Proposed NCTE/ CCCC Resolution on the Adoption and Use of Open Source Software

Proposed NCTE/ CCCC Resolution on the Adoption and Use of Open Source Software

Background

For teachers of English and composition working in colleges and universities across the country, the rising cost of computer software is becoming an increasingly intractable problem. The more innovative the instruction that teachers undertake in digital environments, the more software packages they need—packages which must be upgraded periodically at additional cost—and the more often these packages must be upgraded. Additionally, when the school’s technology use becomes more sophisticated, the need for a more sophisticated technology infrastructure arises as students and teachers connect with others beyond the classroom walls. Both high-level academic administrators and information technology leaders on campus are coming to realize that managing such escalating software and systems' costs is fundamental to an institution's fiscal health. Although many models for managing software costs have been tried in the past few years, the costs associated with mission-critical applications and software continue to increase and multiply.

It is within this context that educators at all levels are turning to open source software—software created by computer users and distributed without cost to other users—as a solution. Open source software packages now exist for many of the applications that teachers of English and composition need. Many of these packages have been tested and developed over time and provide full-featured alternatives to costly commercial software.

As computers and composition specialists, we recognize the value that open source software may hold in helping many teachers and departments reach their pedagogical goals, without spending precious educational funding on costly software and upgrades. Open source software packages can, in addition, provide many teachers the opportunity to take a more proactive role in the design and production of educational computer applications. For these reasons, and others, we support open source software initiatives, and would like to encourage English composition teachers and their professional organizations to consider the open source options appropriate to their instructional and professional situations.

Benefits of Open Source:

Open source software development can offer several different benefits to the educational community. Chief among these are the following:

  • Open source software has the potential to control spiraling technology costs. Open source software and upgrades are often free—although they require an initial commitment on the part of teachers and systems administrators to learn the software and teach it to others. Although support costs may rise in the short term as the new software is introduced, over time the costs should not exceed (and may fall below) those incurred by similar commercial products. Additionally, open source software frees institutions from the costs of licensing and upgrades, and prevents vendor lock.
  • Open source software allows for cutting-edge development in a controlled manner, which is essential for the improvement of teaching and learning. Institutions and departments benefit if there are ‘early adopters’ in their midst. Virtually every significant development on the internet is traceable back to one such person or group of people. There is much to be learned about teaching and learning in the internet age, and colleges and universities, centers of teaching and learning, have been and should continue to be leading that charge. Open source software projects, run in cooperation with local technology structures, extend the college or university’s pedagogical reach in ways that can be of benefit to everyone. Open source applications extend the benefits of experimentation to individual students and educators with limited budgets.
  • Open source software allows teachers and students to participate in customizing software according to the specific, situated needs of a program or institution. If an essential feature is lacking in a particular piece of open source software, teachers, students, and programmers can work together to customize these packages. Such customization efforts require teachers, students, and technical staff to collaborate on projects driven by the goals of innovative pedagogy. These projects, in turn, may serve to enhance the understandings of these groups who often misunderstand and underappreciate each other in academia.
  • The open source development model parallels the academic model of knowledge creation and dissemination. Open source software development is built within communities of committed users who are dedicated to maintaining and improving the software. Program code is shared and collectively reviewed by multiple parties, and collaboration drives related tasks such as promotion, documentation, usability testing, and support. This process resembles the ways in which knowledge is constantly made, refined, and re-thought in universities.
  • Open Source software development encourages investment in teachers and students and instruction, not commercial software packages. Because open source software can be customized with the input of teachers and students, it encourages investment in people and their expertise rather than in commercial products. Students and teachers who use a variety of software can learn multiple approaches to computing problems, rather than unique procedures for single applications.
  • Open source software is often more standards-compliant than proprietary software. Public guidelines which shape accessibility, digital archiving, information exchange, and other technologies offer tremendous promise for computing. Because open source projects rely on these published standards rather than closed specifications, they offer better interoperability, more long-term stability, and encourage constructive, cooperative development.

Resolutions

Given the benefits of open source software, we propose the following resolutions:

  • That NCTE and the CCCC, as professional organizations, support the strategic use of open source software rather than proprietary software whenever possible—especially as the organization works with teachers and faculty groups and provides digital educational materials and leadership for such groups.
  • That NCTE and the CCCC lead the way in exploring the use of open source alternatives to commercial software products within its own organization, when appropriate and possible, and educate teachers about the results of these projects, including the costs associated with maintaining, customizing, and supporting open source software.
  • That NCTE and CCCC encourage and support members as they explore the use of open source alternatives when appropriate and possible, and as they help educate colleagues about the results of these projects, including the costs associated with maintaining, customizing, and supporting open source software. In making this recommendation, we recognize that institutional contexts vary widely, and that open-software initiatives will follow suit. In some contexts, for example, the department chair or writing-program administrator might support the use of open source software by offering a series of informative workshops on open source alternatives. In another context, a dean might support the use of open source programs by advocating for institutional adoption of a large-scale open source course management or e-portfolio system.

Conclusion

In proposing these resolutions, we recognize that new challenges are involved with the open source software movement, especially in Departments of English, where technical expertise may be limited. In planning for an open source project, therefore, it is important to remember the following:

To succeed with an open source alternative, many teachers will require additional support and training. The software itself may be free, but, as is true of commercial packages, supporting open source initiatives often requires additional training. Existing support structures may need to be reconfigured and existing personnel may need to augment their skills as in order to support open source alternatives effectively. To consider open source alternatives without planning for the concomitant costs is to invite disaster.

Additionally, writing programs may need to establish the habit of facilitating collaborations between educators, students, and software programmers. Open source software development is a collaborative community effort, and the community includes end-users as well as developers. Thus, these collaborations may take many forms. Administrators may choose to send teachers to open source users’ conferences. Some campuses might develop users’ groups, who might share their expertise on a regional or national or international scale. Some institutions may find it desirable to invest in open source partnerships with other campuses dedicated to meeting a particular pedagogical or institutional technology need. In whatever form they take, such collaborations strengthen both the open source software and the academic community.

 

Updated 3/19/2007

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