December 29, 2006

Should schools dive in and own their own tools?

DOPA bans social networking in public institutions (including schools) in the US under the guise of safety and control of information. Since May the act has been discussed on the US edublogosphere, with several educators this side of the pond getting jumpy, itchy or mildly wary of relying on external suppliers and hosters of content.

John has started the debate once more on two angles - open source tools and self-hosting of tools by local authorities - after stimulation from the excellent Booruch podcast. It has all made me think afresh on whether schools or states should spend time, money and effort on creating 'safe', self-owned products which do the job of Flickr, blog engines, Bubbleshare, YouTube, and so on.


Owning information

Do we need to spend our effort on creating 'eduFlickrs' and self-hosted blogging platforms? My instant over-simplistic reaction is: no. The question of ownership of information might seem like a huge one when one stores one's writing on a blog hosted by Typepad or Blogger, for example, or one's photos on Flickr. It is a real question, too, not one of the made up examples or "imagine ifs..." that we are so fond of in education. For this very reason I think it's important to use the best of what is available in relation to the money we have to spend on it, and work at discussing the accompanying debate, whether that is ownership, copyright, intellectual copyright and plagiarism or "how do these sites make money?" (at Yester Primary School they are discussing just this question, and I hope to be able to head along there and help them come to the answer).

59876372_65de0278b9_m But is what we right online any more important than what we right write in school jotters, which end up binned, lost, water-logged or forgotten? Does writing some schoolwork or thought online make it worth so much more than the jotter that we must, at all costs, keep it? What is it about writing or publishing images and artwork online that seems to make the issue of who owns that virtual piece of paper more important than who owns/loses/keeps the school jotter?

Where owning information is good useful

This still did not stop me recommending to East Lothian that they use WordPress MultiUser, hosting the content of all their blogs, at least, on their own dedicated server, but the aims had nothing to do with security, safety or "owning the information". Hosting blogs on WPMU does nothing to help in any of these scenarios, but does help marketing (you can better analyse the impact of what you are doing, spot new trends, predict what plugins might be popular), troubleshooting (a double-edged sword since we are relying on fewer middlemen for help, but still work within the limits of our own expertise) and in trying to create a more coherent community (we're back to marketing, effectively, and how the information on user habits can help push community where it might not have existed beforehand). In East Lothian we are beginning to do this pretty well ;-)

Glow, for that matter, the national education intranet in Scotland, will offer some degree of extra security to the mix. The people in it are centrally registered users and therefore traceable, though I don't know how much tracing will go on; during the Glow trials there were incidents of 'minor' online bullying but no effort made by teachers or administrators to pursue it while the iron was hot. At the end of the day, owning the servers on which the content is stored will not stop predatory bullying, 99.9% of which comes not from the wild west of the www, but from within your schools, your classrooms. If we can get that little human glitch ironed out (I don't know if we ever will) then Glow-hosted blogs would be a real step in the right direction for increased new technology use by the next part in the equation, the third-generation of more risk-averse teacher ICT users.

   increased security
+ better marketing
+ better community finding and creating
= breaking down of our edublogosphere pareto principle.

Where not having to host the information is better

To go back to the East Lothian social media project, most of the other tools we are recommending our users to engage with involve hosting material on someone else's servers:, Bubbleshare, Flickr, Quintura and PageFlakes, for example. It's simply not worth our time, effort and money to attempt to recreate these pretty damned good tools just so that we can host them on our servers. At the moment I'd recommend the continued hosting of blogs in East Lothian since most people use a blog as their principle place of publishing news, artwork, video and so on (even if it's not hosted directly on it all of the time). But over the next year and beyond the blog in its current form will morph and many more people will live their online publishing life on non-textual tools such as YouTube (quelle surprise), Flickr and the forthcoming medium of IPTV.

40934342_cb6ee17c18 So what's the difference between hosting blogs and hosting everything else? Money. Well, bandwidth to be more precise. Just as YouTube began to get exponential last May my LesBlogs buddy Peter was working out their bandwidth costs at around $1 million per day, with 15 million video downloads (each video about 3.5 minutes long). Considering that most educational content is longer than that and even with fewer users, I think most Local Authorities and even our dear Executive would baulk at a service which would drain 000,000s of pounds from the public purse - with no business model allowed to support it.

Self-hosted video and images? At the moment it doesn't make financial sense when aggregated costs and economies of scale from the big guys and venture capitalists help cushion the blow.

So if we're stuck with these guys for practical reasons, surely we'll get screwed on ethical ones? I'd say less of the conspiracy theory and more of the research. It's not in the interest of these companies to ignore the educational market. It's for that reason, perhaps, that the CEOs of PageFlakes, Quintura, Wikispaces, PBWiki and many other Live Web cos. are in fairly regular contact with me and other edubloggers to find out what would make their products better for education. I know that they keep an eye on Technorati watchlists of their product names to leap in and grab our feedback and improve their products.

Why? Because their teen and pre-teen customers of today are their ad revenues of tomorrow. Do I want a product without ads for my kids? Yes. Do I mind if they are facing advertising once they leave school and enter the world of work? No, because advertising is part of the makeup of their lives on MySpace, Bebo and the telly (do they still do that?) - avoiding a cool tool on the basis of advertising is cutting our collective nose off to spite our faces.

Rugs and feet

134894866_1702844941_m Will developers purposefully pull the rug from under their customers' feet? No, not if the business model is solid and they are making money. If a company changes the rules it set out with at the beginning (or tries a Google "we'll keep Google Earth free for the moment") then they are screwed for the long haul. And then take a look at the technologies mentioned in this blog post. Every one has an open API and a bit of magic which makes it what it is (that's why we might like PageFlakes better than Netvibes, Bubbleshare better than Flickr and so on). These companies are more or less open - open enough for most geeks - and provide a business model which reassures us they will be around for long enough.

Balancing risk, time, effort, development, skills and final product

Moreover, these 'open private' companies provide refined products which are generally quick to set up and use, and easy to get a backup from. Should they go bust or withdraw a service, there's nothing to stop regular users exporting the content and making a switch. Compared to some of the most popular open source apps, such as Moodle mentioned by Peter in the Booruch podcast, setup is a doddle and more accessible for the masses. So, my tuppence worth to John and others' points on open source and self-hosting might be summarised something like this:

  • Does hosting offer a better chance to create a community?
  • Does hosting offer better safety for kids? (Probably not)
  • Does open source version of this provide the same experience AND more longevity (look at the business model, not the 'open sourceness' of the app - companies genuinely won't go out of their way to piss their customers off, especially the younger ones)
  • Do the vast majority of users care if the final product is open source or not, hosted by the institution or not? (Audacity happens to be better than Windows Media for most people, but most people don't know it's open source and will not contribute to the creation of the product).
  • Will most users be able to contribute to the open source product, or will the open source product be fed into by a minority of the group using it (thus making it quasi proprietary)?

The questions are, hopefully, provocative. I personally get fed up with the open source versus everything else debate and see a more complex mélange leading to success, but wonder whether some of the companies I've mentioned have superior venture capital, expertise and customer feedback to do the job better. Ouch. Release the spiders!

Photo of the jotter. Photo of pound note. Photo of slippery surfaces. (Creative Commons ;-)


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Hi Ewan,

Great post. I can't see local authorities wanting to host edu-friendly versions of the popular services you mention in your post from an economic and liability point of view and in any case why should they?

Teachers can see the educational benefits of using tools for blogging, sharing photos etc, but they are also concerned about the potential dangers to their pupils of doing so (cyberbullying, dissemination of personal information etc).

With teacher moderation, it is possible to ensure that pupils can blog safely (no full names and no email addresses for example). However, this can be very time-consuming on the part of individual teachers however enthusiastic they may be about the potential of using the technology.

Personally, I would feel happy to set up a school blog where all work is submitted to one place rather than having to moderate many blogs at the same time. This seems unfeasible to me.

As for the question of open source versus propriety software, I would imagine that most teachers are simply concerned with whether software works or not rather than the philosophical debate around who designed it in the first place.

We have to find ways to use these cool tools and keep our pupils safe at the same time.

Take a look at Protopage, it’s the one we chose for its massive research facilities (some 750 search engines) and tab/file organization perfect for collaborative projects, with extended page scroll to eliminate jumble! Customizable facilities on this one is unique allowing each pupil to express their personality (never are two pages ever alike). It allows illustrations to be dragged and dropped anywhere on a page without being sucked automatically into a dedicated prearranged column. We also like the “invitation by password” feature, to read or modify Private or Public pages. It saves you the effort of logging in and out of sites. Good Luck!

Funnily enough, I came across Protopage for the first time today through my referrals. It was Bob Sprankle's page. Looked nice but not dissimilar to PageFlakes. What are the main differences?

Lots I agree with here and lots I don't!

I should really be packing, but I must pull you up on one point - you asked:

Will most users be able to contribute to the open source product, or will the open source product be fed into by a minority of the group using it (thus making it quasi proprietary)?

Open Source usually means that software is licensed under the GPL. It is a legal requirement of the GPL that anyone distributing such software makes the underlying code freely available. Open Source software is therefore guaranteed to be not-even-remotely-proprietary, no matter how many or few developers contribute to the code. There's a lot more to say about Open Source, and why it is so important for the future, but it'll have to wait until I get back from my week's snowboarding :)

Er - I thought you were on holiday?

Hi Ewan,
Protopage has received a great degree of acceptance within the NHS after being featured by the BBC's Click on Line. Here is a link that will put you in the picture:-
Off on holiday now!

Hi Ewan,
Fascinating post that will take a bit of re-reading. Thank you for taking the time to do this.
You might be attributing some high-minded principles to me that I do not have;-)
It is for practical reasons I want some bandwidth/space not ethical reasons. I might have some philosophical/ethical views on these matters but they are unimportant compared to my main concern.
So the only one of your bullet points I am really concerned about is:
•Does hosting offer a better chance to create a community?
What I really want is an audience/community for my children and I want it yesterday.
I want their video and audio to be easily viewed in other schools buy their national and international peers. I want them to get inspiration from other schools.
If there is some great video from East Lothian pupils hosted on youtube, my class and children in lots of Scottish school will not be able to see it. By hosting on youtube or flickr or bubbleshare you lose a big part of your audience from all over the world.
I know you and others are working on opening things up but I have no idea if you will succeed or how long this will take. My focus is a lot smaller and much shorter term.

I see your point about the audience being limited by using certain tools but the way blocking generally tends to work in the case of social software is through 'type of page' (so selfhosting would not get us round this problem) or keyword (ditto).

Do you see a way around this?

The only way I see is the one of persuasion in our own country - 32 Local Authorities can discuss the issues, look at each other's work and pressure groups can try to persuade them. However, no-one can 'tell' a Local Authority what they should do. No-one can create a national policy on what Local Authorities should do on this practical level. Persuasion is all that is left.

Once we have all Local Authorities on board with the concept then that audience is re-established. As for the worldwide audience and whether it is blocked or not, this is an issue that stretches beyond education and into every area of life - take a look at China, Iran, North Korea... USA?

Hi Robert,
Sorry to pick your favourite topic when you're about to go skiing - hope I haven't spoiled your flight over too much ;-)

For those who want to know more about what GPL is about Wikipedia has all of the answers, of course.

For the average user, as Joe pointed out, whether they *may* contribute to the improvement of the product and whether they *can* (i.e. have the skills, time, inclination) are two different things. Most teachers can't/won't/are under the impression they can't.

For most educators the main criteria for using a tool or not is whether it does the job consistently well and whether, when it doesn't, it gets fixed pretty much as soon as they pull up the thing that isn't working or is inappropriate.

Open Source software, of course, carries these properties to some extent but they are not exclusive to open source. Conversely, open source doesn't always provide the best tool for the job.

At the end of the day this is my only criteria closely followed by price (free's not always best, either, but it helps ;-)

Where open source gets attractive is where, as educators, we can adjust an existing tool to make more sense for educational purposes. But for most of the tools we use in the classroom the 'of the peg' version works just fine. We could go to the effort of making an educational bespoke suit(e) of tools but we don't have the professional time/skill/effort/money/inclination to do so.

Some of the best open source products are not 100% open source either. I was talking to the CEO of RedHat last month and he was explaining how only about 50% of their code is open source and the rest is proprietary, making this 'open source' company one of the richest around.

This is great, because we see there is a business model to keep a product going even when interest in the product from the coding community might wane. It also means that RedHat can innovate faster than the pro-am community in certain areas and provide a more dedicated, more effective (?) customer service.

My use of the word proprietary is perhaps misplaced in the post, but I still stand by my intention, that when a group of developers contributing to or running a system is collectively relatively larger than the group of 'customers' there is always going to be an element of 'ownership' that they have and the customer does not. The healthiest developer/customer groups are where most of the customers are also the developers of the product or idea.

I hope this looooong comment makes some sense - trying to write it with the brouhaha of domestic life and visiting family around me. Cheers!

Hi Ewan,
Do you see a way around this?
I've tried persuasion with my LA and it didn't work. I understand their reasoning and I also get the feeling that the folk making these decisions are very busy with a lot on their plates.
I could not get flickr and bubbleshare unblocked I could get unblocked, all dot mac homepages are blocked by category, but it was a snip to get the sandaig bit unblocked and to host some large files there.
If there was a national file store that only hosted school/teacher approved files I believe that it would be easy for LA to allow access without worrying about any of the stuff they worry about. That would help with seeing other Scots content at least and help with school bandwidth costs. Given the amount of cash ssdn/glow will finally cost I don't think a bit of web 2 friendly hosting would amount to much, but I don't really know.
As to self hosting being an advantage I don't know of any LAs that block our (sandaig primary) blogs. If you put some blog software on your own site there is not much that says what type of page it is. (well unless you put it in a dir called blogs or wordpress). I've had folk mail me about not seeing flash or QT on the blogs in schools but not that they cannot access the blogs from schools.
There is a lot more to be said on this issue, it might make a good discussion topic for the next teachmeet.
The international problem will probably take a bit more time, but I believe the solution to the USA's blog problem is here. Have a good one when it comes.

Wow you are all very busy today! I hope you don't mind if I chip in with how I see it.

I have to agree with John on most of this, and it goes back to why as a classteacher I decided to start blogging about the work in our classroom in the first place.

I want to celebrate the work and achievements in my classroom.
I want the children to write for a real audience - not just me. In consequence I want their to be a real purpose for their writing.
I would like the children in my class to open their eyes to the wider world - to take adnvantage of the ease with which you can link with other children/schools/teachers/countries via our blog.
Those are the principle reasons why I blog with my class and have advised my colleagues to do the same.

One element that has not been mentioned, and I think outweighs all of the talk about "tool appropriateness", is how important it is to educate our children about that word "appropriateness". Eventually the children are going to emerge from the walled garden of educationally diluted apps (if these truly arrive) and be using the original tools for themselves in their working and social lives - perhaps there should be a greater emphasis on their ongoing understanding of what is safe and unsafe online.

I also believe that we shouldn't be adjusting existing applications to suit our educational needs, as it takes too long - say for example if an extremely proactive LA were to respond to a request to produce a intranet based web 2.0 app for educational use - where are the programmers at authority level? how long would it take?
In the mean time the web moves on and by the time we have what we want; we want it to be different.

"Most people don't care"

Add - if the software they use is open source
Add - which government wins the next election
Add - if the car they buy is going to kill the planet.

The fact is that most people don't care about many important things. Education is supposed to value understanding, its rather ironic that in the case of technological politics its seen as a virtue to "not care" and not to be informed.

Hi again Ewan and sorry for a rushed response but I think it's worth saying you should probably separate the hosted/self-hosted and open/closed source arguments to some extent. Sure they overlap. Hosted means someone else does all management like backup, often with options to tweak. self-hosting means you get ultimitate flexibility but you are responsible for management. You can use open or closedsource for either. The flip side is you rely on the hoster so what if the hoster loses your data (like Google have just done to many gmail users) or stop trading. You still need to backup your self so self hosting is not without repsonsibility.

In both cases you choose wether to use out of the box or customise. Open source gives you an additional and ultimate level of customisation (and safety).

The open/closed source debate is much the same in the hosted situation. It's not just philosphical (as I commenter says). If your data is in a proprietary format you may loose access to it or have to pay to access it. Open interfaces may must allow you to get at the data without transformation but you still need to do something with it.

If the hosted software is open source then you have the chance of setting up a self-hosted version if the need arises. Otherwise you have to hope it can be imported into something else. it's risk management really (ignoring all other other advantages)

The excellent offers the best of all worlds by being fully open source, open standards compliant, provides open interfaces and has several hosted options (,, of which I use It's also appropriate as you started your post with a comment on social networking. Check Elgg spaces for an excellent hosted option.

(keeping this on a separate thread) open source is not quasi-proprietary for an import reason - every thing is done in the open and anyone can contribute (not just code). To the user this boils down to not having to wait until the developers decide that users requirements happen to match business goals (and also not having to wade through bloatware features only there for marketing-war reasons).

I see your point but don't agree it happens that often. OK in your scenario the developers ignore the user requests, and the users don't want to change the code. But there is another option, get someone else to make changes for you. The interesting thing is that the desire to *avoid* such a so called fork is a prime motivator in OpenSource. Thus users have a much better chance of getting a change made in the main project. Plus they can join in the community raising bugs and feature requests or supply text or graphics etc. anyway.

Some projects have been had a reputation for being unfriendly non-tech to users, but others are very friendly (the Orca screen reader comes to mind). However there is a need to engage with certain responsibilities (like searching the bug databases first). In all I think that users will find Open Source projects more likely to be changed to meet their requirements.

Thanks to all those who have helped fill in the detail of how Open Source projects might benefit the edu community. The main points seem to be that:

* participation can be as indepth coding or indepth user experience as the user is prepared to get into;
* change is more likely to be adopted in Open Source projects than in market-driven projects (although I would beg to differ based on the changes I have suggested and which have been adopted on commercial projects, too)
* the average user doesn't know why certain things might be good for them (and there may be a case for making them see this).

Ian's point on consumers needing to care is one that is close to my heart - if you read my blog regularly you know that I value the efficiency of technology and science that will make our planet last longer and our lives more enriched.

What I'm curious about, though, is why Open Source is seen as a political for or against scenario, as a 'Movement', as something you are therefore part of or not. I am neither here nor there on the subject and will just use whatever does the job best and at least cost (be that financially, time or to the environment, for example).

Why is Open Source so politicised?

Why is Open Source so politicised?

One reason is that proprietary software is politicised and OSS companies are just trying to catch up. Look at the amount of money proprietary software companies put into political lobbying - thousands of times more than OSS companies/orgs do (and fair enough - that's how the game works).

More people are seeing the genuine benefits OSS offers. They aren't all short term "do I have the latest whizzy features" type benefits but I'd argue that in education they're even more important.

* Open Source makes owning software more like owning a car. You buy a car and it's up to you where you get it serviced, how you modify it etc. With proprietary software you never own it, you own a licence allowing certain uses. That's a potentially huge benefit in the public sector which has the money to get the full benefits from software ownership.

* Schools making good use of OSS are saving money, as the Becta study in May 2005 suggested. Not every single app. you can think of has an OSS alternative that's better and cheaper, but even now the evidence suggests the TCO of OSS is lower than proprietary.

* Remember than OSS is more than a bunch of applications; it's a method of creating and licensing software. There's nothing stopping the public sector procuring OSS rather than proprietary apps; something which could well be a great deal cheaper (e.g. see

If the education sector set out to procure open source software and take ownership of it, it could have huge financial and educational benefits. Sounds worth politicising to me!


Thanks for those great pointers in the discussion. I don't doubt it's worth making people more aware of the cost benefits that can be gained from Open Source software but would it not be better to 'marketise' than 'politicise'? Marketing is what the proprietaries do best and what, as far as I (don't) see it, Open Source is not doing so well (despite RedHat etc etc).

If a product is good enough to get people to use it, comes at the right price and is marketed at the right level in the right way then people will vote with their feet. If word of mouth spreads effectively all the better (in fact, often it is better than trad marketing). Why is Open Source not making inroads here? Is it something to do with coordinating things with such a disparate group of individuals? Is it to do with, dare I say it, money?

Hi Ewan,
This thread keep on being very interesting although I am now well of my 'give us a server' plea.
Open Source is not doing so well I think you might be wrong on that one.
I am not really an open source person, but I am typing this in Safari which runs off webkit, my blog runs on pivot which is released under a GPL as is wordpress which runs most of the blogs I read. Most of the websites I visit are served by (I guess) Apache which is open source, as is my RSS reader Vienna. I could go on.
Personally I hope it has not got to do with money, I don't believe that is a good driving force for education, passion, fun and a willingness to share seem to me to be working better.

I stand happily corrected, John. I am even less of an OS person than most of the knowledgeable people here. These products, though, are not marketed to the average punter as OS and most punters wouldn't need to/want to know about the backend stuff.

Worth thinking about how OS can be marketed as a different kind of Purple Cow (cf. Seth Godin).

I feel a post coming on...

"Marketing is what the proprietaries do best and what, as far as I (don't) see it, Open Source is not doing so well (despite RedHat etc etc)"

That's an interesting discussion in it's own right. It does appear to be partially true, but I think that is changing (as Microsoft have changed from being developer lead to being marketing lead). I think it's partly due to the main skills of many of the core contributors and partly the values held such as avoiding what is perceived as marketing hype compared to the 'honesty' of good old working code. The developers have historically been the target users as well. Such views does not do OS any favors when users are not technical but is perhaps understandable when you look at the effects on products of some marketing forces such as feature bloat.

Mozilla are one example of a group doing good marketing of OS by productising Firefox ( and Thunderbird. As you touch on they market benefits, not philosphy (or just features). They also utilise communty and viral marketing to good effect.

Open source provides ways of creating and licensing software that meets users needs in ways that are different to closed source (and I think better). The user may not be directly interested in the mechanics of that difference, but can appreciate the benefits they receive such as low cost or quick response from community support

Open source may not be the answer to everything but it seems possible that we may get to the point when most software that is marketed to users as meeting their needs will in fact be at least partially created using Open Source practices and licensed as Open Source commodity.

Well it looks like my post about this to the Schoolforge-UK discussion group had the desired effect! As you seemed to be looking for a debate Ewan, I thought I'd help things along - I hope you didn't take offense at my rather provocative description of your post ;)

Others have said just about everything I would have wanted to say and more besides.

On the question of why Open Source is "politicised" - I would say that it is because of the underhand tactics commercial software vendors have employed to attempt to undermine Open Source. Microsoft and others have invested huge amounts of time and money over the years in attempting to rubbish Open Source, and in lobbying to try to establish software patent legislation in Europe which would strangle Open Source. Under this relentless attack, Open Source advocates have inevitably developed something of a bunker mentality. I agree completely that as users we should be free to choose the best solutions, whatever the license - I just wish that Microsoft felt the same way!

I didn't take offense at your provocation although I would have said things differently. It did, however, send the debate into more of a black/white, yes/no politicised discussion of Open Source instead of what I had set out to discuss in the first place: whether it's worth schools building their own tools.

The bunker mentality you describe to a T is one which is, for most people outside the bunker, quite a destructive one. It doesn't help the cause much at all because those outside feel that have to blast their way in.

That's why marketisation instead of politicisation may be a better way for the Open Source ambassadors to go. Sell us the advantages, don't attack what we use already and make us feel we've done soemthing wrong. Is that not what second hand car salesmen do? ;-)

Just my tuppence worth.

Glad you're still speaking to me Ewan :)

Open Source does have its marketing successes - Firefox, for example. But then there are applications like GIMP that deserve to be much bigger than they are. You're absolutely right that Open Source needs better marketing in general.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

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School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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