This Open-Source Digital Tools for Teaching website, created by the Center for Teaching and Learning at Baruch College, offers faculty and staff across CUNY an opportunity to discover and develop skills with open source technologies that will build engagement among students and faculty in and out of the classroom space.
What does “open source” mean?
The term open source refers to software code that can be inspected, used, modified and shared by anyone. It is designed to be publicly accessible. Open source projects, products, or initiatives embrace and celebrate a broad set of principles; open exchange, collaborative participation, transparency, meritocracy, and community-oriented development.
Open-source digital tools are:
- Free to use, study, change, and distribute without limits. That’s a big difference—practically and ethically—from the way that most proprietary software engages in with users. On paid, freemium, or otherwise ad-based or data-extracting proprietary platforms, users often sign long agreements (has anyone read a whole one?) that turn over the rights to the work they create to the software provider. With open-source tools, you’ll have total control over what you do with your work, including the usage rights you assign to it.
- Available to anyone for any purpose. Open-source platforms distribute their software AND their source codes freely, without the need for payment or institutional licensing to access their tools—and with the ability to take the code itself and create new things! Useful for everyone, from the explorative first-time user to the seasoned software developer.
- Meant to encourage public scholarship. Public scholarship is research-based work intended for audiences beyond the university. Public scholarship bridges the gap between scholarly expertise and the public’s desire to better understand current events.
- Assist create shareable cultural goods. Open source tools are created to help scholars, teachers, and learners contribute openly shareable cultural goods (books, magazines, multimedia products, software, recordings, films, videos, audio-visual programs, crafts, fashion) and include open educational resources (OER) and open pedagogy.
Why use open-source digital tools in your teaching?
- They are not proprietary.
- They break down barriers. Teaching with open-source tools, and a critical eye to open licenses and open educational resource (OER) practices, helps to facilitate a culture of publicly accessible knowledge and brings individuals into spaces often otherwise in the grip of expensive proprietary software companies.
- They often emerge from academic or journalistic contexts. That means that concerns of simplicity, versatility, and collaboration are often at the front of open-source initiatives. These tools may emerge from spaces like grant- or university-funded public-facing projects and reflect those values, versus the economy of data mining and targeted advertising of proprietary entities.
- They afford opportunities for customization.While many tools are usable as-is, because the code of an open-source tool is often freely available and editable, there are opportunities to individualize its use. That might be something as small as a design change in HTML or CSS, or entire program-level integrations or changes to the software. Free-to-use among open-source tools often means free-to-adapt—and improve!
- Their development is driven by a community of users. Open source software is created and tested by a worldwide network of users, resulting in a large open-source support and how-to community.
- Digital tools matter to our students. The majority of Baruch students who answered a recent Student Experience survey cited “workshops on digital tools/platforms” as highly requested resources for preparing to learn in online/hybrid learning modes (Baruch Center for Teaching and Learning, 2022).
- Students can develop critical thinking skills. Digital tools can create spaces for students to synthesize ideas, evaluate sources, and consider effective multimodal ways to reach audiences.
- Interactive resources can promote student engagement. Faculty can use digital tools to reimagine course content that would have otherwise been presented as more static lectures or writing.
- Customizability. Because open-source tools aren’t locked down under proprietary use restrictions, users can often take and remix the code on the so-called “back end,” if desired to create and customize new features. These customizations can then be shared with the larger community of users if desired.
- Practical Skill Development. Students can gain transferable, practical skills while working with open education digital tools, which is shown to enhance course content learning and mastery.
- Addresses the “Digital Divide”. Additionally, many open source materials and products are created with broad internet accessibility and the widening “digital divide” in mind. For example a strong WiFi signal is not required to use and work with open tools, and often the tool is accessible to users through mobile devices. Some exceptions exist for some tools managed by edu institutions (e.g. Manifold), however, by and large, open source tool developers create products that aim to narrow the growing digital divide.
- Robust Support Communities. Get and offer support from large open-source communities of practice. Many open source software products are built with community driven support at the forefront. This means you will often find support forums, helpdesk solutions, and robust documentation of know issues, workarounds, and troubleshooting solutions for a given tool.
- Forever Access. Usually, open source software allows you to keep access to the product, and what you create, indefinitely. This means that open source tools usually have no firewall and do not require an institutional login or subscription to use and create with it.
- Possible Reduced Support Over Time. For some tools support and maintenance may become spotty over time. If dependent on institutional funding or personal resources, the tool may be slow to upgrade–or even die at the hands of institutional neglect due to lack of funding or time resources.
- Can Appear Less Flashier. The software interfaces of paid, “freemium”, and ad-supported tools and content may appear more “flashy” than those of open source software endeavors. Paid tools heavily market “premium” dressings and trappings (usually for an additional fee). As a result, open source tools may appear less robust out of the box, or require more work on the user end to achieve a more “polished” look.
- Accessibility Concerns. Some open source tools may not be up to current accessibility standards or accessibility best practices. The specificities depend on the tool and its use. Other concerns that fall under the accessibility umbrella are that sometimes the learning curve can be steep for new users, and that self-hosting on your own server or cloud service may be required to use some tools. This is a concern with some paid software as well.
- Security and privacy concerns. Open source software is widely believed to be more secure than proprietary software, but open source security risks still exist and need to be managed. When using software built on or including open source code, it’s important to check to make sure that an active community of users exists and, ideally, that the finished software has also undergone an independent security audit where the code is thoroughly checked and tested to find and fix any security or privacy vulnerabilities. Any developer who has taken these security steps will be transparent about their process.