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Tag: open source

Preparing for Commodity Jobs

Speaking of change, I’m reading Open: How We’ll Work, Live And Learn in the Future by David Price and the author makes a couple of points early in the book that seem particularly relevant to the quest for change here in the overly-large school district.

From the introduction:

[T]he world has never before faced such a complex set of societal, economic, political and environmental challenges. They’re so complex that governments and corporations can’t fix them alone. Instead, they will increasingly look for user-generated solutions. This is why learning matters, and why how we learn has to change.

Learning happens in three locations: in formal education (schools and colleges); in the workplace, and in our home and leisure time (let’s call it the social space). While we’ve become smarter learners, progress has been uneven. In just ten years our learning in the social space has irrevocably changed, largely because it has become ‘open’. We are now learning more from our peers than we ever learned in school. We’re removing the intermediaries from every aspect of our lives so that we can directly deal with, and talk to each other in ways that have only become possible in the 21st century. We’ve even created our own ‘sharing’ economy.

Aside from some notable exceptions, however, learning in the workplace and in our schools and colleges remains static. [emphasis mine]

I’m wondering if that line in bold isn’t especially true of our students. For good and bad.

And this one from chapter 1 on the relationship between education and the economy, a connection made so often by the business folk pushing their reform agenda.

Gee and Shaffer [authors of a study Price discusses] highlight the difference between ‘commodity jobs’ — standardised, replicable and sold at a reasonable price — and ‘innovation jobs’, which require specialised, unique skills. Because it’s a relatively simple task to train workers doing commodity jobs, they can be sourced anywhere in the world. Gee and Shaffer argue that the US education system is still preparing students for commodity jobs, and thus facing overwhelming competition from developing countries , when it should be educating and training for ‘innovation jobs’, which are less easily outsourced. [emphasis mine]

Remember, standardized tests are used to assess readiness for “commodity jobs”.

Open Sourcing Textbooks

Based on legislation signed into law this week by California’s governor Jerry Brown, the state is taking the first steps toward becoming a major player in the textbook industry. And maybe changing it completely.

The new legislation encompasses two bills: One, a proposal for the state to fund 50 open-source digital textbooks, targeted to lower-division courses, which will be produced by California’s universities. (Students will be able to download these books for free or pay $20 for hard copies.) The other bill is a proposal to establish a California Digital Open Source Library to host those books.

Even better, the law requires that all “books” in the library be released under a Creative Commons license and encoded in XML, making it easy for all of the materials to be reused and repurposed by anyone.  The potential benefits to education go way beyond just saving money.

But getting the law passed was probably the easiest part of the process. It’s not likely the textbook industry will sit by and watch their hugely profitable market dry up. Expect plenty of legal challenges.

However, lawsuits aside, once this project gets rolling, we also need for some state – or maybe an overly-large school district – to begin the same process for K12.

Is Good Enough Really Good Enough?

The September issue of Wired Magazine (one of the few analog publications I still get), has an interesting look at what they call the Good Enough Revolution.

Think the Flip and other pocket-sized cameras that do “good enough” video. Hulu – good enough TV. Netbooks – good enough computers.

The Flip’s success stunned the industry, but it shouldn’t have. It’s just the latest triumph of what might be called Good Enough tech. Cheap, fast, simple tools are suddenly everywhere. We get our breaking news from blogs, we make spotty long-distance calls on Skype, we watch video on small computer screens rather than TVs, and more and more of us are carrying around dinky, low-power netbook computers that are just good enough to meet our surfing and emailing needs. The low end has never been riding higher.

All of these, and more, are examples of the Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule.

ff_goodenough_f.jpg

You can think of it this way: 20 percent of the effort, features, or investment often delivers 80 percent of the value to consumers. That means you can drastically simplify a product or service in order to make it more accessible and still keep 80 percent of what users want–making it Good Enough.

Another example of the good enough trend is the increasing number of beta programs/web tools that are available.

It used to be that beta software, applications in the final phase of testing before release, was restricted to a small group of users and you actually had to know something (or somebody) to be included.

Now many companies consider betas good enough to distribute to the general public and sometimes even to sell, possibly even at a discount.

And, of course, the rapidly growing open source movement (which is now more than software) is all about content that is in a constant state of development.

So, how does this fast-moving “good enough revolution” supposedly going on in the real world relate to how things operate in our overly-large school district?

We spend a lot of money around here on running a large, professional Outlook/Exchange installation. Would the recently-released-from-beta Gmail be good enough?

Instead of paying millions annually for the use of Microsoft’s Office, is it possible 80% of our staff and students could do everything they need to do with Open Office or Google Docs?

Could Wikispaces or Moodle replace our multi-million dollar Blackboard installation?

Going beyond the IT issues, is the “good enough” concept something that could be applied to the way we write curriculum and create instructional materials?

This fall we are entering our second or third year of a project to build a massive database of content and test questions for teachers to use, a slow, methodical process requiring every word to be reviewed, re-reviewed, and approved.

Could we get a “good enough” resource much faster by allowing anyone (even those not in a central office job!? <gasp>) add their ideas and then letting the larger community decide what to keep and what to discard?

Ok, so maybe letting everyone in the system do their own thing, both in terms of IT and instruction, is not the best idea.

However, there must be a better way than the glacial, confusing, overly-complicated processes we have now.

A Potentially Dismal Future

Not too long ago Amazon released the Kindle DX, a larger version of their e-book reader and the notices were pretty good with many of the reviewers speculating that this device could be the future of textbooks.

If that true then the future of education is pretty bleak.

The Kindle itself is an interesting piece technology that by all reports is excellent at it’s job. However, that job is to deliver content that is controlled by and makes money for the publisher.

That’s not an evolution of instructional materials. Hardly a revolution. It’s a very small shift in the current textbook distribution business.

Between the digital “rights” management (DRM)* that comes with the books and being chained to one source (ie. the publishers willing to work with Amazon), this “future textbook” does little more than solidify the hold of a few giant publishers.

Instead we should be developing open source textbooks created and edited by large numbers of experts of all kinds (teachers and students included) and which anyone, anywhere in the world, in a formal school setting or not, could access.

In addition to editable text, online “textbooks” (is that even a valid term anymore?) could include still images, audio, video, and animation from a variety of sources, all of which present the information using a variety of learning styles.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of very tentative experiments such as Algebra in Connecticut and HS science in Virginia. Even the governator of California wants to try it, although primarily as a way for the state to save money, not because he’s necessarily a fan of user-edited educational materials.

It’s certainly going to take the backing of some 800 pound consumers like California (or maybe a certainly overly-large school district?) if the concept of open source texts are ever going to gain any traction.

But the bottom line to all this is that moving publisher-controlled, DRM-locked printed textbooks into a digital form accessible only on proprietary portable devices is no step into the future.

It chains us to the past.

Update (6/14): Today in his blog, Seth Godin, über marketing guru, agrees with me (although I doubt he actually read my rant :-) and offers his own ideas on why the textbook industry needs to die. He even goes so far as to accuse professors who continue to require them of “academic malpractice”.

* EFF explains why DRM on e-books will fail.

More Than Just a Blogging Tool

Last Saturday was the annual WordCamp San Francisco, another one of those conferences I wish I had time and money to attend.

This is a one-day event for users and developers of WordPress, the blogging platform that powers this waste of bandwidth, to meet and learn from each other.

It’s also the first of a increasing number of similar meetings in cities around the world for those of us using WP (when is one going to be organized in DC?)

And, evidently, the numbers of us using WP are big and growing.

And for WordPress.org (the self-hosted, open-source version), Mullenweg announced today that there are 2.6 million active user-installed WordPress blogs in the wild. This figure is based on real data (not sampling), similar to Mozilla accumulating browser stats. Downloads from WordPress.org went over 11 million since last summer (up from 2.8 million the year before), thanks to over 11 new WP releases.

Those stats don’t include many blogs hosted at WordPress.com and EduBlogs, both of which use WordPress Multiuser.

I switched to WP about four years ago and have also installed systems for many friends.

I also recently upgraded the three parts of this site to WP 2.6, the most recent version, and with each new release, I’ve been very impressed by the ever increasing quality and abilities of the software.

WordPress has evolved beyond being just a blogging package. It’s becoming a flexible, all-purpose personal publishing system.

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