Tag Archives: open


I’ve written many times about the wonderfulness that is open source and free software. Going along with it is free culture and open sharing. It’s a beautiful thing when people give freely, expecting nothing in return but allowing others to use their work and build on it.

This past month I’ve been building some materials for our Middle School classes to use in Digital Citizenship lessons. I’ve published them within the school and I’m prepping them for proper publishing to the whole community. I could not have done this without other people sharing their work freely and generously.

A resource that I have used heavily in this is Pixabay, one of my favorite photo-sharing sites. It houses lots of gorgeous photographs as well as carefully-crafted clip art …and all of it is free, with no strings attached. All the images are licensed CC0 or public domain. That means anyone (me!) can download the images and use them to create new things without worrying about accreditation or needing to cite sources. (I always do for school work and often do on this blog.)

flowers-945450_640It is wonderful that people take beautiful photographs and then offer them completely free, with no strings attached. That act of sharing in and of itself is a beautiful thing.

I’m proud to say that I’ve contributed some of my own work to the site and that some of my few offerings have been downloaded, liked and (I presume) used. I’m happy if someone finds my photographs worthwhile or helpful …and I get a great feeling that I’m sharing and helping others.

If you haven’t used Pixabay, go check it out. If you like the free photographs that people share on it, give them some thanks. And then share something of your own!

Credits: the gorgeous image of the aurora borealis is from janeb13. The hands holding flowers are from the always terrific Unsplash. Freely licensed. Thanks!

Sharing a good read

by Joy Ito - CC-BY
Cory Doctorow by Joi Ito CC-BY

Reading books is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Losing yourself in a story and coming out with a sense of joy and wonder is fantastic. If you can learn something along the way it’s even better. (I love reading nonfiction, so if fiction can teach me something I’m really grateful.)

An author who brings me much happiness and satisfaction is Cory Doctorow. I find his books (both fiction and nonfiction) thoroughly enjoyable as well as rewarding. What’s more, I greatly admire how he markets and distributes his work.


The most important thing about any book is, “is it any good?” If it’s not an enjoyable read, then whatever it says doesn’t matter at all. I thoroughly enjoy Doctorow’s writing and find it gripping and engaging. I really can’t put his books down: once I get stuck into a story, I want to keep reading and find out what happens next.

I was sick of cars driving right past me. The next time a car appeared down Market Street, I stepped right out into the road, waving my arms over my head, shouting “STOP.” The car slewed to a stop and only then did I notice that it wasn’t a cop car, ambulance or fire-engine.

It was a military-looking Jeep, like an armored Hummer, only it didn’t have any military insignia on it. The car skidded to a stop just in front of me, and I jumped back and lost my balance and ended up on the road. I felt the doors open near me, and then saw a confusion of booted feet moving close by. I looked up and saw a bunch of military-looking guys in coveralls, holding big, bulky rifles and wearing hooded gas masks with tinted face-plates.

I barely had time to register them before those rifles were pointed at me. (Little Brother)

I’m a fan, but I’m not a fool. I realize that his style wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. My wife would not enjoy his work. (Fair enough. Much of what she reads doesn’t appeal to me either!) You might not either. There’s really only one way to find out: pick up a book and try it out.

For me, any writer who describes a character as a “sucking chest wound of a human being” is well worth reading.


Besides my admiration for the man being able to create terrific literature, I also love the theme of creating that runs through his books. Many of his main characters are artists or creative types, building or making or composing. He’s got one book, Makers, that’s all about the creation process but his other books abound with movie makers , programmers, and more.

Apart from making his books more fascinating, the different takes on the creative process also makes creativity more real and more reachable. Doctorow writes many books for teens. By making his protagonists artists and creators, he encourages his readers to do the same.

That idea came from me. I created it. It wasn’t lying around, waiting to be picked up like a bunch of pebbles on the beach. It was something that didn’t exist until I made it, and probably wouldn’t have existed unless I did. That’s what ‘to create’ means: to make something new. (Pirate Cinema)

If just one teenager reads one of Doctorow’s books and decides that her own creative impulses are worth pursuing and makes something new and original, I’d say that he has achieved real success.


Doctorow goes into a lot of interesting and thought-provoking ideas in his books, and he explains them well. I’ve used this section from Little Brother in my programming classes to get students excited about the thrill of building programs:

If you’ve never programmed a computer, you should. There’s nothing like it in the whole world. When you program a computer, it does exactly what you tell it to do. It’s like designing a machine – any machine, like a car, like a faucet, like a gas-hinge for a door – using math and instructions. It’s awesome in the truest sense: it can fill you with awe.

Whether it’s creating programs, editing videos, using 3D printers, encrypting email, hacking security systems …or cold-brewing coffee, taking over abandoned buildings, finding free gourmet food, or any number of other interesting and fascinating real-life tasks, Doctorow’s books always leave me knowing more and wanting to try new things.


What really sets Doctorow apart from other good writers is how he distributes his books. He gives them away for free.

Yes. That’s correct: he gives them away for free. All his books are licensed with a Creative Commons license that retains his rights as author but gives permission for you (and me!) to download his books for free and share them with friends. He recognizes the reality of today’s internet-fueled sharing economy:

I can’t stop you from copying this book (even if I wanted to). I can’t force you to buy it in order to read it (even if I wanted to). All I can do is ask you to consider purchasing it if you enjoyed it. (Pirate Cinema)

To make a living from his writing, he encourages …no, he exhorts the reader to purchase a copy of the book. All his ebooks have “commercial interludes” between chapters with links to online bookstores and calls to buy a copy. (Sometimes – particularly in Pirate Cinema – these commercials are enjoyable enough to read in their own right.) He also encourages people to buy and donate copies of the books for people (usually teachers and librarians) who lack the budget to buy a copy of the book themselves.

These are effective commercial techniques. I’ve bought many copies of his books for others …and if you look at his “donate” pages, there are plenty of people out there like me.

Anyway, time to stop reading my thoughts about Doctorow. Go read one one of his books.


Not a cloud in sight

While it is true that you can’t take the sky from me, it’s also true that sometimes those skies are so blue that there’s no cloud. You can see forever – up to the moon and back.

We’ve had some blue skies recently in Addis …as all clouds went away when our internet connection disappeared. Something went wrong with the telecom’s router and the connection shut down for a little under 24 hours.

It was frustrating in school, not having access to the internet. Research had to be put on hold, news wasn’t available, etc. Our mail server had a different connection, so email came in and out …but web-based mail was offline.

But business went on as usual. Students collaborated, did work, uploaded their assignments to their teachers, etc. We use locally-hosted services for all our mission-critical tasks: email & collaboration, our virtual learning environment, e-portfolios, attendance and reporting, etc. We were more limited in what we can do with technology, but we weren’t stopped dead in our tracks.

That’s why we don’t rely on software-as-a-service systems. Sure, Google Apps for Education have some fantastic features, but when your connection goes down those features are worthless. That’s why we’re testing out our locally-hosted OwnCloud system.

And while it may be true that Ethiopia has more frequent connectivity losses than the US or European countries, I do know that connectivity can be a problem anywhere. Try running your Chromebook in rural USA. And even giants like Google or Amazon have periodic outages.

Besides, there are plenty of high-powered tasks that people can do using technology without being connected to the internet: edit a video, graph data, build a presentation, design graphics, write a program, etc. …and let’s not forget that communication and collaboration can happen amongst people sitting in the same room. And if you want to reach out further, try another classroom in a different grade. There are plenty of non-tech 21st century learning opportunities!

At the end of the day, it all boils down to perspective. A loss in connectivity could be a disaster. Or it could be an opportunity. At worst, it might just be a minor inconvenience, forcing to you to focus on something you weren’t intending. It all boils down to how you deal with unexpected occurrences and how resilient you are.

And isn’t that a perfect 21st century skill to cultivate?


I wrote the above around 5 p.m. today. Now, around 10p.m. I see this tweet:


Use me!

As part of a project-based learning week for our grade 9 students, I gave a presentation on copyright, Creative Commons and remixing work. I put together a few resources for the students, gave them a talk and sent them forth. (Based on the number and kinds of questions I got from many of them, they heard!)

I also wanted some posters to hang around school to remind students to look for things that they had permission to use. I found several explaining what the different types of licenses were like (including this very good infographic by Shihaam Donelly), but what I really wanted was something interesting and exciting that tells the students that they can use CC-licensed work. (One of the things I love about Creative Commons licenses is that they are permissive – just as I like rules about what students can do and not lists of “don’t”s.)

So I made one. I used Inkscape (I am really getting to love that program!) and got some advice from our Yearbook teacher about graphic design and put together a poster in about an hour. Here it is:

I’ve added a CC-BY license …if you’d like to use it, please do! You already have permission.

Want a PDF? Click here to download. 

Why I use free/open source software

In my job – and in my life – I use open source software. I advocate for it. I defend it. I promote it. Sometimes I win converts. Sometimes I lose battles. But I will keep on using and promoting it.

I wasn’t always that way. I used Apple hardware and software for years. I liked Macintosh computers – I liked their simplicity, their ease of use. I liked their sleek design. I still do. I still use them. There’s something beautiful about the way they’re put together.

But I’ve been converted to the open source/free software movement and am a firm believer in the benefit of openness and freedom. I recognize the warts (geez, some of this stuff is butt-ugly!) but I am willing to put up with the negatives of free/libre/open source software for some very real reasons.

Freedom means choices

The opposite of 'open' isn't closed. The opposite is 'broken' @cgreen @wilbanks #oercongress #oer
Opposite of ‘open’ is ‘broken’CC-BY-SARon Mader

When I use Macintosh software or an Apple device, my choices are limited. They’re limited by what the folks at Apple decided I should do. They often build options in – there are some settings I change in how things work – and I can use different software – I use Firefox on my Mac – but in the end they make decisions and I have to go along with it. Sure, there are limitations even on open software, but those are simply limitations of coding, not necessarily decisions made. Apple does not want me to pull music from my iPod to my Macintosh …so I am limited by that. Apple doesn’t want me to have to deal with the files in iPhoto, so it’s all saved in a database. I have to live with that. (And cope with the loss of dozens of holiday photos when I maxed out my database!) I can find ways around many of these restrictions, but it feels like I’m living in a prison (or a “walled garden” if you prefer) and have to resort to subterfuge to do what I really want.

Open isn’t easy

This may be counter-intuitive but it’s something I’m growing to appreciate more. When I advocate open software, many times I hear from people, “It’s too hard to learn.” or  “It takes too much time.” etc.

jona3 – Pixabay – CC0

Think about it: what’s hard in life? Becoming successful. Making your marriage work. Raising a child. Learning new skills. Cooking an elegant meal. Convincing someone of your viewpoint. Nearly every good and valuable thing in life is hard.

Things that are easy in life are often not valuable or good for you. It’s easy to slob out and watch television all day. It’s easy to go grab a bag of fast food. It’s easy to throw the trash out your car window. It’s easy to do a Google search for an image and copy & paste it into your blog without considering the license or copyright.

If you want something good, if you want something that means something to you, you have to put some work into it.


Openness means forever. I have a bunch of files that are .cwk …remember ClarisWorks? AppleWorks? Those were decent programs… but they are no more. What can open those files now? We still have AppleWorks groaning along on our iMac. One day that won’t even open. And then the data in those files ….gone forever.

Meanwhile, any .odt file will be able to be opened forever. Because open source and open standards means anyone can and will use it.

Openness and Freedom Encourages Tinkering

tinkering – photo by me

This is a vital reason for me, working in a school. As students come to use open software, they are encouraged to tinker. Want to change something? You can! You just need to learn how.

And this is an important skill for our students to learn. They are growing up in a world of computers: of hardware and software. They should know how these things work. They should know what goes into making software. They should be able to figure out how the hardware is put together.

When Apple glues its laptop batteries in, when it hides the screws on its phones, when it purposefully designs the devices to prevent a user from experimenting, tinkering, etc. then it is restricting not only our freedom as users but our opportunity for really understanding the device. It’s as if it’s all a secret that’s only available to a select elite. (And how can you become one of the elite?)

Coping with Unknown Unknowns

This one came at me today as I was advocating for open software. As you use something, you know its uses and know what you need it to do. (Known knows.) There will be new things that you can anticipate you may need it to do later. (Known unknowns.) But somewhere down the line you may need the software to do something that you can’t anticipate. (Unknown unknowns.)

At that point, having open software will become invaluable. If you need the software to do something new, you will be OK if it’s open. Either you can make it function properly by tweaking the software or building some new component, or you can find someone to do that for you.

If the software is closed, you will be dependent on the company that makes it. They may do it for you. They may not.

While this may not be important for you as you choose a web browser or a photo editor …or at least it may not seem important… it certainly will become vital if it’s a complex system you’re using to run your payroll or document management or whatever.

Need more?

There are plenty of other reasons, big and small: ability to share, avoiding licensing issues, cost, transferability, cross-platform compatibility, etc. Here are some other reasons: from the Free Software Foundation, from Saigon South International School, from a technology company, and the UK Government. If you have your own reasons, please leave it in the comments.


Best online maps? Surprise!

Want to find a place online? Want to see a map? Where do you go? Google’s maps, right?

Guess what? It’s not the best – at least not for Addis!

Take a look at these two maps:

Which one looks better? Which one has more detail? The top one is from Google Maps while the bottom one is from OpenStreetMaps.org

What’s OpenStreetMap?, you might say. It might not be as famous as Google’s work, but it’s well worth a look. OpenStreetMap is an open and freely accessible collection of map data that anyone can contribute to. Consider it a “Wikipedia” for mapping. As such, it has a wealth of information about all kinds of places. Certainly there is more detail about Addis Ababa than on the Google map.

Don’t take my word for it: the Guardian has written about it for quite some time. Here’s an article from a year ago comparing the two services in various places.

One of the greatest things about OpenStreetMap is that it is completely editable. Go ahead, give it a try! It’s not hard. (Do you see the new location of Aba Guben on the OSM screenshot above? That was me!) Plenty of people in Addis are adding data – and the more who do, the better the maps will get.

Google has recently launched its MapMaker service – so you can add to a Google Map as well. It’s not hard either, but there are some differences. Probably the biggest difference is that the changes you make to Google Maps are owned by Google. You’re doing their work for them. OpenStreetMaps data is all freely licensed – if you want to use their data, you are allowed. This may not mean much to individuals, but for businesses with high-volume websites, they have to pay (and pay quite a bit) to use Google’s maps. They can freely use OpenStreetMaps. Again, don’t take my word: here’s one map-contributor’s comparison of the two services.

So go ahead: use OpenStreetMap. Add your favorite places to it. Show off Addis! (If you want more guidance, here is a good place to start.)

Seeing is stealing

photo by me – go ahead and take it!

A colleague asked me to find out about a photograph she found on the internet. It was a photo of the word “teach” spelled out in blocks, with a wooden heart pendant inserted into the word. (Think “teaching with heart.”) She liked the photo and wanted to know if she could use it.

I did an image search for the photo (Google’s image search was more useful than TinEye in this case) and found a number of sites that were using the image. Most of them had it unattributed, but one cited the photographer and the source of the image.

The photograph is on Flickr: it’s a photograph by Susana (susivinh), who has a large collection of excellent photographs. The “teach” photograph is licensed by Getty Images – you can use it, but you have to pay for it.

I wrote to Susana – she was very happy to answer my questions about the photo. She can’t override the Getty license, but she’s made a lot of her other photos available with a CC-BY-ND license. (Do check them out – they’re beautiful.) She’s a little disappointed that people are using her work without permission and without license. (She told me that nobody has paid to license that image.)

The funny sad thing is that Susana’s photo is used by a number of teachers as part of their blog/portfolio …and they’re violating the photo’s licensing terms. They’ve stolen it.

Teachers: we have to set an example for our students. Every school has an “Academic Honesty” policy …it needs to apply to teachers as well as students. We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to our students to do the right thing. There are plenty of sources of freely licensed material (I’ve written about some before) – teachers should seek those out and use them.

Any beautiful photograph you find on the web was created by a human being. Even if she is not a professional photographer, she bought her camera and lenses, and she has spent time in thinking up and composing the photograph. If you want to use it, you owe it to her to at least get her permission if not pay her for her time and creativity.

(The photo on this post was taken by me. Go ahead and steal it. You have my permission.)

A picture is worth 1000 words – even if it’s free

Today I read an article about the importance of using images in a classroom. I also have been doing some work with various teachers on finding Creative Commons-licensed work for reuse. As this is Open Education Week, I thought it timely to post something about a few tools I use and find helpful.

Note: I’ve also seen a list of tips that stresses that students should be creating their own images instead of using others. I agree completely – and am working on some photography lessons for students and teachers (not by me!), but it’s still important to find others’ work.

So, here are three tools that I find useful for finding pictures that can be reused (plus a couple of extras):

Creative Commons Search

Creative Commons allows you to search a variety of sources of images (Flickr, Europeana, Fotopedia, Google images, etc.) as well as search repositories of music and other media.


This search engine allows you to search through Flickr‘s images, including choosing Creative Commons licenses. The very useful thing about this search engine is that it gives you quick access to downloading the image and a copy & pasteable HTML snippet to insert an image and give credit.

Here’s an example of pasted credit (copied from above): Photo Credit: babasteve via Compfight cc


Pixabay has a large and growing database of beautiful photographs in the public domain.

CC0All images are licensed CC0 – the Creative Commons public domain license.

Here are a few other sites I regularly use:

  • Wikimedia Commons – searchable through Creative Commons’ Search (above), but well worth listing as a source of photos and more
  • Open Clip Art – not photographs, but vector clip art, all licensed CC0

A MOOC more Open than Massive

I’ve just completed a MOOC on programming with Python called “Python for Informatics.” It was created and taught by Dr. Chuck (Charles Severance), on a platform that he built.

This was the second course I’d taken with Dr. Chuck: I’d also taken his Coursera class, “Internet History, Technology, and Security.” That was a very interesting and engaging course, and I found it very worthwhile. It was definitely a massively open course! Here are his statistics: ” Over 49,000 students registered for the free class, over 16,000 attended the first week’s lecture and over 4900 students earned a certificate at the end of the 10-week course.” (I was one of the 10% who completed it. 🙂 )

When I heard Dr. Chuck was creating his own platform, I was intrigued. I wanted to see what he was doing and was interested to see how he put it all together. As I am interested in Python and am still quite new to the language, I was keen to take the course and willing to put in the time to complete it.

I joined in a little late, but made the deadline to register for the course. (He has an open enrollment “Python Playground” if you’d like to try it out.) I started, stuck to the assignments and completed all the assignments. (No certificate for this one. Just the satisfaction of completion.)

There were a number of things that impressed me about the course, but two things immediately jumped out at me:

1) The Size (the “M” in MOOC means “Massive“)

Dr. Chuck’s course has around 800 students enrolled. Compare that to the 49,000 in his Coursera course. (Or even compared to the 4,900 who completed it.) While that truly is Massive compared to any face-to-face university course, it certainly does not compare to the size of other online MOOCs. I’m concurrently enrolled – and thoroughly enjoying – MIT’s Learning Creative Learning, which has around 24,000 officially “enrolled” and many others who didn’t register in time but are following along.

Immediately, this got my attention and appealed. In the courses with umpteen-thousand participants, I’ve found it very hard to focus and identify with others. Joining a smaller, less massive, MOOC seemed much more manageable. It certainly allowed for more personal connections – and that really is key in any learning experience. (The MIT course has divided up participants in groups – both assigned and self-managed. That has made it a very valuable experience – I’m in a group with several colleagues and we can collaborate online or in person.)

2) The Licensing (the first “O” in MOOC means “Open“)

Dr. Chuck really believes in openness. He clearly says:

If you are a teacher and interested in reusing my materials, this is my plan:

  • My textbook is Creative Commmons Share Alike
  • All my lecture slides will be Creative Commons
  • All of my recorded videos will be up on YouTube and you can use them any way you like.

In one of his video lectures, he simply states: “I want to make more teachers! Use my stuff!”

Personally, I find this incredibly inspiring. Here’s a busy teacher embarking on a huge undertaking who makes it openly available and remixable. Rather than gain, he is truly focused on expanding people’s knowledge all around the world. This is really what “open” SHOULD mean in a MOOC: not just open for enrollment, but open for reuse.

Yes, I know there are differences of opinion. There are those who say that only some can afford to do this – those universities or professors who are secure in their positions and paychecks. It is possible that more open sharing of this sort will make it difficult for professors & teachers to get hired and for universities to fund R&D. I’m not ready to grapple with this issue at this time …but hope to at another date.

So, thanks to Dr. Chuck I now have some great resources I can use in having my own students learn Python. I also am inspired to put more of my own work out there with open licenses.

I’ve also learned a lot and have a lot to think about – not only related to the Python language, but also to course structure, incentives, pedagogy and more. It really was a fascinating class and I’m so glad I took it.