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Open Source Series - Blog Post 4: Open Source Education and the Control of Knowledge

Updated: Apr 1, 2021

Current Barriers in Education

Knowledge is invaluable. It allows people to understand the world around them, communicate with one another, and build new solutions. Education plays an especially vital role in the transfer of knowledge by facilitating the learning of new information which leads to an application of new skills.

The education system today, especially within the United States, sees a plethora of barriers that restrict a student's ability to access the right resources and acquire new knowledges. For example, low-income families are unable to put children through good schools due to the school district zoning of their homes. Nationally, high-poverty districts spend 15.6 percent less per student than low-poverty districts do, according to the U.S. Department of Education (Semuels, 2016). Moreover, while preparing for college, poorer families have a harder time getting their children ready for entrance exams or maintaining the correct GPA for class. Students who live in wealthier school districts typically attend better-funded schools which provide them with more AP classes and access to tutors (Hess, 2019). They also have the financial support to attend standardized test preparation classes that provide them to get higher admission scores. This is seen with students from families earning more than $200,000 a year receiving an average combined score of 1,714 on the 2400-scale SAT, while students from families earning under $20,000 a year average a combined score of 1,326 (Hess, 2019).

Lastly, the price of education has increased exponentially over the past two decades, demotivating a majority of students from acquiring piles of debt while attending a traditional 4-year college to earn a bachelors degree. Currently, the U.S. spends more on college than almost any other developed nation. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of (public and private) four-year institutions comes out to $26,120 per year. This brings the total cost of attendance to an astronomical total of $104,480 over four years. The comparable cost for the same four-year degree in 1989 was $26,902 ($52,892 adjusted for inflation). This means that between the academic years ending in 1989 and 2016, the cost for a four year degree doubled, even after inflation (Ripley, 2018).

Figure 1 - Tuition data from National Center for Education Statistics and inflation data calculated using 1963–1964 tuition and tuition increase at rate of inflation from CPI Inflation Calculator. Graph by Noa Maltzman.

With all of these barriers, education may not be an appealing source of knowledge that incentivizes some people to spend the time, money, and energy on earning certification. However, applying the open-source model in spreading education is a viable way to move past these barriers. Open education follows the philosophy that people should produce, share, and build on knowledge. By emphasizing equal access to quality educational experiences and resources, proponents of open education are able to iterate on lesson plans and informational material to deliver highly accurate and relevant knowledge to students. By delivering educational material on an open-source platform, organizations are able to better navigate through barriers including high monetary costs, outdated or obsolete materials, and legal mechanisms that prevent collaboration among scholars and educators.

The Value of Open Source Methods in Disseminating Knowledge

The value of knowledge can be defined as the usefulness or importance of verified true beliefs. Different types of people find certain types of knowledge valuable for the advancement of their own lives or of academia. The production of knowledge is essential to how people function in today’s society. In areas of knowledge like the natural sciences and the indigenous knowledge systems, individuals use these two bodies of knowledge to better understand physical processes or learn essential morals. Reason and language are key ways of knowing that are used in the production of scientific and indigenous knowledge, and individuals rely on them to solve problems in their lives. By looking at the natural sciences and indigenous knowledge systems, we can see that the production of knowledge is not always valued since it is sometimes one sided --- i.e. buying a word processing software from the licensing company, professor lectures a class, tutor assigns problem sets then leaves, etc.

Open education strongly emphasizes co-creation, quality learning, and high access. An open source knowledge base software can be used for a variety of learning outcomes of new knowledge. The end result acts as a self-service online repository of information, typically for a product, process, or any topics of interest shared by a group of students, a department of professors, a continually-improving organization, etc.

With a knowledge base in place, students can receive quick answers to their day-to-day queries without having the need for a subject matter expert to assist. Additionally, students may answer other students' questions through online forums or threads that allow for the instant exchange of knowledge. For example, Khan Academy does just this.

Khan Academy is exceptional at producing educational material. Our math, science, computer science, and art history are very good. Much of Khan Academy's material on the site is split into a tutorial format. This is where students can go through, watch videos, and do exercises in a very linear form. This is great for our math content, and you see many students at middle-school and grade-school level using this.

Applying open licenses to educational resources (podcasts, syllabi, images, lesson plans, lecture videos, etc.) allows educators to collaborate when building materials specifically differentiated for their students. For example, a biology teacher might acquire openly-licensed lab problems for his students, but re-write the lab exercises to include language that is more geographically specific or demographically relevant. As a result, he can share her modified problems with other biology teachers who may wish to use them. Khan Academy also leverages this characteristic of keeping their services open source by releasing content under a Creative Commons license (DeCausemaker, 2014). A Creative Commons license is one of several public copyright licenses that provides free licenses for creators to use when making their work available to the public. These licenses help the creator to give permission for others to distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon the work in advance under certain conditions (Creative Commons, 2017). This may include crediting the original owner for the original creation. This enables the maximum dissemination and use of licensed educational materials while also preserving credit for the original owner.

On the educator side, collaborating on Open Education Resources (OER)s allow educators to ensure consistency among their materials which can help reduce the inaccuracies and biases embedded in information. For example, by sharing OERs across open source platforms, public school teachers in the United States would be able to share information seamlessly and align their content toward government-mandated educational standards like the Common Core State Standards. This is evident in Illustrative Mathematics, a nonprofit organization where volunteer authors craft and deliver high-quality, problem-based core curricula and professional learning resources that help teachers and students excel in teaching and learning mathematics. Through a variety of these free resources available online, the educational content is designed to help educators understand and implement Common Core standards for mathematics.

Some educators also claim that OERs may help reduce costs associated with producing and distributing course materials in both primary and secondary educational institutions. With open source platforms, teachers can download educational materials at low unit costs for use in classrooms, but they can also update these materials and share their contributions with others, keeping content timely, relevant, and accurate. Doing this reduces the long wait time institutions have on orders for textbook companies to issue entirely new editions of their (traditionally copyrighted) learning materials.

Final Thoughts

With divide between rich and poor growing more than ever (Fadulu, 2019), it is important to realize its effects on future generation and their access to quality education. Applying the open source model makes sense for education since it allows students and teachers to both gain access to quality material efficiently, easing the way knowledge is transferred to one another. With educational content being made by thousands of industry experts and fellow students, the open source movement is really a collaborative one that enables accurate and relevant information to be delivered. Moreover, the ability to still get credit and disseminate your work across domains is a valuable incentive for many content creators.

The demands on higher education require a fundamental change in direction—and

technology can facilitate that change. But the present technology for teaching and learning

has not lived up to its potential. Open source will pave a new road—changing not only the

destination, but the journey, which is the real reward for education.


About The Licenses. (n.d.). Retrieved February 27, 2020, from

DeCausemaker, R. (n.d.). Hacking computer science education at Khan Academy. Retrieved February 27, 2020, from

Fadulu, L. (2019, September 10). Study Shows Income Gap Between Rich and Poor Keeps Growing, With Deadly Effects. Retrieved February 27, 2020, from

Hess, A. (2019, October 3). Rich students get better SAT scores-here's why. Retrieved February 27, 2020, from

Maltzman, N. (2018, January 22). Keeping up with Modern Society: Rising Cost of Higher Education. Retrieved February 27, 2020, from

Ripley, S. by A. (2018, September 21). Why Is College in America So Expensive? Retrieved February 27, 2020, from

Semuels, A. (2016, August 25). Good School, Rich School; Bad School, Poor School. Retrieved February 28, 2020, from

The Common Core FAQ. (2014, May 27). Retrieved February 27, 2020, from

What is open education? (n.d.). Retrieved February 27, 2020, from


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