Open Source and Education – A Quiet and Slow Revolution

Open Source culture in K12 Education will have a profound impact on our industry over the next 10-15 years. Open source already touches instructional content, classroom management, student information systems, and IT services. Where else will it find a purchase?Fingertrap

Ironically, the attempts by the old guard industries to protect their traditional interests in a digital age are accelerating the change. The more restrictive copyright and trademark laws become the more incentive there is to create open source content. Many education publishers are going to find themselves in a Chinese Finger Trap – the more they struggle the worse the problem will become.

The music industry is proving that no one ever “wins” an argument with their customers – the question for education is whether publishers can remain relevant in this new era by learning from other’s mistakes.

Success in this new reality is going to require a new paradigm – one that actually takes a less restrictive approach to copyright and puts more focus on services and support. This upends the traditional economics of education publishing where the customer buys the content and services are freebies tossed in to seal the deal.

Producers As Owners

The other profound difference that we are likely to see in the coming years are producers of instructional content going into business for themselves rather than having to go through big publishers.

Recently I came across a trio of blog posts from other industries that all point to where education is headed.


Matt Haughey commenting on the meltdown of the music world posits that the future of all music is the classical music market. He notes that despite low sales for CDs, zero copyright protection, and tech savvy fans who can download at will “classical music remains an industry and there are tens of thousands of professional classical musicians worldwide that make a living from it. It’s not all glitz and glamor, but there are classical music labels that are doing alright and plenty of live events generate a decent amount of revenue even in modest-sized cities.”Marc Andreeson believes the writer’s strike may be the end for Hollywood as we know it – content creators don’t need the studios nearly as much as they used to. In education any teacher with page layout software and a Lulu account can print books on demand. Here is an example that addresses professional development for science teachers.

“Any CIO not using open source “should be fired” upends the old saying that “no one ever got fired for buying IBM”. Given that IBM has become a global supporter of open source projects including this one in K12 in China it may not be as strange as it sounds. Hat tip to Chris Keene for providing the link.

One of the more interesting aspects of this is that open source may lead to a reversal of the publishing industry consolidation we have seen over the past two decades. Smaller publishers can create brand identity around an editorial voice, and the new economics of production and distribution mean that more niches are going to be mined by new players. This is similar to what has happened in broadcast TV and cable. The big 4 networks remain the largest providers, but their share has been inexorably eroded by the niche channels.

Education Open Source Projects

All systems in K12 are seeing open source solutions come on-line. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list, the purpose here is to show how broad-based the impact already is.


Instructional Content

Instructional Management

  • moodle-logo-smallMoodle – a complete on-line course management system with worldwide support.

Decision Support

  • Focus/SIS is a complete student information system.


IT Infrastructure

  • Linux – if you surfed the web today you used it and didn’t even know it.
  • Web services – a wide range of products that provide the backbone of most web sites are open source.


  • Open Minds which was this past October focused specifically on open source projects for education.

Support Services – Companies Selling Support Services for Open Source Solutions

  • EN@ – Education Networks of America provides a wide range of support services.
  • Moodlerooms providing hosting, configuration, and training for Moodle.

None of these projects (with the possible exception of Moodle) are huge yet – but the outlines of a major change are there for anyone to see.

With sometimes patchy support, rough edges, and the freewheeling nature of the open source world it is easy to dismiss it as a fad. Likewise, open source advocates are prone to making claims that the world as we know it has changed. In my opinion neither position is logical. Too much is in flux right now for us to know what the market is going to look like in a few years.

But we know enough to understand that change is on the way. Are you getting ready?Related Articles:Education Publishing – A Wave of Change Sweeps Over the Industry

Information Overload

Textbook Price Cure


2 responses to “Open Source and Education – A Quiet and Slow Revolution”

  1. Christopher says:

    I have long thought—as did Socrates— that education works best
    outside of an institution. This of course is a heretical notion.

    Whether it’s higher education or not, most of it seems to involve
    jumping through hoops in order obtain a stamp of approval (degree)
    by a bureaucracy. And all bureaucracies have their first loyalty to

    As the monks did in the middle-ages, we still use the aristocratic
    idea of education where one can withdraw from the world for a period
    of years. The world was more static then. But in dynamic environment
    learning, flexibility, adaptation, and curiosity are in my view have
    supreme value. We simply need a different method, a more personal
    method of teaching and learning. Even the Ivy League schools can’t
    help turning out the occasional illiterate.

    If employers can get away from relying on academic qualifications
    and test employees, or have some other method of evaluation it would
    be better for everyone (except educational institutions). I am all
    for smaller educational modules.

    Rather than rely on content-specific transfer of knowledge, I would
    like to see an approach to understanding emphasized. It is the
    process of learning how to learn. Once that first goal is encouraged
    then the content immersion experience can be purchased by learners.

    Education is still a nineteenth century mechanistic model. We know
    that imposing a structure on a living organism is counter
    productive. We need to understand the nature of the person or
    organization before we can influence it. The ancient educational
    idea from India was that one first observed the child in order to
    understand his natural proclivities before deciding upon “how” to
    teach. In today’s mass-processing of the young, individuality is
    suppressed at the expense of a few preconceived notions of what
    success might be.

    I agree that teachers should own their content and have it for sale in
    small experiential chunks. The open-source tools are there. It’s the
    mentality that degrees infer intelligence and capability that need
    to be changed.

  2. Anna says:

    Thanks Lee.

    I just discovered your blog yesterday and I have enjoyed reading the entries immensely. It is nice to see open source education projects getting some attention here. Perhaps you are aware of it already, but in the past year a number of teachers and members of Wireless Generation have been working on an open source early literacy program called FreeReading
    ( The program contains a 40 week scope and sequence of phonics and phonological awareness activities and hundred of early literacy games and free downloable resources like flash cards and picture cards. Since FreeReading is built on Media Wiki, it is easy for users to contribute activities and ideas to FreeReading. Thanks and I hope you enjoy looking at the site!
    USA Today did an article on FreeReading here:
    Check here for the ABC piece on FreeReading: