The conundrum of open source software in education

Adult classroom

Having read about the dubious business practices of some companies within the EdTech industry, such as Turnitin profiting from the intellectual property of students, I have been reflecting on whether I should try and only use open source software when teaching.

When a lot of jobs are asking for applicants who have skills in particular commercial software such as Microsoft Office suite, by using open source alternatives are we harming future job prospects or does the tool agnostic approach taken prepare students to be able to adapt to whatever technology is being used?

I would argue that a platform agnostic approach usually allows for greater adaptability but it often misses out on the mastery of a particular platform that may help a student to stand out. Additionally, if you do not provide students with the opportunity to use expensive software, then they will probably never get the chance as the cost is prohibitive to personal use. One example is Photoshop (a professional photo editing tool) versus GIMP (the open source equivalent). Photoshop has a number of unique tools that allow you to automate the design process and as creative industry often uses Photoshop, the student may struggle in an interview if asked what processes they use to save time in design as GIMP does not have these features.

Another question is that in the era of cloud computing when large amounts of information is not stored locally on a computer, is it responsible to rely on open source projects to make sure that data is secure? Are commercial alternatives any more secure?

Neither solution is perfect here. Both open source and commercial tools have and will continue to be subject to data breaches. Open source can suffer from lack of accountability for data breaches and also not having dedicated resourcing to fixing flaws and vulnerabilities. There are projects by Google, GitHub and many others to try and solve this by providing funding and advice to improve security. However, as commercial tools are more widespread, hackers tend to focus on them as there is an economy of scale in their efforts. For commercial products you at least have someone to hold accountable when your data is breached but that is not much comfort. Therefore, probably the best approach from a security perspective is to teach students not rely on the security of any product and to put the minimum amount of personal data in to a system as possible.

But maybe this approach is overly cautious and would prevent students from embracing digital scholarship… so really all types of software create a conundrum.



INF537: Is evangelising the digital future helpful?

When attempting to apply what I have learned throughout my degree in my work as a public servant, I have often hit roadblocks including available tools, willingness of colleagues to engage and time to implement best practice.

When I read journal articles such as Ross’s 2012 article on the future of reflective practices, I wonder whether we are providing a vision and narrative for people to follow that is achievable.*

I have had experience in higher education and know that, with a few exceptions, the reality of what is being implemented is so far from what is promoted by many education evangelists that I wonder how the gap between the two will be narrowed?

Often for institutions the reality is that we are limited by the tools that are provided to us such as our learning management system, our conferencing tool, content authoring systems. We are similarly limited by the users’ knowledge of how to use the systems effectively. Tags, categorising and even basic html formatting seem to be beyond the skill-level of a large number of people.

I often feel that too much time is spent advocating for the brave new world of technology enabled education when more value could be derived from a narrative that:

  • acknowledges that often you will be limited in your ability to implement best practice by corporate systems
  • discusses the pros and cons of using unsupported systems to achieve your goals
  • considers how to up-skill the users to allow them to complete the approach that is being advocated

In may articles there is an assumption that everyone is interested in implementing tools to improve education outcomes. My experience is that unless you provide considerable investment in training, monitoring and communicating; new approaches are normally doomed to failure. Therefore, by including reference to the practical realities being faced by educators we can sart to bridge the gap between vision and implementation.

* The big caveat on this post is that I do not work in an academic institution and therefore am not the primary audience for Ross’s work.


Ross, J. (2012). The spectacle and the placeholder: Digital futures for reflective practices in higher education. In Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Networked Learning (pp. 227–244). Retrieved from

INF530: Critical Reflection

In my journey through INF530 I have learned a great deal. The course has particularly helped me to develop my understanding of:

Digital literacy

Early in the course I was challenged by the concept of digital literacy. I came to an initial view of what digital literacy meant to me but that was just a starting point. As the course evolved, so did my understanding of the term. My new understanding added in concepts of digital security and Steve Wheeler’s description of “digital residency” that I found thanks to June’s tweet:

Digital residency, meaning someone who uses an app in their daily life, is a better and fairer description for what I had labelled “active digital literacy”. I have realised how important it is for the education professional to have an understanding of digital literacy so that it can inform their interaction with students.

Connected learning

The discussion on my blog post around connected learning helped me to think about how connected learning could be promoted at different stages of education. Connected learning was a new concept to me but in my work context, the need for us to be able to promote and acknowledge connected learning resonated with me. Claire challenged me to think about how this promotion of connected learning would differ for various age groups:

EdTech Revisited

The course has helped me to appreciate that educational technology (EdTech) is a diverse field. I have usually had poor experiences with EdTech and previously felt it was too heavily focused on behaviouristic principles but others within the course helped to highlight examples where it was making a positive difference:

I came to the understanding that digital learning is not just a extension of behaviourism but can provide a much more nuanced approach to education. The Communities of Enquiry championed by Garrison (2016) show what an important role digital environments can play in helping to promote digital learning. The work by Kara and Sevim forced me to reconsider my beliefs that adaptive learning was a simplistic tool that had limited benefit to education professionals in helping to develop the skills needed by the jobs of the future (Kara & Sevim, 2013). However, Audrey Watter’s presentation holds the sobering view that the EdTech industry champions the benefits of digital learning based on the benefits to an “imagined ideal student… unconstrained by materiality, by the body, by place – by race, gender, geography”. The benefits of EdTech is still a complicated topic for me, but I now understand the potential benefits and have a wider understanding of the potential disadvantages.

Ethics of EdTech

Reviewing the ethical considerations of the storage and use of data within education gave me a new appreciation for the expanded role that education professionals have in digital environments. The difficulty that students and their parents have in fully understanding the systems being implemented means that the education professional now have a role in ensuring the privacy of their students is protected (Boyd & Crawford, 2012). The role of privacy advocate is a challenging one as technology rapidly evolves and education professionals do not always get a say in what systems are being implemented. Having read about Cambridge Analytica and recent reports about ClassDojo sharing data, I wrote a blog where I questioned what would change the attitude to data retention within education coming to the conclusion that:

It may not be until schools or the workplace experience their own Cambridge Analytica moment that things will change.


INF530 has been particularly useful in exposing me to a range of perspectives from education professionals in a range of fields. I have been challenged to rethink my belief that there was only one dimension to education technology. The result has been a discovery of a complex and nuanced environment that provides opportunities and challenges that I will need to grapple with for many years to come.


Boyd, D., & Crawford, K. (2012). Critical Questions for Big Data: Provocations for a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon. Information, Communication & Society, 15(5), 662–679.

Garrison, D. R. (2016). Thinking collaboratively: learning in a community of inquiry. New York ; London: Routledge.

Kara, N., & Sevim, N. (2013). Adaptive Learning Systems: Beyond Teaching Machines. Contemporary Educational Technology, 4(2), 108–120.