Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Can Open Source work for
Jewish Education?

My friend and mentor Shalom Berger of the Lookstein Institute for Jewish Education in the Diaspora at Bar Ilan share a link to Tzvi Daum's blog with a bunch of us, curious about our response to his challenge. As a synagogue rather than day school educator, I don;t believe he is speaking directly to me, but the questions are valid regardless of setting.

I have some thoughts, which I will share at another time. I am more interested in yours. In addition to his three highlighted questions, what do you think about open-source Jewish learning? Is there an upside and/or a downside to increasing our reliance on the digital lens for Jewish teaching and learning? And what should the balance be? (If you choose to respond in your own blog, please post a link in the comments to this blog and to Tzvi's.)





Quick, what do Mozilla Firefox, Linux, Moodle, Openoffice.org. Audacity and Filezilla all have in common?
Answer: They are all examples of great open source software available for free on the web. In general, open source products are developed by people around the globe who contribute their time and expertise to develop a product which is then made available for free to the public at large.

Recently there has been some discussion about exploring an open source model for Jewish education. It sounds idealistic, everybody chipping in their little part, the question is - how practical is such an idea?

As someone who has actually tried to organize an open source project or two for Jewish education, I would like to share what I learned from these experiences and what I see the challenges to be.

One particular project I tried to launch revolved around developing some Judaic Studies curricular materials. (I have blogged about it here in the past.) My thought was to start with something small that educators can collaborate on over the summer. I thought the free time in the summer and the limited materials that needed to be covered would make be a good first candidate for an open source project. However, sadly enough the project never got off the ground. I will be the first to admit that I was probably the source of the problem, however there are some lessons I took away from this. I view these as challenges which need to be overcome in the future.

Challenge #1
Are Jewish educators even online?

The first step in any open source project is finding like minded people willing to contribute their time and expertise. Where does one find such people? Techies use the internet to find each other. Where do you find other Jewish educators online? I posted invitations on Lookjed, I created a Facebook group...I even tried faxing an invitation to all schools in the Lookjed directory. However, at the end of the day, I question what percentage of Jewish educators were even aware of such a project. Many Jewish educators have ideological opposition to using the internet at home. If you can't find a big enough pool of contributors your project is almost dead in the water unless it is very small and specific. Although I thought my project was small and specific, obviously it wasn't small and specific enough.

Challenge # 2
Do educators have the time and technological expertise?

Even if we can find Jewish educators online, how many of them feel comfortable using technology collaborating tools? It is one thing for people who make their living as developers to use technology to connect and collaborate on the development of software, but can you ask them same of educators? Put another way, asking techies to use tech is somewhat different than asking non techies to use tech. Do we have any good examples of successful open source educational curricular projects out there on a national level? There is talk of open source textbooks, Wikipedia might be a close example but they are not exactly the same. I have seen some attempts for Jewish educators to get together on a wiki, but I am unaware of any great results in terms of team collaboration and project successes. With time the tools will presumably get easier to use, but the steep learning curve for contributors remains a challenge.

Another related thing to consider, is the time factor. While the average software developer probably makes a decent salary and most likely has a small family as the average American does, those involved in Jewish education are often making a minimal salary and work two jobs to support a larger than average family. That does not leave a lot of free time to dedicate to projects. Some of us are a little crazy, but the majority are not. Working on a project requires dedication and at a certain point one needs to ask themselves why am I doing all this work for free?

Challenge # 3
Who is leading and/or sponsoring the project?

Speaking of free, when you read about most of the successful open source projects you will notice two things they have in common. The first is, they are almost all led by a group at the top who are dedicated to the project on a nearly full time basis. Second, these people at the top are usually SPONSORED in some way. They are not working for free.

For example: Openoffice.org is supported by Sun Microsystems, presumably because they want to chip away at Microsoft. Moodle headquarters is supported by hosting services who use the Moodle trademark and contribute a portion of their profits to the head team. Linux developers make their money by offering support. Sourgeforge.net which hosts open source projects for free makes money by selling their platform software to businesses. Even Wikipedia has its own foundation and can easily make money by advertising. The point is, very few large projects are developed wholly by people with altruistic intentions. Filezilla was started as class project and released as open source because the developers didn't think anybody would pay money for it with so many commercial options available. Audacity is about the only project I know of that does not have a steady source of funding other than donations. It is a small project to be sure.

Thus, I think even if open source were to be used in Jewish education, at least the core team would need to be sponsored in some sort of manner and given organizational support. Sponsoring a core group would most likely get a project off the ground to the point where a greater mass of contributors can join at a later time and be guided to what their role can be.

I don't want to sound pessimistic or be the naysayer who says it can't be done, but until I see a successful open source Jewish educational project I remain unconvinced about the viability of using open source to solve Jewish educational needs. I know for example, the Jim Joseph Foundation made a grant to 14 fellows to build online communities of practice, I am curious where that will lead to after two years of training.

To be determined.

Tzvi Daum
http://www.torahskills.org/
http://www.twitter.com/torahskills

PS I don't consider the various lesson planning sites such as chinuch.org or SJED as examples of successful open source models. For the most part these are sites where users just contribute lesson plans they created. There is no collaboration between contributers and the result is a jumble of lessons with hardly any rhyme, reason or methodology to it.

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