Is BETT good for UK education? Towards a more open alternative! #BETT2012 #C84C

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I visited BETT this week and left both excited and depressed. I was excited because I saw a lot of technologies up close and in the evening took part in Collabor8 4 Change where I got to talk to a lot of like-minded people.

But I also left wondering about all the things I didn’t see at BETT. Specifically Open Source projects. There were a few Moodle providers but disproportionately few compared to their proprietary competition. And there were a few booths where open source was mentioned. But the only fully open source stand was http://sankore.org. (I should also mention Google Chrome OS which was quite prominent but didn’t fly it’s FOSS flag very high. And there were a few FOSS aimed seminars – http://opensourceschools.org.uk)

However, the rest of BETT looked as if there was no funding crisis in education at all. It was all about selling proprietary technologies from unabashedly opulent stands. What I would like to see from BETT is a lot less spit and polish and a lot more getting down and dirty in looking for solutions. There was almost none of that (that’s not to say that many of the talks and seminars were not useful or inspiring). Most of the exhibitors at BETT were competitors who guard their secrets closely. I was particularly dismayed at one proprietary VLE vendor claiming to have patents on a system built around the Open Source CMS Drupal. That’s not to say that this company may not have added something unique that deserves recompense but where is the spirit of sharing and open innovation?

Why, particularly in these supposedly financially austere times, can we not come up with a model that can sustain innovation and stable infrastructure without charging exorbitant prices? Behind every booth with a flashy gimmick, I saw money that could have been spent on a school trip or new equipment for after school activity. Every single freebie handed out at the show comes directly out of  school budgets. Nothing at BETT was really free!

What depressed me the most were all these peddlers of “guaranteed to improve achievement” worksheets and other materials. Many of them were quite nice but when you look behind the surface gloss, there was nothing that we could not find in the drawers of teachers around the country. Why not sponsor teachers sharing materials in an open fashion, materials that can be adapted and reused, without having schools spend money on expensive collections of seldom used educational gimmicks.

The same goes for software! Every innovative software solution sold at BETT could have been grown around an Open Source model and cost the education system a fraction of what it does under a commercial licensing model. And made the world a better place. But any such projects could not possibly afford to attend this corporate looking show. Where were all the Linux hackers with neck beards swapping bash command tips? Where were all the discussions about the best way of optimising Apache or nginx? Fights over Python over Perl, Emacs over Vi? Where were the discussions over open hardware designs?

A part of the problem is the business metaphor of education. It’s not enough that education needs similar outcomes to business but it also has to look like it means business. But this is particularly badly suited to technology in education. Schools at all levels are not (or should not be)  just passive client consumers of technology (in the way they may be when it comes to furniture or toilet paper). They have always been centres of innovation and experimentation. They should be encouraged to be so more and more. But this is getting increasingly difficult in a regime where corporate quotas and permissions are imposed on closed software. With Open Source and Creative Commons schools could become truly active participants and shapers of their ICT destinies. And the money could go to improvement and innovation rather than pomp and circumstance. There would still be plenty of opportunities for profits and enterprise in such an environment. But fewer visions  of future Bill Gateses and more of Linus Thorvalds.

How could we make this happen? The underreported mention of Open Source in the latest government ICT initiative would not be a bad start but what we really need is for funding bodies to promote conversations about openness and support events on the scale of BETT in the Open Source/Creative Commons sphere. (Or perhaps help pay for a large Open pavilion at BETT 2013?) The root of lack of Open Source adoption is that it is not part of the conversation. Perhaps schools should be required to think about Open Source first. They could even start getting together to collectively support (finance/purchase) Open Source projects.

So many possible solutions but none of them will happen unless we can start being more honest about what BETT and similar events really cost and who’s picking up the bill.