Think about the technology you choose in Open Education

Hello all and Happy New Year to you all as 2024 kicks off!

I live in Perth, Australia, and I’ve been serving on the OE Global Board for the last few years. You might know me as the founder and CEO of Moodle (the open source LMS), although I’ve recently retired from the CEO role so I can move into a full-time position as Head of Research at Moodle, so this year is going to be exciting for me as I’ll have a lot more time to focus and study optimal ways to use new technologies such as AI and AR to support open education. I’m also the founder of the Open EdTech Association.

I know you’re all believers in Open Education, that’s why we’re here, but there are a lot of different things included under that banner, such as OER, Open Pedagogy, Open Data, Open Science and Open Practices.

The one I’d like to remind you about, as you make decisions in all the others, is Open Education Technology.

Something I see a lot is: a laudable Open Education initiative chooses to create information in proprietary Microsoft or Google platforms, or use some proprietary platform like WhatsApp or a startup at something.com to implement their initiative. The justification is usually “Well, we don’t have a lot of technical skills” or “It’s still free for people to access so who cares” or “it’s the platform that most people are already using anyway so we should stick to that”

I do understand these arguments, and I know how hard it can be to implement Open initiatives at all: sometimes there’s barely enough energy/funding/knowledge just to get them out there as it is.

However, I do want to just point out there’s a risk you’re introducing when we do things on non-open infrastructure:

  • the prices may be low now but they will climb and exclude even more of the people who may need your project the most
  • because someone else controls the platform, you may lose access entirely to it, sometimes with very short notice
  • even on seemingly “free” services, the data and privacy of those who use it are at risk. Your forcing teachers and students to share their data on these services in order to access your project is not great.

There is an ongoing war in the world between open and non-open, and if you really believe in fighting for the open side and building a better future for education, then I encourage you to do everything you can to make your projects as open as you possibly can, including the stack of technologies and document formats that you choose. That little extra effort will support those who create open technologies and will help us all in the war to make openness the default (rather than yet more walls, restrictions, inequality, digital colonisation etc)

In many cases you’ll find these open alternatives actually have better features - once people have taken the time to try the client they were not familiar with or to learn a slightly different way of doing things.

If you have some tech choices to make in your projects this year, why not share your thoughts here and let us see if we can collectively help you out?

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Excellent points Martin. In the middle of this year, I put forward a presentation about the need to provide greater access to appropriate teaching and learning materials. I suggested eight factors to consider when creating open resources and course.

It is based on McNally, M. B., & Christiansen, E. G. (2019). Open enough? Eight factors to consider when transitioning from closed to open resources and courses: A conceptual framework. First Monday, 24(6). Open enough? Eight factors to consider when transitioning from closed to open resources and courses: A conceptual framework | First Monday

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Thank you, Martin, for highlighting this important issue. Your reminder is especially appropriate for me. The agenda of the meeting that I’m leading in a few hours includes the question - what tools should we use for collaborative document creation? We’re currently using Moodle’s wiki activity. I’ve proposed the question to ensure buyin for all team members and to invite suggestions for other tools.

Our meeting is a planning meeting of the OERtist Tool team. @Derek will note that there are two team members from South Africa where we’ve been piloting the past six months a version of the tool.

I think there’s a default for lots of people to use Google docs for shared document collaboration. It’s free and ‘everybody knows how to use it’ and ‘it’s always available.’ Well, except for a very large percentage of the population that doesn’t have easy access to the internet. Moodle Mobile still requires at least some access to the internet but it makes collaboration easier and it’s open source.

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Hi Martin, you’ve named Microsoft, Google, and WhatsApp as non-examples. Can you give some examples of what you would encourage practitioners to use instead of those?

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Thanks Martin. The concern you’ve raised and the behaviour you’ve characterised is what I consider to be the ‘elephant in the room’ of open education and open ed tech. It’s especially good to see you highlight the siren’s song of ‘free’ (but proprietary) online services. It’s also great to see you highlight the increasingly insidious tide of ‘digital colonialism’ that few seem to notice.

It’d be great if all open ed tech initiatives (and supporting organisations) were consistent with their own stated philosophies and used ‘open’ tools. Many aren’t. Many don’t even try, claiming (as you note) ‘lack of technical capability’.

My personal mission (aligned with that of the OER Foundation that employs me) has been to show that none of these proprietary services are necessary. Turns out that all can be handily replaced by open (libre) alternatives.

I go further than that, and assert that the use of the ‘free-but-proprietary’ solutions by many ‘open’-focused organisations is an effective ‘own goal’. I’ve previously written about why ‘free but proprietary’ will always lead to tears. Also, leaders of many ostensibly ‘open’ communities choose to impose the use of closed tools (snubbing the many, excellent open options) on their community members. I’ve noted some examples of this ‘fauxpen’ trend in the past and explain why it’s an imposition.

So, some people in these organisations will say… ‘what should we use instead?’. Those people need to remember a key fact: the excellent open source options out there are not taking anyone’s money. As such, they typically have no marketing budget. You have to seek them out as they won’t bombard anyone with advertising like all the VC-funded free-but-proprietary ones do. But that lack of marketing should be seen as a feature, not a bug. It’s the job of those of us involved in open tech organisations to look beyond marketing and be current on the technical nuts-and-bolts of what’s available in libre technologies rather than accepting any marketing spin at face value (it’s usually very misleading).

Here’re the technologies we at the OER Foundation use every day to be entirely free of proprietary tools and software. It’s us living up to our ‘terms of reference’ as an organisation (paraphrased as): we will only use a proprietary software tool if we cannot do without it and there is no available libre alternative. At this point, there are no proprietary tools we need for which we haven’t found libre replacements. We consider it our professional duty to continuously seek out better libre options - and to participate in the communities of those we already use to help them improve and gain broader exposure (volunteer, grass-roots marketing - like this post).

Some will say ‘but it’s too difficult for us to run these things, we don’t have the skills’! Yes, there’s a dearth of confident open source service administrators… but it’s a skillset well worth nurturing in your organisation. It’s also not that hard for dedicated technologists (I’m entirely self-taught). We provide a handy set of step-by-step guides to help keen budding open edtech practitioners copy what we’re doing! If that’s still too intimidating, you’ll find that nearly every one of our preferred libre/open source tools has - if you look for it - a commercially supported ‘hosted service’ option at a reasonable cost.

At the start of the pandemic, we created this table showing equivalences between commonly used proprietary services & technologies and the open alternatives what we, at the OER Foundation, have replaced them with. It might be time for me to do an update, too, as the libre software world moves at a stunning clip - far faster than the proprietary software world in many cases.

In 2021, we wrote this IRRODL paper to explain the thinking behind our technology decisions and to provide some cost comparisons. Our solutions have evolved a bit since then, and (unbelievably) our costs have come down further - we can’t imagine any approach to edtech that could be more sustainable.

Being (entirely) libre with our ed tech is not only entirely possible, it’s the direction open edtech needs to go to be consistent with its own stated principles of equitable and unrestricted access, and sustainability. It helps, too that these principles also happen to be entirely aligned with the UN SDGs, the UNESCO OER Recommendation, & the Digital Nations Charter to which many of our nations are signatories. It’s important that we know this stuff and act accordingly.

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Thanks Rachel!

There’s not one-size-fits-all here, it will probably depend on your circumstance and needs (which I’d love to know!). There’s really a lot of options and that’s why discussions around here on them are good.

But for a few pointers:

Dave’s table that he posted in this discussion is pretty comprehensive for start.

Discourse (which we are using now) is very good as a forum.

I like Mastodon for social stuff, Matrix for chat, and NextCloud as a Google Docs replacement.

Our own humble offering MoodleNet may be useful for sharing files, links and courses (the new 4.0 is coming in a few weeks).

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IMO it’s too much of a blocker to try and fully include people who don’t have the internet when talking about internet tool selection.

Better IMO to focus on great tools, and then separately have people focussing on getting internet to everyone.

I wouldn’t recommend Moodle’s wiki, frankly, for collaborative document creation, it’s too clunky even when you have good internet. There’s a few options here 5 open source alternatives to Google Docs | Opensource.com (Etherpad works well for me, and can easily be integrated into Moodle if that’s what you need).

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Thanks for all those great links (and all the great work behind them!). Lots to read there.

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Martin, would like to echo your comment about etherpad as a collaborative text editor. I’ve just started making use of Wikimedia’s Etherpad or Framapad -

I think the concern about offline use is an important concern, especially in Africa, where internet access remains a challenge. I speak under correction. But I think that etherpad (after it has been installed) can be used offline for collaboration. @danmcguire and I have had a separate conversation about translation. This reminded me of another open tool that I recently was introduced to - OmegaT 6.0 - which allows for offline translation work.

Thanks Martin for starting the new year with a juicy boardview topic, one you have championed and demonstrated a long while.

To me the most inspirational efforts to live/work open tools as the OER Foundation as outlined above by @lightweight and consistently over the years by @Mackiwg – and what they have achieved with a staff of 2 and a small budget punches many holes in the arguments that its not doable.

And we here at OEGlobal can and should do better, and this is a continual voice of our tech director @jan Yes, as Martin pointed out we use Discourse for this platform, which is to me the premiere option for community sites, and use if Wordpress for web sites. Indeed though we are deeply intwined with Google Workspaces and do most of our meetings off of that tool that rhymes with “Boom”.

Also a shoutout to the OpenETC in British Columbia for wide use and providing provincial support for educator use Mattermost while many of their institutions are sliding into Teams).

Maybe one route is to look at both the platforms we use as organizations – but also choices we can make individually. What if we can share as well the personal choices we can make and maybe influence others we work and collaborate with?

I have no MS Office use at all and am very happy with my use of LibreOffice- it does everything (and more, especially for handling old file formats). And for more years than I can count, Audacity has been my go to for audio editing. Thanks to @Weblearning I spotted FramaPad, among the fleet of open alts from FramaSoft– FramaDate makes for a fine way to set up polls for meetings.

I’m eager to hear more uses of small open tools people use regularly.

And maybe one more log for the fire, many probably feel that the making of these tools is for a special set of technical folks, but there are always so many ways to contribute to open source software by reporting bugs and suggesting features.

We all can try to make big strides at the organizational level and baby steps as individuals.

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For what it’s worth, since we wrote that table of libre software alternatives (2020), we’ve shifted from RocketChat (which is great) to Matrix, too (which is greater :slight_smile: - better desktop & mobile clients, better server technologies, not to mention federated, open standards-based, and more security-focused).

in the EU, there’s (quite rightly!) a major push for ‘digital sovereignty’, and NextCloud + OnlyOffice or NextCloud + Collabora Office seem to be the preferred combinations to replace the US ‘BigTech’ proprietary options. We (at the OER Foundation) have been using NC + OO for the past few years and find it quite a good Google Docs replacement. We even wrote this paper, collaboratively in real time, in its entirety, using it.

I think that the ‘Public money, public code’ initiative is something the entire EdTech community should get behind - the same way David Wiley adopted Free Software’s 4 Freedoms as his Rs, we should expand the call for ‘Public money, public educational resources’ - and further stipulate that they be built with libre tools.

I must admit that I’m baffled by the degree to which most countries have abdicated their digital sovereignty by developing a total dependence on (and paying BIG money for) BigTech proprietary tools. For the record, here’s the full EU report on the ‘impact of open source’. To me, that report feels like something the decision makers at every educational institution in the world should read and understand.

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I’ve run & used Etherpad (and Etherpad-lite, its successor) for over a decade, and I’m not aware of any options for offline use, I’m afraid… Regarding internet access: the thing that’s struck me over the past 20 years is the incredible rate at which internet access is propagating in the developing world. Given mobile technologies, cellphone access to the internet is growing (seeping into the social fabric), I suspect, faster than any other technological advancement in human history.

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Thanks for keeping this open campfire burning, @cogdog! Your curation has kept people coming back here. ‘Open’ isn’t corporations or even foundtions. Open is dynamic communities anchored by dedicated individuals who wear their open values on their sleeves.

As for things like FramaSoft (a great project) and their FramaDate software - it’s a great option… and, because we’re talking about libre/open source, there’s plenty of choice: at the OERF, we use the ‘polls’ functionality that’s built into NextCloud to schedule public meetings - it’s also a very nice solution. We’re spoilt for choice. One of the greatest things about libre is that we have nothing blocking us for moving to the best solution to every use case we can find. No vendor contracts, no compatibility issues, no procurement hurdles. We can just explore and evolve - at a blinding pace compared to the folks stuck with proprietary thinking, namely the misguided impression that paying more $$ means using better software.

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Thanks Dave. Could not get my local etherpad to launch, so I take your word on that. I must confess that I am on Windows, use MS suite & am typing my answers on my IOS device (all very closed). When I think about the open education in Africa, my primary question is - does the tech work when the web is temporarily or permanently unavailable (due to electricity failures, high costs of connectivity, limited access to devices, capabilities of users etc). I think the assumptions we make about local user connectivity also have to be factored in.

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Few tech solutions work without power, and info-tech ones don’t allow much progress without internet access. We do a lot of work with developing Pacific Island nations, and we can see how tricky it is for them, e.g. dependent on solar power (so only 12 hrs electricity per day near the equator). Given how remote they all are (and with minuscule populations), it’s amazing they have internet access at all, but they do.

The important thing to realise is that cellular internet access is proliferating at a breathtaking speed, and it seems that nearly everyone, even in these very poor countries, prioritises getting a smartphone so that they can communicate with the world. In most poorer countries, communication isn’t via ‘telephone’ as such, it’s via internet-based communication platforms (like Facebook’s WhatsApp, sadly, rather than the functionally similar & open ‘Signal’).

At the OERF, we’ve long discussed how we might make OERs available off-line, but (in my opinion) it’s not worth it because a) it’s a very hard problem to address (even a successful solution will require major compromises), and b) the number of people needing it is diminishing rapidly. I don’t see it as a good use of resources.

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Very off tangent but I have vague memories of running Tiddlywiki on a usb thumb drive (the days of playing with Deaddrops)… or maybe it was the MonkeyPirateTiddlyWiki I had running stand alone on a piratebox.

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Thanks Dave. I love hearing about the work that you are doing in fragile contexts. Important to address roots, shoots and leaves (Willow model mentioned in https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.734290). Very aware of cellular access possibilities. 3 billion people are still offline. That’s a third of the world that’s not being catered for.

Thanks Alan. This is great. Much appreciated