In 2004 many new tools for Internet publishing, information management and Internet communications were made freely available on the Internet, while some of the most popular free and open source software released newer versions that easily compete both in function and popularity with equivalent commercial software. These new developments in Internet Communications Technologies offer exciting opportunities for education, and to top it all off, The Asia Pacific Development Information Program published a primer titled "Free/Open Source Software - Education" which is essentially a long awaited road map for educational practitioners and policy makers to take full advantage of such opportunities.
What all this means is that the Internet, computer software and Internet based education is about to go through some major changes. Many educationalists in Australia and New Zealand are becoming experienced in the use of Free and Open Source Software for education and are happily spreading the word. Already, concepts like 'The Post Learning Management System Age' have been spawned, and many are taking this quite literally, and with welcoming arms.
As more and more teachers and trainers become aware of the tools freely on offer to them, and more and more students expect their teachers to be able to accommodate the use of such tools in their courses, it is inevitable that the current systems and policies used for Internet based learning in schools, colleges and universities will be challenged, and that new and innovative pedagogy will develop.
The TAFE NSW, Hunter Institute Teaching and Learning Innovations Centre (ITALIC) recognised these new developments as early as 2003, and instigated a small but effective staff development project called “OpenCourseWare” as part of Learnscope2004. OpenCourseWare is just one of many projects that have helped to empower a small but collectively large number teachers and trainers with the knowledge, skills and conceptual framework for taking advantage of free and open source software in their work.
Using Free and Open Source Software to Create Free and Open Courseware
Currently I am sitting at my computer running a free and open source operating system, using a word processor that is also free and open, preparing a document that I intend to be free and open, using research materials made available to me freely and openly via the Internet.
The operating system I am using is Linux Fedora Core 3, the word processor is Open Office 1.1.3, the document I am working on will be licensed to Creative Commons and Free for Education, and the resources I have used to research this document were generously made available on the Internet for me to find using a free search engine called Google.
I am not a wiz with computers. I know a few tricks using a range of software, I use the Internet and email, I publish on the Internet and I am occasionally forced to take my computer to a technician when something breaks. That's about it, I know very little about programming, systems administration or networking, so I am in many ways just an average computer user, using tools specific to my courseware design work.
I'm telling you this because many people in Australia have the misconception that to use free and open source software, or to publish to the Internet must mean that you are technically advanced, or that you know something about programming, or computer systems generally. But I am none of these things. What I have had is an opportunity to try new things, and in doing so I have become familiar with the world of free and open source software and free Internet publishing as it relates to education.
The freedom to acquire and use a range of free and open source software whenever and wherever I need them gives me a great deal of flexibility and increased professional capacity. In particular, I can work nomadically, which is to say, like our students, on many different computers, at home or at work, not restricted to one single computer and operating system, and not limited to the version of software being used.
The freedom and flexibility of free and open source software is a big benefit, but it is more than that. It is also the knowledge that I am taking part in something that is largely about community and sharing, not selling – and as a teacher, that just sits better. What's even better than that is that this attitude is prevailing on a global scale - through the networks of free and open source software and social justice.
Before Learnscope gave me the opportunity to find and try out free and open source software, I was locked into a commercial way of doing things. At the time I was working in a place where a culture of copyright confusion and intellectual property had prevailed. It peaked for me when in mid 2004 my employer sent out an email to all its staff requesting that anyone using software licensed to the Department on their home computers was required to remove the software and purchase their own licensed software. The Department's feeling was that staff should all buy their own licensed versions of software to be within the law and compatible with the Departments choice in software!
Before I was aware of the free and open source software alternatives, I would have probably accepted this request as fair enough. But when I learned how good Open Office was for example, and saw what OpenOffice.org had to say on their website, "You can install this software on every computer in the school and on every pupil's and every teacher's computer at home without paying any license fees. Please encourage others to do so..." I had to ask these questions:
Why are public education departments buying software at such an expense, and insisting that their staff and students use the same, when the equivalent alternatives in software are not only free, open and more flexible, but are more equitable, accessible, usable and reliable for the students and teachers?
And while we are considering that question I'd like to put forward another:
Why are those same public departments investing so much in a culture and practice of copyright, intellectual property and user pays business models when technology such as the Internet, free and open source software, and concepts like open courseware make it economically viable to at last offer a free and open education equally to all?
I initiated and managed the OpenCourseWare project and that is why I have been asked to write this article. In the attached documents, you will read about how the project was initiated and conducted, get an overview of a range of useful software you can use and find links to further information on free and open source software as well as free and open courseware. Attached you will also find a presentation which summarises all the key points in this paper with graphics and dot points.