Academic journal article Informing Science: the International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline

Open Source: A Metaphor for E-Learning

Academic journal article Informing Science: the International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline

Open Source: A Metaphor for E-Learning

Article excerpt


Metaphors have proven to be a highly useful tool in the development of theories in the social sciences (Hartzell, 2004; Kendall & Kendall, 1993; Levassuer, 2004; Wang, 2004). At a minimum, they provide a convenient means by which to create a taxonomy; the first step towards description, then prediction and finally to understanding (Kerssens-van-Drongelen, 2001; Lewis & Grimes, 1999; Lynham, 2000).

At a practical level, metaphors become essential elements that comprise the everyday language among specialists (Cook-Sather, 2003). For example the statement, "The computer is down," indicates the functional or operational status of a computer (including its programs or software) as opposed to a spatial relationship or orientation. Those familiar with the jargon share this common understanding (Gozzi, 2000).

However such common understandings are the exception, not the rule. The term information superhighway as a metaphor for the Internet has been substantially replaced by cyberspace as a metaphor (Barta-Smith & Hathaway, 1999). But are they the same? And will cyberspace be replaced by yet another metaphor when wearable computers move from the realm of the exotic to the realm of mass-produced commodity?

These types of questions are of great practical import for educators. Widespread acceptance of online education (as a format of distance learning) has implications far beyond enrollment patterns. It signals underlying, significant changes in how a substantial number of institutions, educators, and their clientele perceive three key factors that essentially frame how online education is implemented: instructional practices (design and delivery), instructional platforms (educational technologies in the broadest sense) and instructional philosophies.

The paradigm shift is exemplified by the term e-learning (often used interchangeably with online education and distance learning). The confluence of web-based technologies; continued advances in digital storage; processing and media; and the ongoing boutique approach to software development are at the heart of e-learning. The confluence produces education and learning that become more ubiquitous and more engaging. What emerges is the proverbial "whole that exceeds the sum of its parts."

An adroit way to begin to comprehend the "whole" would be to use a proven approach in the social sciences: identifying an appropriate metaphor that promotes common understanding about e-learning. There is nothing revolutionary about such an effort. At the turn of the 20th Century theorists in educational administration adopted a mass production metaphor for public education and subsequently set in motion instructional practices, platforms, and philosophies that remain firmly entrenched today (Dever & Barta, 2001) although new paradigms using naturalistic models such as chaos theory and complexity theory are being considered (Evers & Lakomski, 2001).

So here at the turn of the 21st Century educators are presented with this thing known as e-learning where education is delivered online on a mass customized basis using various electronic media. e-learning is often touted as a means to reduce institutional expenses, increase institutional revenues, or both (Harvey, 2004; Moallem, 2004; Porter, 2003).

In addition, e-learning applications initiatives by higher education institutions are considering the open source software/product where the software/ product is freely available for delivering education online (Coppola & Neelley, 2004). Siemens (2003) suggests that the benefits of the open source model are increased quality, greater stability, superior performance, and improved functionality. Reduced vendor reliance, reusability, reduced costs, auditability (users validating security), reliability, and rapid fixes to bugs/problems are among other benefits open source model can offer.

Regardless of what is real about e-learning versus what is hype, there is a need to identify a metaphor that may be used to better understand e-learning (Kaplan, 2004; Terrio, 2002; Umbach, 2001). …

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