Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Promoting Digital Equity with Web 2.0 and Open Source

Open Source and Web 2.0 - a two prong approach to digital equity!

Last January, I made a resolution to continue my focus on digital equity. As a person who sees opportunity everywhere I turn, I also try to pay attention to those who don't have access to the the same opportunity.

Although providing access to cool digital tools “at school” is one step to bridging the digital divide; teaching students how to access digital tools when they are OUTSIDE of school is yet another digital equity strategy. One way to do this is to teach them to use Web 2.0 tools that they will be able to access on a public computers and let them know which libraries, community centers, or other organizations provide high speed Internet access to them outside of school. To learn more about using Web 2.0 tools, check out past Infinite Thinking post, or Web 2.0 directories. Consider joining Wendy Drexler and Anna Baralt's TechWeb2 project and contribute to Web 2.0 evaluations by teachers for classroom use.

Web 2.0 not only brings us access to a wealth of learning materials including audio, images, video and other interactive media (often for free) through services like I-Tunes, Flicker, YouTube, and Voice Thread, it also brings us access to tools for increasing productivity, encouraging collaboration, and expressing creativity by offering Software as Service over the Web. Instead of having to choose which piece of software they can afford to purchase with their limited financial resources--
  • productivity software for word processing, spreadsheets, or presentations OR
  • an image manipulation program OR
  • visual organizer,

    students and teachers can now access a variety of tools over the Web (often for free) . Using Google Docs or Zoho as a productivity suite, Flauntr or Picnik as an image editor, Mindomo or Gliffy as a graphic organizer increases access to a rich variety of free digital tools. Using these tools in schools contributes to digital equity by introducing students to tools that they can also access from home or from a public computer. Photo Credit

But let's face it --some of our students live in areas where high speed Internet is not available; others live in households where it is cost prohibitive.

Another way to promote digital equity is to introduce students to free or open source software they can install on their home computer (even if they don't have high speed Internet). While it may be possible for a students to gain access to a donated or low cost computer for their home; the cost of commercial software or high speed Internet is often still out of reach. By including free and open source software in your school's digital toolbox, you promote digital equity in two ways. Not only can you burn a copy of the software on a CD for students to take home, but you also provide them with the skills to use that software when they get home. One day last year, I occurred to me that offering a student "free software" to take home, while we only used commercial products at school, sent a message that the software I gave them was substandard and might contribute to their own feeling of worth. When I started modeling use of opensource software by building assignments around it, I added value to the 'free disk" I sent home. The students felt it was worthy to be used and they KNEW how to use it.

Download the Free Software for Schools catalog at National Center for Open Source in Education or check out sites like for Windows specific versions of open source software.

Commercial Product

Web based

Open Source or Free

Benefits to
Promoting Digital Equity

Lots of other folks have it, so more support is available from other users and company

Compatible file types to more people.

Uually Free .
Students can access the tool anywhere they can access a computer (libraries, teen centers, home)

No software to install

Usually FREE
You can download a free copy or someone can give you a free copy of the software if you don't have Internet

Challenges to Digital Equity

Might be cost prohibitive. File type might not be compatible and require others to purchase same software.

Might not have high speed Intenet Access

Might require a logon or have age restrictions. Might be filtered in public spaces; Might have advertisements.

Sometimes free version does not contain all features.

You have to “install it” on your computer and this might feel intimidating. Some files might not be compatible or might require advanced learning to understand file compatibility.

I'm not advocating that we stop using commercial products such as Microsoft Office, Inspiration, or Photoshop when they are the right tool for the job. But I'm advocating that we include a diverse set of tools in our student's digital toolbox (both the tools and the know how to use these tools). Not only does this approach expand their toolset and access to digital tools outside of school, but it also takes away the stigma of feeling that a free tool is less worthy (therefore they are less worthy). It also has the added benefit of providing the much needed 21st century skill of “transferring” the understanding of a concept from one medium to another! Knowing which icon to click to double space is not as valuable a skill as knowing how to use HELP to accomplish a tasks.

Lately, I have found myself noticing situations where we stand behind a word phrase like “equity and excellence for all” as long as we don't have to give up anything. I was guilty of it, too; even after I had installed Open Office on my compuer, I found myself using Microsoft Office because it's always been on my computer; I knew it better; and it came with clipart and templates. It wasn't until I made a vow to click on Open Office first that I discovered solutions like the 20,000 image “WPCLIPART Library available for Open Office or became proficient at changing my SAVE as Preference to always save in compatible file format.

How do we start an awareness of these tools or a commitment to promoting digital equity in our schools? St. Albans City School has given this job to its junior high students. “Student Ambassadors for Free Software” work towards promoting digital equity by coming up with strategies to promote free software solution to the community; to their peers; and to their teachers. Activities range from training sessions; demonstrations at community events, testing and reviewing free software, creating and distributing free software CD's, and even helping teachers modify their lessons to use free software. The student team has also turned donated computers from industry into learning stations by adding free software or changing the operating system to Edubuntu where appropriate. They have started to create a Digital ToolBox Charts that can promote digital equity. Perhaps you can add your own recommendations.


Commercial Product

Web based

Open Source or Free

Productivity suite

Microsoft Office

Google Docs

Open Office
plus free Clip Art

Learn to Keyboard

Type to Learn

and more

Type Faster

Editing Digital Images

Photoshop Elements

Flauntr or Picnik

Gimp, Picassa, Paint.Net

Graphic Organizer


Mindomo or Gliffy

Free Mind

What would it take to create a culture that promotes digital equity at your school? Perhaps providing a diverse toolbox for learning with technology that includes commercial products, web based tools and open source software where everyone has access to digital tools (whether be at school, home or a public computer).

As we move forward in the digital age, let's not lose sight of those that might be getting left behind. The memory of what “lack of access” to a resource feels like fades quickly once you join the ranks of those with full access.