Eric S. Raymond heralded the open source movement little more than a decade ago when he wrote the famous essay, The Cathedral and the Bazaar. He followed up with more essays in the years that followed that helped make the technical, economic and social case for open source software.
Briefly, Raymond’s cathedral represents software written in private, out of the public view, in contrast to the bazaar, in which software is written out in the open, where anybody with enough interest (and skill) can participate. Cathedral software is kept perpetually under lock and key, hidden from competitive eyes. It is built behind closed doors, accessible only to a privileged few. It seems to be focused, well-guided. Bazaar software, in contrast, is accessible to all, laid bare under the sun. The Bazaar is a tumultuous, seemingly chaotic environment where programmers do as they please. And yet, the argument goes, cathedral software is slower to adapt and less stable than bazaar software, where programmers make the most astounding and innovative achievements.
But Raymond’s argument runs deeper. He opens the essay by saying that “Linux is subversive.” In the subtitle of the book named after the same essay, he calls himself an “accidental revolutionary.” Bob Young, the chairman and CEO of Red Hat, begins the foreword to the very same book with the sentence: “Freedom is not an abstract concept in business.” And Raymond’s dedication to the author of science fiction is perhaps most telling:
To the Memory of Robert Anson Heinlein
For the many lessons he taught me:
to respect competence, to value and defend freedom,
and especially, that specialization is for insects.
Raymond’s contention is that open source software is a means for attaining technical, economic and social freedom. This is a moral argument: open source software promotes an open society.
This charge to channel the creativity of the open source movement to opening up our global society has been heard far and wide. The best known example, perhaps, is the fact that the open source Linux-based Android operating system is selling more mobile devices per month than any closed source (and usually “walled garden”) operating system, helping consumers fight arbitrary restrictions imposed by carriers and service providers and, more importantly, putting high technology in the hands of the rich and the poor alike.
A more profound, but as yet less visible, change is making its way into the educational world. The influence of the open source movement on education has already been noted. Open encyclopedias, high-schools and colleges using and promoting free and “open” e-textbooks, worldwide community engagement around educational material, and free educational games for children (of all ages), are precursors of things to come, a hint that the slow, subversive trickle will soon flood the gates.
The Insider has been following this trend for some time now. They published an article last year on How the Internet is Revolutionizing Education, and a couple of articles in recent months on the rise of Coursera, from an initial $16 million dollar educational venture bringing a few Stanford and Princeton courses – freely – to the masses, to a massive partnership of 16 universities (including Caltech, Johns Hopkins, Toronto and Edinburgh) teaching more than 100 courses to nearly 700,000 students in 190 countries. And now Harvard, MIT and UC Berkeley are joining forces in a similar venture called edX.
Although open universities have been doing this for years, they have been fighting an uphill battle. They have never had the same acceptance, or credence, that traditional universities have had, even when the latter used (and continue to use) educational materials produced by the former.
One stark difference between the open universities and these new ventures is that the former provide accreditation whereas Coursera and edX do not. Even if they will begin to offer accreditation in the future, it is quite likely that the new breed of university will render accreditation less necessary, if not completely moot. Asked whether students may display their non-accredited courses on their resumes, Coursera offers the following seemingly innocuous reply, driving a stake through the very heart of the traditional university:
Yes, we encourage you to list the classes you’ve taken with us on your resumes / transcripts, as appropriate. Many of our classes are designed to help you acquire particular skills, which potential employers might find valuable. Moreover, the fact that you’ve set aside time to for [sic] personal education shows that you have a positive attitude towards learning, which is always a plus.
Higher education was originally taught in cathedral schools by clergy. For almost a thousand years, higher education had a predominantly theological bent, even as it left the cathedral grounds. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, the universities gradually became more humanist, scientific, secular, eventually creating the system that exists today and breaking with the religious underpinnings of the medieval institutions.
The new university replaces the real cathedral with an educational bazaar. The open source movement by which these institutions of higher education are opening up represents a further break with the cathedral, peeling away the hierarchical vestiges of the past few centuries. Eventually, these new universities will provide all four of the justifications Eric Raymond offers for open source development: “better quality, higher reliability, lower costs, and increased choice.”
And more importantly, they are fast becoming an instrument for advancing individual freedom and an open society.
I am familiar with the Cathedral and the Bazaar. But there wouldn’t have been any basis for Linux and open source if no one had ever learned and applied the concepts of structure and standards. I am not a developer, but I have had occasion to track issues through Bugzilla. It is incredibly rigorous and detail-oriented. “Subversive” is hardly how I would describe it! Yes, I realize that it wasn’t your phrase, it was Eric Raymond’s.
I am not convinced that Coursera and edX are heading in the right direction. The Open universities, the university you mentioned, and another, in England, are better for most people, in my opinion. They are accredited. They are REAL schools, with professors and course assignments, and standards that are meaningful over time and distance. I realize that some people, in areas of the world where there are not Open universities, or the equivalent of U.S. community colleges, will benefit greatly from online education, particularly if it remains free. (Although I’m not certain how Coursera WILL remain free: someone needs to pay for servers, electricity, Professor Ng and Professor Koller’s time.)
Here’s an article in the Communications of the ACM (July 2012) about the subject:
and another from Yahoo! News:
Thank you for your fine post. I enjoyed reading it, and learned additional facts about online higher education that were not covered by the ACM, nor by Yahoo! News (though both were good articles).
@Ellie, thank you for taking the time to reply. I apologize for not responding sooner. Anyway, you make some good points, so I’ll try to tackle them one by one.
The open source movement relies on structure and standards in many things, such as how to structure code, what makes for beautiful code, and how to test code. Not everybody agrees on these and many other issues, but it is an evolving debate in the somewhat chaotic bazaar whose central purpose is to establish consensus. In fact, the movement not only depends on structure and standards, but – for the most part – on an open process in which those structure and standards are established.
Subversion does not belie structure and standards. Subversive movements are famous for tight chains of command and rigorous ideologies. The open source movement is an economically disruptive movement that identifies itself as a bastion of liberty for ideas and code alike.
As for Coursera and edX, you are absolutely correct. Today, accreditation is of supreme importance. My point however was a bit different. I believe that these new online universities are actually devaluing accreditation. I believe accreditation is a kind of dyke holding back the waters of knowledge. Coursera and its ilk currently represent little more than a tiny leak, but will eventually break the wall down completely. Daniel Reed mentions this as a possibility in the Communications of the ACM article that you referenced. I would suggest that demonstration of competency on the job (or in the hiring process) may serve to replace formal accreditation.
You’re also right about the financial model. It’s unclear whether these new endeavors are sustainable. I hope they are and I believe they are on the right track. But my personal gut feeling is that even if the current attempts fail, the spirit of innovation and freedom that suffuses them will not, just as failures in open source usually contribute to a healthier movement overall. The market will say its piece.
Another point that favors these endeavors is that they have the support (and some financial backing) from the traditional universities themselves, which should somewhat allay Daniel Reed’s legitimate concerns. Perhaps one way to see it is as a change from within the university system, contrary to most of the previous attempts that I’m aware of.