August 29, 2011

What do Google, Open Source Software and Digital Literacies have in Common?

Categories: Digital Citizenship, Digital Learning
graphic of many words describing Digital information

Eric Schmidt, Chairman of Google, hit the headlines recently with an attack on the ICT (Information and Communications Technology) curriculum in UK schools. It “focuses on teaching how to use software,” he said to the audience gathered for the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, “but gives no insight into how it’s made.” According to Schmidt that equates to “just throwing away your great computing heritage.”

The link to the BBC News article containing Schmidt’s comments quickly did the rounds in the educational technology and elearning social media circles of which I am part. The irony is that many of those who teach ICT have been calling for what Schmidt wants for years. They are tired of teaching what is, effectively, a course in Microsoft Office and other administratively-focused skills and want to allow students to use ICT creatively. These teachers are, however, hamstrung by pressures on their time, not least through the UK government’s axing of Becta and introduction of the reactionary English Baccalaureate.

Despite this, there have been moves to introduce a more creative and critical element into ICT. Open Source Schools, which I was involved in when I was still teaching History and ICT and it was still Becta-funded, is a community dedicated to the use of Open Source Software in UK schools. Miles Berry, Senior Lecturer at Roehampton University and one of the mainstays of the community, provides a useful overview on the liberating nature of using Open Source Software in schools in this presentation at BETT 2009.

Using Open Source Software merely to replace Microsoft Office with a free and open alternative, however, would be to miss the point. One of the ‘four freedoms’ Miles mentions in his presentation is the freedom to go beyond the software and improve the program. This is possible due to a central principle to Open Source Software being access to a program’s source code. Although there has been some criticism as to the speed at which they do so, Google is a big supporter of Open Source projects and provide access to the source code of their Android mobile operating system. Indeed, they have recently provided funding for a Center of Mobile Learning at MIT which will ensure development of Google App Inventor.

Openness is a ‘Habit of Mind’

But I would want to go even further than seeing Open Source Software in schools. I believe openness is a property that should extend to academic and educational practice, not just the software that we use. Over the past few years I have made available online my doctoral thesis on the subject of Digital and New Literacies – as I have written it. Far from being plagiarized and it causing problems with my university (as the naysayers predicted) it has been a fantastic experience, with me gaining feedback from a much wider circle than I than I could have hoped for. Whilst I was teaching History I had my students do likewise: they blogged weekly about what they had learned with their writing readable by the world. When a descendant of a Native American commented on one of my student’s blogs, thanking him for his thoughtful and balanced consideration of his ancestors, that student came bouncing into the classroom the next day. You simply cannot buy experiences like that. Open is an attitude we should be encouraging and extolling in our educational institutions.

An open attitude in the digital realm is, I believe, the result of training in a number of digital literacies. In my thesis I have come up with what I consider, based on my research, to be the ‘essential elements’ of digital literacies. These, I believe, constitute the building blocks of what we should be teaching in schools:


Focusing on these essential elements of digital literacies and the principles we wish to instil in young people is, I believe, a better way to teach IT than a narrow focus on procedural software skills. For more on the essential elements of digital literacies, see this Slideshare presentation:

Teaching ICT in a top-down and administratively-focused manner is to miss the point of how to equip our students for the digital world they inhabit. We need to be focusing on principles, these eight elements of digital literacies, and the habits of mind which will enable them to flourish in an uncertain and unknowable future.
So what have Google, Open Source Software, and Digital Literacies got in common? I would argue it is a focus on openness. And, as an educator, parent and taxpayer that is what I want for my children and for my country. Schmidt had it partly right; we do need to focus on more than surface knowledge and both ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ in the digital world. But doing so, I would argue, involves several digital literacies that we would do well to explore in an emergent, contextual and, ultimately, creative way.
Banner image credit: Image CC BY dougbelshaw
Full disclosure: Doug Belshaw was a Lead Learner at Google Teacher Academy, London and is a Google Certified Teacher and Google Apps for Education Certified Individual. He still thinks getting rid of Google Wonder Wheel and Google Squared sucks, though, and is a fan of the search engine DuckDuckGo.