Friday, November 30, 2012

The True Power Of Open Source

It's not really a secret, but I'm not a huge fan of the modern education system in America (I only speak about America, because that's the only education system that I have experience with). I'm not just talking about "higher education", but education as a whole. There are many problems with it, but I don't really want to get into enumerating the problems. What I want to talk about is the lessons that education can learn from the Open Source movement.



No Child Left Behind

Who could argue with such a noble sentiment. "We'll leave no child behind." It's a great sounding headline. It's also one that leaves little room for argument ("But think of the children!"). But those four words embody one of the biggest flawed concepts in education today.

The fundamental principal behind No Child Left Behind is that we need to educate every child up to a baseline. That way, no child is left "behind" (that baseline). But it ignores a major point. The goal of education should NOT be to establish a baseline. It should be to allow a child to achieve his or her potential. That's it. 

I'll go out on a limb here, and put this bluntly. Some children are not as smart as others. Some children are simply not capable of reaching that "baseline". While that sounds like a horrible thing to say, it's the truth. And while No Child Left Behind sounds like a noble sentiment, that we'll do everything we can for these children who aren't capable to try to get them there, it starves the rest of the community of those resources.

Instead of trying to teach "standard curriculums" to students, what if we focused on trying to teach students how to think. But even more importantly, what if we focused on trying to not teach, but to inspire students to learn. After all, that inspiration is what's going to get them through life. Not the ability to solve for X

But I digress. This post was supposed to be about what education can learn from the open source movement. Let's get back to that topic.

The Key Behind Open Source

When I ask myself the question of "What makes Open Source projects successful?", the best answer that I can give is that good open source projects inspire people. It does more than just inspire people, it also hands them the tools that they need to put that inspiration to use. But it does even more than that.

It also gives people a support network and a community to latch on to. It gives people the ability to grow. But more than that, it gives people a way to help others grow. That's the true power of open source. Forget the hippy bullshit about "information wants to be free". The information is the tiniest part of the equation. The people are where the value is.

And that's the thing; Open source empowers people. There's no bigger inspiration than that. There's no bigger drive than that. There's no more important need to fill than that. People are the key to the whole show. That's why it takes more than an "Open Source License" to make a successful project. It takes a community to make a successful one. In fact, I'd argue (much to the chagrin of RMS) that the license doesn't matter at all. The only things that matter are the people.

The Alternative Benefit

The reality of the matter is that there are a lot of people out there who don't care about that. They don't care about being driven, or participating in a community. And there's nothing wrong with that. The beauty of the Open Source model, is that they can take the working software (or hardware, or whatever) and use it on their own. They lose the benefits of the community by doing so, but that's their problem.

I say that like it's a negative, but I really don't mean it as such. The key is that even though they don't want the benefits that the community can give them, they still can benefit from the tools. They can still benefit from the resources. And they can still benefit from the community. They still get the benefits of the shared collection of knowledge.

The Drive

I've been to a lot of conferences over the years. I've talked to a great number of Open Source contributors and users alike. From what I gather, there are many reasons why people participate in it. Some people do it for the fame (they like the recognition). Others do it for the money (they feel they can get a better job/make more money). Others do it because they have nothing better to do in their free time. Some, do it because they like the feeling of being in a community. There are a thousand reasons why people do it.

I do it for another reason. I do it, because Open Source makes me believe that I can change the world. There's no greater, and more humbling thought than that. But if you think about it, it's pretty straight forward. If I can change just one person's life for the better because of what I've done, then I've changed the world. And if I can change 10 people's lives for the better, I've still changed the world. And if I can change the world by simply doing what I enjoy doing anyway, why not?

What Education's Missing

That, in my humble opinion, is the big key that the education system is missing. By empowering and motivating children, they too can change the world. That's the ultimate goal of education, is it not? But unfortunately education keeps focusing on standardization and structure. They keep focusing on the common baseline.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to impute teachers here. While there are a lot of bad teachers out there who only do what's necessary when they show up to school (thanks to tenure), there are as many (if not more) teachers who believe. They believe that they can make a difference in children's lives. I had the pleasure of having a few of the latter as some of my teachers, and I can honestly say that they changed my life. 

And that's the point. While some students do feel empowered by their education, sadly the vast majority of those that I know felt that it was more of a means to an end then anything else. And that's the saddest thing of all. Many people say that you need an undergraduate degree to get a job out there in the real world. So many students go to college to get a degree. Not to learn. Not to grow. Not to make the world a better place. But to get a job. What could be a sadder state than that?

Perhaps my view on the world is skewed. Perhaps I'm the different one by believing that there's more to life than a job. Perhaps I'm the minority who learns because of an interest in the subject. I've met a lot of people who are content with the status-quo; I am not one of them. Perhaps that's why I didn't have success in "higher education". But it may also be the reason that I am where I am today.

Education in America from bottom to top is underpinned by the concept of putting people into a box. Open Source is underpinned by the concept that a box doesn't exist. I can't say for certain which is the right model. But what I can tell you is which has changed my life more... Then again, I could be wrong...