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[school-discuss] Interview with Eric S. Raymond on Open Source Software in Education


This wide-ranging interview with Eric Raymond didn't turn out to be
the historical view of Open Source Software that I thought or hoped it
would be. ESR, as he is know to the Open Source or "hacker" community,
is one of the Open Source movement's "most recognized and
controversial characters," and while we didn't delve into topics that
were too controversial (well, except for his position on a liberal
arts education), his responses to my questions were relatively brief
and direct?leaving me ranging all over the map, trying to find some
area for discussion that would benefit educators. I'm not sure I fully
succeeded, but it was interesting!

Here are some of the items that we talked about:

   * Eric is a strong believer in the pragmatic aspects of Open
Source Software, believing that the market will reward and promote
Open Source because of the quality of results that it provides. He is
less interested in the philosophical or moral arguments of Richard
Stallman and the "Free Software" movement. He also felt, along with
the other founders of the Open Source Initiative, that the phrase
"open source" would be more likely to attract business support than
"free software." When I tried to point out the links between this way
of programming and the academic world?where knowledge is freely
distributed?I felt he was a little guarded about making that
association. I also think Eric's answers to the assumption of Open
Source in schools depend on volunteers championing Open Source?which
really depends on the philosophical commitment.
   * Eric's most well-known writing, an essay called "The Cathedral
and the Bazaar," was a description of the methods used by Linus
Torvalds to create the Linux kernel. While we didn't talk much about
this, it does seem that Eric was seminal in describing a method of
massive collaboration that had previously been believed could not
produce high-quality results. While others have taken the principles
from his essay and extended them into other spheres, he is less
interested in doing so because his expertise is in programming. I have
no such hesitation! Much of the interesting collaborative technologies
that we call "Web 2.0″ (blogs, wikis, social networking tools) seem to
me to have both a technical and sociological roots in the Free and
Open Source Software movements. He wasn't sure he actually believed
there was a "Web 2.0," but I think my description was acceptable to
   * Eric definitely had some negative things to say about Wikipedia,
and didn't want to concede a comparison between Open Source
development and the collaboration of a wiki. I'm not sure I fully
understood why, and I wasn't sure he was comparing "bests to
bests"?both Open Source Software and wikis have successes and
failures, and I felt like he he may have painted the picture of Open
Source too positively.
   * Eric's view of Open Source Software in education was pragmatic:
the quality of open source software will be better than proprietary
software, and will ultimately win out. At the same time, he
acknowledged that proprietary vendors are likely to provide financial
incentives to keep schools using their software. I guess I am left
feeling dissatisfied with both the Free Software and Open Source
software answers to the question of adoption of their software in
education. If the Free Software movement requires a moral or
philosophical commitment by its users, it's not really realistic to
think that is going to happen on a broad scale by educators who have
to see the technology as a means to an end. In Eric's representation
of the Open Source movement, there is a dependence on the free market
to choose the best product, and I think we have to recognize that
capitalism is often messier than that. With no financial backing or
marketing of Open Source software, I'm not sure the best product does
come to the top. My standard example for this is the Apache, which
runs some 70% of the world's web servers, would be a great program for
technical students to learn, but is virtually untaught in our
schools?for there is no marketing money promoting it to schools.
   * In this vein, I asked Eric why we don't have a United States
equivalent to South Africa's Mark Shuttleworth?that is, someone who
has had financial success because of Open Source Software, and who
then funds initiatives to provide the benefits of Open Source Software
to schools. Eric's answer was that we can't count on someone like
that?that Mark is a "random event." However, it does seem to me that
the Free and Open Source Software movements in this country would be
greatly benefited by such a "random event," and that a realistic view
of marketing and publicity would accept it as very important for
someone like that step forward.
   * I followed my thread from the Larry Cuban interview about
computing in the classroom: basically, that the computer is still too
complicated and unreliable to be fully integrated into or to transform
the regular teacher's teaching methods. What has occurred to me
recently, and which has been something of an eye-opener, is that this
description of the problem does help to explain why Linux is not
making more inroads in education. Among early adopters (those teachers
who are willing to spend the extra time on technology), the idea of a
freely available operating system has great appeal?but maybe we are
being tricked in that way. Early adopters may not have the same needs
or respond in the same way as mainstream educators, and maybe Linux
isn't making more inroads because it essentially doesn't answer, any
better, the needs of that individual mainstream teacher. While "free,"
and arguably more reliable, Linux is an unknown to most of them and
doesn't actually present them with any more of an "appliance-like"
classroom tool than a Windows machine. (The standards for me of
"appliance-like" being the overhead projector and the iPod.) I then
broached the topic with Eric of a more "appliance-like" computer, and
he shot that down FAST. He said we can't expect that for 10 or 20
years. I'm not sure he's right. I think we don't have an
"appliance-like" computer not because it's not technically possible?it
surely is?but maybe because 1) we're not ready to trade reliability
for reduced functionality, or 2) because the decision-makers for
educational technology don't see the value. But it's not hard for me
to imagine a read-only PC that runs the web, word processing, and
spreadsheets, and saves to USB key only. We certainly have the
technological capability of producing such a machine, although that
doesn't mean it would be successful.
   * We did talk about the abundant changes in work that have been
brought about by the Internet, collaboration, and a higher standard of
living. I'll have explore this later, but one of the effects of the
"Long Tail" world we now live in is that there are likely to be many
more opportunities for us to work?as part of our vocations and
avocations?on things that interest and motivate us. If our educational
system has typically prepared us to have a breadth of skills, assuming
we may not have much choice in what we ultimately do, how will that
change when there is more choice? If schools continue to be rigid
institutions without much integration of technology, will the charter,
alternative, and homeschool movements become more and more attractive
to students?
   * We did get into the fascinating topic of ownership or
accessibility of "metadata" from Web 2.0 services. This is something
Tim O'Reilly has talked about. I've been putting up on flickr all the
photos of my ancestors that we have previously had in several boxes,
and have been "tagging" them with information so that other family
members can easily find them and help organize them. All of that
data?the tags and the descriptions?is extremely valuable to me, and is
really only accessible to me as long as I am using flickr. So what
happens if flickr goes away, or has a system failure, or raises their
prices so much that I want to switch services? I'm pretty locked in.
No easy answers to this one, although Eric discusses the Open Source
way of solving this issue.
   * We also talk about another favorite topic of mine?the changing
nature of the commercial relationship between producer and consumer,
and how Open Source has provided a model for more active participation
in the creation of the end product. Again, I always use the simplistic
example of American Idol, since the viewers actually end up helping to
create (choose) the product (singer) that they are likely to purchase

I'm grateful to Eric for taking the time to talk to me. Let's hope
I've characterized the discussion accurately. :)

Steve Hargadon
916-899-1400 direct

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