During another power cut in a poor area of Brazil, a mechanic sat in the dark and wondered how he could light up his house without electricity. He came up with the idea of pouring bleach and water into a two-litre plastic bottle, which refracted sunlight through a hole in the roof and lit up his house during the day.
Alfredo Moser’s invention has provided a simple lighting solution to millions of people who live in off-grid areas around the world. Others have since improved on his design, by attaching solar panels so that it can also provide light at night-time.
This is a real-world example of the value and beauty of open source design, more commonly spoken about in the context of software development.
Designers, inventors and engineers put their ideas out into the world in the hopes that they will inspire others to improve on their designs and create something that we can’t live without. Open source collaboration works so well because the community is committed to making every iteration better and more secure than the last. They take pride in what they do and work together to produce high-quality solutions.
They’ve gotten it right in the software space
A few years ago, proprietary business and creative software was prohibitively expensive for many people. But the unstoppable rise of the open source movement has democratised software and information to the point where – no matter what type of software you need – it’s likely you’ll find a free, high quality and substantially cheaper alternative to the top-of-the-range, paid-for options.
Even enterprises are increasingly putting their trust in open source software, like Apache, Linux and MySQL, and the big guys, like Microsoft, are releasing a lot of their source code to open source platforms.
Many of us don’t actually realise how much open source software we use every day – or the impact these solutions have had on our lives. If you watch videos through VLC Media Player, you’re using open source software. If you use Mozilla as an email or web browsing client, you’re using open source software. If you use GIMP to edit images or Drupal to build websites – you get the point.
Now imagine the impact of equally high quality education software in the lives of children in rural or under-resourced areas. Imagine the difference in learning outcomes between children studying out of outdated, dog-eared textbooks, versus engaging with world-class, interactive and relevant digital content that immerses learners in topics that excite them, rather than imposing structured, predetermined and – let’s face it – boring curricula on them just because that’s the way it’s always been done.
A new, effective approach to STEM
This is how we’ll get children interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) – effortlessly and effectively. Not by lowering pass rates or making these subjects optional in schools. The truth is, if we keep teaching STEM subjects the way we always have, children will never be excited about them. But let them tinker around with IoT and the free resources on sites like Wyliodrin Studio, or encourage them to contribute to the open source projects on Village Science, and watch a love of STEM develop naturally.
When we remove the barriers to e-learning; when we let children do what they love to do – tinker with gadgets, learn through games, share ideas with friends – they’ll become interested in STEM without us even trying.
And the onus is no longer on teachers to be subject matter experts. With e-learning, teachers become facilitators of the learning process, helping children to find their passions and encouraging them to delve deeper, to teach themselves a new skill, to learn how to make something with their hands. That’s probably the best definition of teaching there is.
In this context, learning becomes addictive because there are no boundaries, no mandated content; just free access to a world of knowledge. Imagine the impact of that. Imagine what happens when we give children the opportunity to become the next generation of open source coders, tinkerers and collaborators on the next world-impacting or life-changing invention.
Low-cost computing solutions like the Raspberry Pi* make it more affordable than ever to set up computer labs in schools. By simply plugging in a monitor and keyboard, you instantly have a fully working computer on which children can learn programming to build anything they want.
The debate around STEM needs to change from how to get children interested (because they already are) to how to facilitate the deployment of these software and hardware solutions in schools.
Connectivity is still the biggest stumbling block. While e-learning can certainly be delivered without connectivity – through preloaded content – learning truly comes alive when children are able to define their own learning journeys and access the tomes of free content that will help them to shape their ideas.
Connectivity is maturing in the country, with the roll-out of fibre-to-the-home and the government’s drive to bring down data costs. This is where we should be placing our attention in the STEM debate: to get more people online in support of the idea that connectivity is a basic human right.
Everything else is semantics: software is free, hardware is affordable, the interest is there. Open source software has revolutionised every other aspect of our lives and businesses, yet it’s only trickling into the education system, where it arguably should be implemented with the most fervour because our children will be the next innovators, tinkerers and world-changers. It’s our responsibility to give them the tools and information that will open their minds and spark their creativity.