the legislative and policy choices that led us here. One large and obvious example is data collection and privacy - when inBloom came on the scene in 2011, there was an enormous outcry about governmental overreach, student privacy, and handing student data over to vendors. Yet, while these reactions all had a degree of validity, they ignored the facts: by 2011, every state had a datastore of student information; these records had been collected for years as part of federal accountability reporting; the federal government has been giving grants to states since 2005 to support building these datastores; and many of these datastores were built by and managed by third party vendors. The furor over what inBloom might do could just as easily been a furor over what every state in the country was already doing - and had been doing for years, and are continuing to do in inBloom's absence.

The issues discussed as part of education policy discussions are complex, but they're not as complicated as the passions that shape the conversations. inBloom provides an ideal lens for examining education policy, and the role of educational technology. By looking at inBloom, we quickly run into:

  • data use,
  • parental involvement,
  • student privacy,
  • state and federal data collection,
  • accountability reporting,
  • equity,
  • issues of race and socioeconomic status,
  • appropriate technology use in schools,
  • Big Data,
  • the role of the wealthy and powerful in shaping education policy,
  • data security,
  • the Common Core standards, and
  • what it means to learn in the era of a real "permanent record."

To be clear, the above list is by no means complete.

We need more people getting involved in the conversations about education. We might not all agree - and I would even say that universal agreement is unlikely, and probably a sign that we're glossing over the details. In looking at the subject of inBloom, we're really looking at a primer on education policy, and how the conversations have evolved over the last three years. My book is intended as a starting point for getting more people involved in the conversation, and for providing current participants with more background on how we arrived at the conditions of the present.

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Bringing Assessment Front And Center In Education Reform

6 min read

Anya Kamenetz has a pair of reactions to Diane Ravitch's new book Reign of Error. In these reactions, Kamenetz attempts to draw a distinction between privatizers, corporate reformers, and the rest of the motley crew that populate the reform universe:

To summarize, I believe “privatization” and “corporate” are too simplistic a brand with which to lash the education-reform complex.
I believe a more subtle characterization with more explanatory power is that this is a technocratic and technophilic coalition, uniting conservatives, liberals, bureaucrats, politicians, entrepreneurs, executives, school leaders, and philanthropists–hey, even some teachers, parents and students!–in the basic conviction that schools must innovate, using technology and data.

However, this formulation leaves assessment - a key factor - out of the equation. It also leaves out the context within which this discussion is occurring.

  • Schools are being ranked in part on test scores.
  • Principals are being ranked in part on test scores.
  • Teachers are being ranked in part on test scores.
  • In some cases, teacher pay is being tied to test scores, or rankings derived from test scores.

About the only people not being ranked on test scores are the politicians setting the policies, or the pundits and think tanks pushing test-based rankings.

Concurrent with the increased emphasis on using standardized tests to evaluate teachers, principals, amd schools, we have the Common Core State Standards rollout, which is accompanied by new tests aligned to the Standards, and new curriculum aligned to the Standards.

However, "success" on the new tests is not absolute. The cut rate - the level at which people pass or fail - is set arbitrarily. In some of the more visible releases of statewide scores on the new Common Core aligned standardized tests, scores have fallen; in some cases, considerably. In Washington DC, test scores increased because of how the cut rate was set.

As these results show, "passing" or "failing" is not an absolute, but rather a human (and often political) calculation about how performance should be ranked via an algorithm. The "truth" of data relies heavily on analysis and interpretation. Tony Bennett demonstrated this exact point in Indiana when he shifted the algorithm on his A-F rating system in order to raise the scores of a charter school from a "C" to an "A". Obviously, the school didn't magically get better; the use of the data was changed to make the grade appear higher.

To summarize thus far:

  • Teachers, schools, and principals are being rated (and ranked as competent/incompetent, or successful/failing) based in part on student test scores;
  • The relative pass rates of those tests are set by committees and could just as easily reflect a political calculation as student learning;
  • Despite the arbitrary nature of the test results, people still point to it as "data" and therefore have an elevated sense of faith in what it can reveal about learning.

As the Common Core rollout unfolds, all of the major textbook publishers have been selling services and content aligned to the Common Core Standards. Given the high stakes of what is being defined as failure ("failing" schools can be closed, teachers found "ineffective" based on test scores can lose their jobs/lose pay) there is a strong incentive to play it safe, and use curriculum, testing materials, and services provided by textbook companies. Just as nobody ever got fired for going with Microsoft, nobody ever got fired for using Pearson (although that might be changing). The combination of high stakes tests, cut scores being set that increase "failure", the speed of the rollout - all of these factors increase pressure to go with something safe and packaged. The choice to go with something safe and packaged provides a clear path for public money to go into private companies.

It should surprise absolutely no one that these same private companies lobbied heavily around education bills.

At the end of her second reaction to Reign on Error, Kamenetz says:

It’s perhaps necessary to draw more specific battle lines among the terms “reformer,” “innovator,” and “privatizer.” The fact is, you can believe in locally, democratically controlled schools that are equitably and abundantly publicly funded and staffed with professional, well-paid teachers, and you can further hold that poverty eradication and other social progress around the family/maternal/child development matrix is equally important to any thing that happens under the umbrella called “school,” while also seeing a lot of merit in educational technology, innovation and data-driven decisionmaking. That’s what makes the current state of education reform so complicated and interesting.

It's not necessary to draw battle lines anywhere. If we approach this as a battle, we've already lost. It's not about technologists versus non technologists - time will sort that question out for us, even if schools at the present fail to fully embrace what technology can offer. It's about how we define learning. No one in their right mind will say that they don't want to eradicate poverty, or that they don't want equitable funding in schools. However, you can get a sense of a person's or organization's views on education by examining their views on assessment. People who favor the status quo (standardized tests, and ratings based on these standardized tests) are supporting an educational system that tilts toward sending public money into the hands of private companies - the companies who write the tests, administer the tests, grade the tests, and write the curriculum that is aligned with the tests. People who favor student centered learning, and assessments that look at people as individuals, place greater emphasis on the experience of the learner than they do on observations of that experience.

Neither of these positions can claim ownership over innovation, data driven decision making, or technology. The question here is how we view and define the role of the learner relative to the observations that can be made about the process of learning. Advocates for more student centered learning put the learner's experience as the main goal. As we discuss how education can improve and serve every learner, that's a good place to start.

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Manufactured Crisis: Education Schools and the National Council on Teacher Quality

4 min read

Update: Bruce Baker, over at School Finance 101, has a more detailed breakdown of the NCTQ report. End Update

The National Council on Teacher Quality put out a report that is it describing as "an unprecedented evaluation of more than 1,100 colleges and universities that prepare elementary and secondary teachers."

Let's take a step back from the hyperbole and see what's going on.

Let's say your organization has a goal: undermine the work of trained, experienced educators in the classroom, and the programs that prepare them. This goal hits teachers unions, who have a large body of credentialed, trained, and experienced educators, and the traditional methods by which these professional enter the workplace.

More importantly, this also supports non-standard shortcuts to putting teachers in the classroom, such as the short trainings given to people who enter the classroom via Teach For America.

Create a Crisis in Teacher Preparation!

This is best done in the form of a long report. Make the actual report over 100 pages (pdf download), to ensure that most people rely on the executive summary. One of the benefits of releasing a long document is that you can bury gems like this that show your full distrust of educational schools:

Programs might provide us with “counterfeit” syllabi that they think would do better on our standards rather than the syllabi distributed to students that actually reflect the training candidates receive.

The statement above is contained at the top of page 83 of the full report. The statement contains an end note (and again, nice work not linking end notes, thus ensuring that they are read out of context). The end note (number 52, found on page 104 of the full report) reads:

In comparing copies of syllabi that we obtained via campus outreach with those we received directly from programs, we found no instances of counterfeit syllabi. We will continue our practice of auditing for future editions of the Review.

In other words, this fraud and deceit that we insinuated was happening never happened.

There are gems like this buried throughout the document. Really, pick a page and sift.

Repeat Tired Arguments To Make Them Sound True

The Executive Summary (available on its own as a pdf download, and as part of the full report) opens with this chestnut:

Once the world leader in educational attainment, the United States has slipped well into the middle of the pack. Countries that were considered little more than educational backwaters just a few years ago have leapt to the forefront of student achievement.

Interestingly, no end note is provided to support this assertion. This assertion clearly ignores the effects of poverty on test scores and, more importantly, child health and well being.

Repeating unproven assertions doesn't make them true. It does, however, bring them into the conversation.

Which Is Exactly The Point

If your goal is to gain public support for alternate methods of teacher credentialing, or for getting rid of the credentialed teachers that are supported by unions, you need to erode confidence in the system that trains these professionals.

It should matter that the authors of the report actually admit (on page 13 of the full report) that "Evidence of Effectiveness" is "essentially not ratable". If a study claims to measure the effectiveness of a program, I would hope that there would be some evidence of that effectiveness.

But the point isn't accuracy. The point is to introduce the story line of failed education schools into the narrative. Despite the inaccuracies of this study, many of which are freely noted by the study authors, the flawed infographics march forward, another example of how incomplete data is of dubious value, and can nonetheless be misused.

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Education Should Take a Lesson From the Process of Open Source Development

4 min read

Over at the Globe and Mail, there is an article by Robert Luke titled Education should take a lesson from the open-source movement.

The article is an interesting read, and it's always good to see people recognizing that education can learn from how open source communities work. But while this article is a good start, there are slight missteps that detract from the overall picture. From early in the article:

As we modernize our approach to education in a globalized world, there are lessons we can learn from the open-source movement. Open source provides the language of collaboration and co-operation – the basis from which programmers stitch discrete pieces into a coherent whole.

Learn from the children

Functional open source development communities are about more than "programmers stitch(ing) discrete pieces into a coherent whole" - a functional open source community requires documentation, a communication infrastructure, established community norms and expectations. Really, a functional open source community and a vibrant classroom (whether virtual, blended, or face to face) share many similarities. If people look at open source just as a movement - or, of greatest value as a philosophical direction or a metaphor - then there is a real risk that people will overlook another key aspect of open source communities: they create real solutions to real problems for real people. While all open source communities create code, any open source community with any staying power also creates a set of community norms and infrastructure that allows people to work efficiently.

When we look at what we can learn from comparing open source communities and processes with formal education, one immediate area that begs for greater examination is how goals (or the actual thing we are trying to achieve, or the problem we are trying to solve) affect the work we do.

When the problem we are solving is how to earn a diploma or a credential, we will figure out how to do that in the most efficient way possible.

When the problem we are attempting to solve is how to do Thing X within System Y (where a system can be a web site, a data driven application, a document repository, or any other real life system that people use to work) we will generally figure out the best way to do that.

Many schools do a good job preparing people for life after school, but for better or worse, the emblem placed atop that preparation is a diploma or a credential, which is at best a symbolic representation of actual knowledge or achievement. Open source communities have been solving real problems via code, documentation, improved process, improved usability, for years - and well before any "experts" were talking about "disrupting education." Open source communities have been doing distance learning and community development that works, at scale, for longer than many people in the educational community were even aware of the possibilities.

Not that who did it first matters - but, when people within education look for valuable expertise, we should benefit from the example of an ongoing practice that has worked over time, and continues to work in the present. As we try and figure out how to help more people learn more effectively, we should model effective learning in our inquiry. Part of effective inquiry means learning from people who have been using a distributed, peer to peer learning and support network, to solve real problems. Education has a lot to learn from open source communities, as many of these communities have solved problems that people within education are only starting to think about.

Image Credit: Learn from the children by i_amici published under an Attribution Non-commercial No derivatives license.

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