Digital Citizenship thoughts (Part 3)

In my time as a small-time software developer and IT professional, I have a long-standing love for open source software. The term “open source” is often used as a replacement term for “free,” and indeed that is how I became aware of open source. I was just starting out, didn’t have much money, and wanted to use software; I learned that I could often find free software by searching for open source alternatives to popular commercial software packages.

It wasn’t until later that I became aware of the more important sense of free, open source software through the Richard Stallman’s concept of copyleft–“a general method for making a program (or other work) free (in the sense of freedom, not ‘zero price’), and requiring all modified and extended versions of the program to be free as well.”  It is not an exaggeration to say that this concept–perhaps more than any other–has revolutionized the software development world and had a significant influence in other realms as well.

Copyleft uses the structure of the copyright system (a license) to ensure that software can be freely used, studied, distributed, and adapted.  Works in the public domain can be adapted and then released as closed source; however, under copyleft, those modified versions have to remain open source under the terms of the license. If this sounds like to a Creative Commons Share-Alike license, that’s because Lessig based it on the work of Stallman and others in the Free Software Movement and provided a mechanism to apply the concept to other types of works. 

Open source software is incalculable in its effects–the chances are good that the device you are reading this on is built on an open source framework (this includes Chromebook, Android, iOS, macOS). This website, like the vast majority of websites, is hosted on a Linux-based server. It uses an open source content management system, WordPress, which is built using the open source language PHP and open source MySQL database. The ability for software developers to take existing code, take it apart, and then modify it to suit their (personal or commercial) needs is what has built so much of the technology we now enjoy and rely on.

It is this same approach that undergirds the “maker mindset”  and constructionism , which is why copyright and access to information are such an important part of learning in the 21st century. Intrusive controls to copyright such as digital rights management (DRM) threaten that by giving publishers more power to limit how content is used and disallowing them from studying and remixing content to better understand it.   

A proper use of copyright and digital citizenship gives great importance to the author’s ownership of their content and need for attribution but also allows for others to appreciate, learn from, and build on that work to create a more rich learning environment.


Scratch-ing the Itch to Program

scratch programming blocks photo
Photo by andresmh

I’m late to the party, I realize. I’ve seen the user- and kid-friendly programming blocks before. In fact, I’ve even used a version of them when learning to develop mobile apps. But what spurred me to introduce my kids to the Scratch platform was when I learned about the user community and that all projects are open-source and remixable.

My kids have–like most kids–been developing in Minecraft, so I was looking for a next step for them to extend those skills. Scratch is the perfect fit. They have complete creative freedom. My oldest’s first project is a lab building game, my younger son’s has growing and shrinking dragons and robots, and my daughter’s is a “beautiful ballerina.”

As I begin a class on significant learning environments, it’s helpful to see such a great example of one in action. It’s also a perfect encapsulation of the COVA model. Since they have complete creative control, they eagerly take ownership of learning the platform, use and develop their own voice, and create projects that are authentic to them.

COVA and Maker Mindset at Google

Brian Basgen of Emerson College sparked a great discussion on of one of my learning networks (Educause CIO Constituent Listserv) about what people are reading , and Luke Fernandez’s response really got me thinking. He recommended The History of Google from the Internet History Podcast , which is a terrific exploration of the origins and history of the internet behemoth Google. As I read it, I picked up on a lot of themes related to the maker mindset  and the COVA (choice, ownership, voice, authenticity) model .

Because Larry and Sergey were given choice in their authentic learning experiences, they took ownership of their ideas and created a company imbued with their unique voice. They are icons of the maker mindset and as a result were able to make an impact by building arguably the most influential internet company of all time.

Following are a few selected quotations from the article, but it’s well worth a full read (or listen):


Larry and Sergey both grew up to respect research, academic study, mathematics and, especially, computers. And it turned out they both had inquisitive minds that believed in the power of knowledge to overcome any obstacle, intellectual or practical. Each had been inculcated into this spirit of intellectual fearlessness at a young age.


“You can’t understand Google,” early Google employee Marissa Mayer has insisted, “unless you know that both Larry and Sergey were Montessori kids. It’s really ingrained in their personalities. To ask their own questions, do their own things. Do something because it makes sense, not because some authority figure told you. In a Montessori school, you go paint because you have something to express or you just want to do it that afternoon, not because the teacher said so. This is baked into how Larry and Sergey approach problems. They’re always asking, why should it be like that? It’s the way their brains were programmed early on.”


“It wasn’t that they [Page and Brin] sat down and said, ‘Let’s build the next great search engine,’” said Rajeev Motwani, who was Brin’s academic advisor. “They were trying to solve interesting problems and stumbled upon some neat ideas.”


Part of this was simple frugality, a habit that would serve them well when the dotcom bubble burst in a few short years. But a lot of it was Page and Brin’s ingrained Montessori philosophy: they never met an engineering problem they couldn’t solve themselves. Google didn’t take pages from the established Silicon Valley playbook because, in a way, they had never bought into it. They didn’t try to Get Big Fast. Instead, Page and Brin were almost manically focused on endlessly iterating and improving upon their Big Idea, making sure it was the most comprehensive, reliable and—most importantly—speedy search engine in the world.