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By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Associate Director of Academic Computing

Open Source . . . Learning?

Perhaps you've heard of open source software. Open source software has been one of the Internet's greatest success stories. Perhaps you know it as Linux or through various GNU applications, or even as Apple's Darwin, the UNIX core of Mac OS X. Open source software exists in many forms and under a variety of licenses, but the basic idea is that a bunch of people in different places around the world can collaborate to produce sophisticated software that can be made available for use with no charge to the user.

The Internet is a great body of open source knowledge. From its inception, people, mostly in higher education at the time, published information that would be useful to many across the net. Even in these post commercialized Internet times, there are freely-accessible encyclopedias and dictionaries, plus countless information sites on topics ranging from aardvarks to zymurgy, provided by universities, organizations, corporations, or just plain individuals with a dedicated interest to a certain topic.

A systematic acquisition of knowledge

Knowledge, however, is not the equivalent of learning. Learning, whether self-directed or instructor-led involves a systematic acquisition of knowledge. Often, it is necessary to have some kind of structure to support the acquisition of knowledge. Some bodies of knowledge are so vast that without some external direction, a self-directed learner could become lost in many details without ever acquiring a useful set of knowledge. Obviously, learning is the primary "product" that Colleges and Universities have to sell. Universities employ people who are experts at creating learning structures and in conveying knowledge via one or more possible venues, the most common still being the classroom lecture.

A number of factors have recently combined to exert economic and social pressure on processes of delivering or acquiring knowledge. Recent copyright law is heavily weighted on the side of intellectual property holders. A threat of litigation can make it difficult to use materials within a learning structure, even if the fair use doctrine seems to apply.

A self-directed learner still can take advantage of textbooks without enrolling in a formal course, but even the textbook market is not without its controversy these days. One report accuses the publishing industry of using tactics to artificially drive up the cost of college textbooks. However, new college textbooks have never exactly been a bargain, since they are usually published and also sell in small quantities as compared to even the average-selling trade book.

Open Source Learning

Just as draconian software licensing has helped spur the growth of the open source software movement, draconian intellectual property laws may spur a movement toward open source learning materials. A number of open access learning environments already exist on the Internet. Some of these are well established, some are individual efforts, and others seek to develop information sources which are royalty free for use in education; that is, open to fair use without the ever-present threat of litigation.

Since 2001, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has placed materials for over 500 courses online via their Open Courseware initiative. They state as their goals, to "provide free, searchable, access to MIT's course materials for educators, students, and self-learners around the world" and to "create an efficient, standards-based model that other institutions may emulate to openly share and publish their own course materials." A quick survey of courses will find syllabi, course calendars, detailed listings of related readings, study materials, and sometimes course notes. While the MIT site may be useful to those developing learning structures or as a source for references, it is not a primary source for knowledge. The one thing that's missing, in most cases, is the content of the lectures, in other words, the information which ties together the readings and other resources to make them more meaningful to the learner. The MIT site explicitly states that it does not provide access to MIT faculty.

Another approach to open access learning is that taken by Professor Kenneth Mentor of New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico. During a recent presentation at the EDUCAUSE SW regional meeting in Dallas, Texas, he described his effort to create a portal for access to courses he teaches in that institution's Criminal Justice department.

Using open source software, he has developed his own interface to course materials and resources, but does not limit access only to his students. Even his class discussion forums are open to individuals who happen to access his site on the Internet and wish to add their opinion or ask questions amid the discussions of Criminal Justice graduate students. Professor Mentor will even respond to online inquiries, other than those from students who ask him to tell them everything he knows about topic "X" for their term paper.

While free access to complete University courses is rare, projects such as  Professor Mentor's and the MIT Open Courseware site raise the question as to what Colleges and Universities will sell if this trend continues. The one thing they can sell is accreditation. A college degree is their stamp of approval that you have obtained a level of learning that somehow qualifies you as more qualified than your average self-directed learner. If MIT's Open Courseware site continues to be developed, other institutions may follow suit with their own courses as a competitive move. The problem for self-directed learners, however, is that access to primary materials as part of an on-line course may be difficult, since it's economically counterproductive to seek fair use permission for a course that you are providing at no cost.

The Realia Project

The Realia project is one effort to develop materials that can be used royalty free in an academic situation. Started primarily as an effort to support language and humanities instruction , it features a database of photos along with information which describes and catalogs the image as well as provides cultural cross references. It is a searchable archive which allows development of personal collections of URLs which provide quick access to various images you might wish to tie together as part of your learning structure. The Realia project relies on contribution of images and input and cataloging of those by academic community members. They currently facilitate this process via summer workshops and grants to support expansion of the collections. It currently features numerous images and efforts continue to develop the descriptions and keyword references for the individual images.

While there is still an economic incentive for faculty to write and publish textbooks, college texts generally do not generate large incomes on their own. Just as has happened with software, it may be that other factors will soon outweigh the economic one as incentives for publishing academic materials. The ability to share the workload in the development process, the ability to quickly make available and update materials, and a lack of expense to students all combine to make online publishing a popular venue. All it may take is one "runaway hit" of an online text to provide a model for others to follow.

It still is an impediment that copyright law makes it difficult to bring together diverse materials for online publishing without an extensive process of gathering permissions. In the process of publishing a printed text, it is usually the author's responsibility to gather the permissions, but publishers can be of assistance. Having access to online materials, royalty free, makes online publishing an easier task, but a culture of open access learning will need to develop before such a scenario becomes common place on the Internet. If projects such as Realia serve as a successful model, it may be commonplace in a few years to see thriving open source learning projects.