Sunday, January 18, 2009

Why Teachers Don't Share More Often.

One thing that drives me nuts is watching money be wasted. Pretty much every institution finds ways to spend money unnecessarily, but schools are often quite proficient at this skill.

What makes this even more frustrating is that teachers are by nature one of the most sharing and willing to contribute group of people I've known. Teachers create things every day that they'd be willing to share with others. If only someone would coordinate this resource and bring a true community to fruition!

Sadly, it seldom happens. I blame proprietary formats and money-hungry businesses. Teachers have been slammed for so long by the copyright zealots of the textbook publishing industry that they simply are unaware that there can be an open alternative to the way they do their jobs. Certainly within individual schools and districts there may be a large amount of sharing going on. By this I do not mean illegal sharing. Instead, I'm talking about the plethora of lesson plans, activities, and strategies that teachers create and use in their classroom. Most teachers would love to share their creations and utilise the creations of other teachers. This occurs whenever teachers get together at a workshop--they exchange email addresses and promise to send each other their creations.

Many times, though, they feel guilty doing this, or feel that it is too good to be true to be able to "steal" from other teachers. [They use that term, "stealing"! when they should be saying "sharing."] Where does this come from? Maybe from the fact that any time teachers attend a workshop sponsored by major textbook publishers, they are given complimentary copies of what often appear to be wonderful resources. As soon as they open up the book to make a few copies to share in class, though, they see the strict copyright warnings printed on every page. This is so common that they believe it is typical of teachers sharing resources: there's always a cost.

But, there isn't always a cost. Most of the resources that teachers share are not photocopied from copyrighted materials--they're quizes, plans and activities that teachers created by themselves. They should be able to enter these items into the vast network of teachers and create a free and open community of resources for any teacher to contribute to and to use.

There's one problem, though: proprietary formats. If teachers continue to use closed software like Geometer's Sketchpad, we remain slaves to the format. This is changing slowly, however, as there is no longer a stigma attached to writing pdf files or importing doc files into OpenOffice. Geometry teachers could use several of the free and open source alternatives to Geometer's Sketchpad, but few do. Why? Because the textbook publishers are like crack dealers. They know by now how to "give" (although you really don't get any rights to what you're given) teachers a free copy of their software. They also know how to make district tech departments feel like adopting their software will make their lives very easy.

So the district buys a site license to Geometer's Sketchpad and they're all set. Notice the students were never mentioned in this process? That was intentional. They are NOT factored into this process at all. Instead, decisions are made that lock students into having to use expensive software that they have no access to outside of class. Students would have access to all of the open source alternatives at home.

My district has done quite a dance with proprietary software. In the past it was acceptable to pay for access to, say, MacSchool, as it was pretty reliable and did what we wanted it to do. Since then, though, we have used expensive software that was terrible, and freeware (NOT open source) that was generally despised by all involved. Next year we switch to Infinite Campus, which I believe is a good thing. In the meantime, though, we have a semester where teachers are allowed to use whatever they want for a grading program. Really. Whatever we want. Some will no doubt just use the traditional red gradebook and only use computers for reporting final grades. Others will try to find an old copy of Making the Grade or something similar lying around.

I decided to Google "open source grading program teachers" and found Open Grade. It's simple and (dare I say) elegant. I did the Linux make, build, install and now have a pretty cool grading program with few features, but even less annoyances. It works. I can print out student or class reports into text files and fit a lot of info on one page. Also, since it's open source, you can get to the source code (in Perl) and alter the way it works.

We're lucky, as educators, that there are people like Ben Crowell, who created Open Grade. Some may scratch their heads and say, "but why would someone do that and share it for free?" I would say, however, that behavior like that is the rule, not the exception, in higher education, and I have hundreds of examples to prove that point. Here's a couple:

Jason R Briggs has written an excellent Python book for teaching Python to kids.
Dick Baldwin shares a ton of his own work for the Alice programming environment.
Allen Downey has been sharing his Java and Python books for years.
Moodle and Wordpress are used by many teachers, most of which can't believe they're free.

I just wish we had a more efficient way of sharing all these homegrown education resources....


Anonymous said...

I believe also it is a necessity that teachers and educators alike share freely. It is too bad your district chose to go with Infinite Campus as it is contributing to the corporate proprietary culture of software. PowerSchool is a choice by many due to it's open nature and freely shared extensions, reports, screens and templates allowing districts and schools to have a open source like product that is supported and has a huge following. Check out the Yahoo Group "PSUG" for a flavor of what I am talking about. Yes, there are some who are there to complain but the majority of the 7500+ users are there to help each other and create an awesome product unique to each district or school's needs. I don't read blogs much and stumble across your post in a Google search so I don't have a login to post. I have chosen to post anonymous.

RichSkyline said...

I allow anonymous comments because some of them are excellent, like yours.

Thanks for the info on the PSUG!

Ross Isenegger said...

I found your post because I subscribe to a Google Blog Search on Geometer's Sketchpad, which I am quite a fan of.

Do you see any role for software that someone actually is able to make a living at producing, maintaining and providing curriculum resources for? Or should all software for schools be created by altruistic hobbyists?

Many of the "open source" alternatives to Geometer's Sketchpad don't really meet a rigorous definition of opensource. Most have a very small base of coders. Those developers often are recipients of research-funding at a post-secondary institution, so subsidized-source might be a better description.

I, for one, would hold out Sketchpad and Key as an exemplary company that is actively and supportively engaged with the education community as partners and would look elsewhere for examples of money-hungry businesses feeding off the education enterprise.

RichSkyline said...

Hi Ross,

"subsidized-source"? No, I don't agree. It's access to the source code and the GPL license that makes them open source, not where the money comes from.

Also, I wouldn't call Sun Microsystems nor Canonical small "hobbyist" affairs.

I think what give Geometer's Sketchpad an edge is that there are so many existing sketches that you can find if you search a while on the net. Almost all of them were made and shared by teachers. What bothers me is when others "own" those creations because of proprietary formats.

Take a look at the new Key Online LessonLink. Too bad I can't access it, even though our school paid for a site license for Geometer's Sketchpad:

Seems to me it would make more sense for Key to organise and host a large forum or wiki for teachers to post and download their creations, rather than locking those up and charging additional money to access them. THAT does seem greedy.

I have no problem paying for software, if I feel it is worth the cost. Hey, $50 for Fallout 3 seemed like a bargain for such a great game.

The point I was trying to make in this post, though, was that proprietary formats restrict teachers from sharing their own creations.

Ross Isenegger said...

I thought that part of the idea of opensource is having a significant community of developers and I am not aware of a dynamic geometry software that has such a thing - unless Sun or Canonical are producing something that I don't know about.

I think that LessonLink is the exception that proves the rule in Key's case. I think these companies are really struggling with how to fund their efforts. I know that in our school district, ad-supported sites would be frowned on.

The ability to share one's efforts is another issue again. I have been pushing for Sketchpad to have some reasonable publish-to-web format, like Geogebra and Cabri do, to widen the community that can consume, if not produce, sketches. Companies that do this seriously tend to have authoring product offerings that are even more expensive, though.

I was involved with a limited Sketchpad authoring project that has its results freely available on the web. The Sketchpad virtual manipulatives sketch is a real opus (we call it the uberSketch!). I have a wiki page of resources as well as some fun blog posts.

In the end, I think that Sketchpad is well worth the cost (easier said in Ontario, where there is a provincial license) and worry that some of the "opensource" alternatives are after-the-fact rip-offs.

RichSkyline said...

Well, we certainly agree about the sharing part. Having a ton of organized resources freely available would only help the sales of Sketchpad.

I do use Sketchpad in school, although I have also used some of the alternatives on Linux laptops.

Sun and Canonical (and Google) are not working on any alternatives to GS, but they are working on large-scale alternatives to proprietary software. There are certainly times when open source can be financially sound.

Thanks for the resources you have shared, Ross!

RichSkyline said...

Update: So I got to wondering if maybe I was doing something wrong with the Sketchpad Lessonlink thing. Perhaps, because we had already paid for a site license for Sketchpad we really did have access and there was just some password I was missing or something.

Nope. I emailed the people at Key and got this response:

"GSP and SLL are two separate programs. The SLL is sold on a per teacher basis. Please see below for pricing, you can also see pricing at If you wish to subscribe, you just hit the subscribe button."

Oh well. it would only cost our district another $1100.00 to have access to the lessons. Maybe that's a bargain nowadays. I seem to remember $15,000.00 that was spent on a program NO ONE ended up using....

Jason R Briggs said...

Thanks for the plug! ;-)