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Open Source Segregation

Pennsylvania high school discriminates against student attempting to use open source browser for classroom assignment. Hairspray meets Firefox!

Tracy and Seaweed dance together
Tracy and Seaweed shake it up New Line Cinema

In the movie Hairspray (2007), Tracy Turnblad gets sent to detention for "inappropriate hair height". But instead of being a punishment, her pink slip is a ticket to a higher education than her school is willing or able to teach, and an opportunity to enjoy the greatest freedom of all--the freedom to be herself and to follow her dreams. The currency rebels of today have moved from hair height to copyright, and the hottest ticket to detention is...Firefox. !!!w00t!!! Consider this facsimile of a letter supposedly sent from the Principal's office of Big Spring High School in Newville PA: (UPDATED)

The letter as redacted on the web and an excerpt so you don't have to click away:

Incident Description: Today in class XXX had a program launched called Foxfire.exe. I had told XXXX to close the program and to resume work but he told me that it was just a different browser and that he was doing his work. I had given him two warnings but he insisted that it was just a "better" browser and that he wasn't doing anything wrong. I had then issued his detention.

UPDATE: According to the school's principal, the letter that made it to the web had been altered, not merely redacted, and while they would not say how it was redacted, they did make it clear that no, they would not have sent this student to detention for merely using Firefox (or as the letter calls it, Foxfire). Nevertheless, dozens of other students commented that yes, it had happened to them: detention for using Firefox. Thus, the rest of the post addresses those previously undocumented events, and not specifically the Big Spring High School.

When a student chooses to run Firefox instead of Internet Explorer, what, really, do we expect our schools to teach? Should they teach curiosity or compliance? Should they teach inquiry or orthodoxy? Should they teach process or product? Should they teach freedom or control? And if you put any stake into what Wikipedia has to say about Microsoft's Internet Explorer security model and track record, you might ask whether they should encourage common sense or teach ignorance itself?

In Singapore schools have adopted a new policy that's so radical only Socrates would understand it: Teach Less, Learn More. Charles Vest, the past President of MIT and current President of the National Academy of Engineering told me of this program after reviewing it first-hand. He told me that two years after it was launched, the success has been nothing short of revolutionary. As predicted by science, children really do learn more when they can engage the environment on their own terms, not terms dictated by the authority. In the words of Singapore's Minister of Education:

  • We should encourage more active and engaged learning in our students, and depend less on drill and practice and rote learning.
  • We should do more guiding, facilitating and modelling, to motivate students to take ownership of their own learning, and do less telling and teacher talk.
  • We should recognise and cater better to our students' differing interests, readiness and modes of learning, through various differentiated pedagogies, and do less of 'one-size-fits-all' instruction.
  • We should assess our students more qualitatively, through a wider variety of authentic means, over a period of time to help in their own learning and growth, and less quantitatively through one-off and summative examinations.
  • We should teach more to encourage a spirit of innovation and enterprise in our students, to nurture intellectual curiosity, passion, and courage to try new and untested routes, rather than to follow set formulae and standard answers.

I am greatly encouraged to see that Asia is taking seriously the challenges of the 21st century, which is to raise a generation of creative, engaged, life-long tlearners. And I am delighted to see that what we now know about how children learn and grow is finally being integrated into national educational programs, at least in Singapore. But why is this not more prevalently in America? Why is this story told by the altered letter true for so many who are in or have recently graduated from American high schools?

It's not that difficult, nor should it be all that new, to engage a student who choses to think and work differently. Imagine a student who dares, dares to open a Firefox browser in preference to Internet Explorer (or whatever the orthodoxy prescribes). If Socrates were in the classroom, he would have asked challenging questions, the answers to which would have enlightened either the student, the orthodoxy, or Socrates himself. But never can I recall a single time that Socrates concluded an argument by assigning his opponent two hours of detention.

What would Maria Montessori have done? She absolutely would have let the child choose his or her work, knowing that part of the Montessori method is preparing the child to clean up after themselves. The student who is enterprising enough to download an optional browser also learns to download patches, check for security updates, and ultimately decide for themselves what is the best browser for them. This is what we should be teaching our youth! And this is how we should be teaching them--to learn by making choices, not by blindly following the choices that have been made for them.

And yet school officials are being brainwashed by proprietary software companies into believing that copyright violations are so serious, so potentially devastating to a school's financial and legal standing, that the adminstration feels compelled to enforce strict policies against any behavior, legal or otherwise, that does not pass through the front office procurement system. Last month a massive education bill introduced into Congress basically coerces students and universities to become copyright cops. The idea that any use of certain internet technologies could cost universities all of their federal funding is the 21st century analogue of the idea that if "certain people" moved into the neighborhood, the values of all the properties sooner or later reach zero. Then, and now, it's a scare tactic used by those who wish to maintain the status quo against those of us who have higher hopes.

I hope that when XXXX went to detention she found a vibrant community of other open source hipsters ready to teach her the steps to software freedom. Anybody know how to get in touch with John Waters for a new movie idea? I have a working title: Bugspray. You can't stop the beat!