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What does a “free and open” education look like? Is it enough that it’s free, or is it about the nature of the resource itself? You can be given a book for free, but that doesn’t give you the right to reprint sections of it to teach someone else. You can be given software for free, but you still have to sign that user agreement that promises not to modify the software or look at its source code.

The Open Ed Jam was created to highlight educational resources that are truly free – those that exist under a creative commons license which allows anyone to modify, customize, break down, or build on top of the resource. Organized by St. Mary’s University graduate and AmeriCorps Vista member Mariah Noelle Villarreal, last weekend’s conference focused on specific software, hardware, and curriculum resources which can be modified and repurposed to fit any educator’s needs.

St. Mary’s University graduate and AmeriCorps Vista member Mariah Noelle Villarreal. Courtesy photo.
St. Mary’s University graduate and AmeriCorps Vista member Mariah Noelle Villarreal. Courtesy photo.

“I wanted to bring people in who are open to this idea of freely and openly licensed resources and get them to collaborate and have that cross-sector dialogue,” Villarreal said. “Conferences usually have a very narrow focus and agenda, and I think by broadening the scope and saying we want people from all walks of life to come share their knowledge … Bringing them all together in one space was just awesome.”

The conference was held at Rackspace on Friday and Saturday, and moved over to Café Commerce in the Central Library on Sunday. While the Open Ed Jam was relatively small, attracting about 60 participants, it brought in educators from a variety of backgrounds. Software engineers, hardware developers, educators, and inventors all traveled from across the country – and from outside the U.S. – to teach or attend the many workshops and presentations. Wikimedia Argentina Executive Director Beatriz Busaniche gave Friday’s keynote speech while live streaming from Argentina. Open Source 3D printer creator Josef Prusa flew in from the Czech Republic to talk on 3-D printing, and Sugar Labs Director Walter Bender traveled from Boston to present his Sugar OS software.

Sugar OS, in particular, has already seen plenty of open education use as the main operating system of the OX Laptops used by international non-profit One Laptop per Child. The Sugar Labs computer platform is free, open source, and available for download here. The platform includes MIT Scratch, Turtle Art, and many other educational resources for children to use. It also includes a journal/portfolio feature so a teacher can go back to check student’s work. Bender believes software provides a great environment for children to learn, explore, experiment and – most importantly – learn to take risks.

“The nice thing about taking risks with software is – if I break something, no harm done. I just download a new version,” Bender said. “It’s a really safe place for making mistakes, so it encourages the kids to be risk takers and make intellectual mistakes…its open for them to kind of muck around in, to be free and explore and make things and break things.”

Karen Smith and Julia Vallera represented Mozilla, the company behind the Firefox web browser, with a workshop on the Mozilla Webmaker tools. The workshop focused mainly on Thimble – which allows teachers to make teaching kits out of HTML templates to teach HTML, CSS, or other coding to make things on the web.

Karen Smith and Julia Vallera from Mozilla try out the Makey-Makey
Karen Smith and Julia Vallera from Mozilla try out the Makey-Makey at the Open Ed Jam. Photo by Andrew Moore.

“We were really enthusiastic to be here so we could learn about the local initiatives in San Antonio, and Texas, and to exchange ideas about the education communities we work with,” Smith said.

San Antonio’s own “Maker” Mark Barnett, the captain of the Geekbus, taught several workshops over the weekend and managed the hack-a-thon at the end of the event. His workshops focused mostly on license-free hardware.

One of the most popular hardware components was the Makey-Makey – a game controller that can use all sorts of every-day objects to control games and programs on a computer. Barnet also taught workshops on license-free Raspberry Pi computers which ran Linux and Python, as well as a variety of other hardware such as LilyPad arduinos.

Trying out the Makey-Makey controller at the Open Ed Jam. Photo by Andrew Moore.
Trying out the Makey-Makey game controller at the Open Ed Jam. Photo by Andrew Moore.

The conference gave presentations on a variety of free curriculum material as well. European resource Edukata allows users to design their own educational scenarios and The CK-12 Foundation gives users access to a variety of shared educational resources, including free textbooks. Educators looking for free media resources can also search for Open Educational Resource (OER) media at MERLOT or OER Commons.

Used in combination, these resources can be a great help to schools unable to afford commercial software Licenses. Krueger Middle School teacher Veronica Webster, who attended all three days, believes the free software could help open doors for middle school kids interested in technology.

“It’s really good for students who can’t afford lots of software and for the schools that can’t afford expensive programs like Adobe products or Microsoft products,” Webster said. “Not only are they free, but they’re really good at getting people interested in programming and technology.”

According to Barnett, the programs featured could even provide a savings for schools.

“Open education resources are important to embrace because of the freedom they allow,” Barnett said. “Schools spend $50,000 on a year on Microsoft Licenses when they could get Linux for free.”

Educators got to experiment with open hardware and software themselves in the Open Ed Jam Hack-a-thon. Completed projects included an interactive Pong game which combined MIT Scratch and Makey-Makeys so that the player had touch two pads several feet apart to move a wall up and down.

Playing Pong, physically, at the Open Ed Jam Hack-a-thon. Photo by Andrew Moore.
Interactive Pong at the Open Ed Jam Hack-a-thon. Photo by Andrew Moore.

Dallas International School computer teacher Patrick Ester created the game along with Veronica Webster. Ester is one of the two IT teachers at his school, and saw plenty of new resources to help his program – particularly in the area of programming with Python.

“I sent them a lot of information about the 3-D Printer that we saw earlier today, some of the stuff like the Sugar OS, and some things that we might install on our computers,” Ester said. “The biggest thing was the Raspberry Pi and the Kano. They’ve got all the python stuff – And it’s not just straight Python, it’s Python in the context of a game. So they (the kids) can do something interactive and learn to code at the same time.”

The event was also helpful for local educators like Caroline Mossing, the San Antonio Central Library Teen Services Librarian, who already teaches MIT Scratch and other programs to local teens.

Caroline Mossing using the LilyPad. Photo by Andrew Moore.
Caroline Mossing tries out the LilyPad. Photo by Andrew Moore.

“I definitely learned how to better utilize some of our resources — some of our technology and some new software that we can start implementing.” Mossing said. “I got some good ideas on how to use a Raspberry Pi and make it beginner friendly.”

Mossing’s Hack-a-thon project used a LilyPad arduino to sense how much light was in the room and turn lights on the circuit board on and off accordingly. The two other resulting projects allowed users to control a painting program with a Makey-Makey so that colored lines appeared on a screen, and a project that converted any typed words on a computer into audible Morse code with a SparkFun circuit board.

All four projects will be available with documentation on the Open Ed Jam website under a creative commons license, so they may be recreated or modified by any educator anywhere. While the event had a small turnout for a nationwide conference, Villarreal sees it as a success and plans to create more open education events in the future.

“Talking to a few of the local educators that came, they were so excited and said it was a ‘breath of fresh air’ to come to an event like this. Especially after they go to those big technology education conferences,” Villarreal said. “Hearing things like that makes me really excited.”

*Featured/top image: San Antonio Maker Space Member John Roberts used a SparkFun kit to created a device that turns text into Morse Code. Photo by Andrew Moore.

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Andrew Moore

Andrew Moore is a native of San Antonio and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. He wrote on tech startups for a year as a freelancer for Silicon Hills News and loves reporting on the cool...