Monday, August 25, 2008

Meanwhile... We Won?!

I've been known to give Andy Carvin a hard time, but he does occasionally come up with a bombshell nobody else in the ed-tech blogosphere has picked up on (later... I see Tim Stahmer picked up on the story via the BBC, but his cynicism is so thick it is hard to see through it).

The College Opportunity and Affordability Act, which was signed into law this month by Bush, has a section which does the following:

Establishes a National Center for Learning Science and Technology (the Center).

Establishes in the Treasury the National Center for Learning Science and Technology Trust Fund, the amounts of which may be used for: (1) supporting precompetitive and applied research development and demonstrations, and assessments of prototypes of innovative digital learning and information technologies and the components and tools needed to create them; (2) supporting the pilot testing and evaluation of those prototype systems; (3) encouraging the widespread adoption and use of effective innovative digital approaches to learning; and (4) supporting innovative digital media education programs for parents, teachers, and children.

Authorizes the Director of the Center to award contracts and grants to colleges and universities, museums, libraries, public broadcasting entities, similar nonprofits and public institutions (with or without private partners), and for-profit organizations.

This is nice enough, but here's the interesting part:

    (i) IN GENERAL- The research and development properties and materials associated with any project funded by a grant or contract under this section shall be freely and nonexclusively available to the general public in a timely manner, consistent with regulations prescribed by the Secretary of Education.
    (ii) EXEMPTION- The Director may waive the requirements of clause (i) with respect to a project funded by a grant or contract under this section if--
      (I) the Director and the Board (by a unanimous vote of the Board members) determine that the general public will benefit significantly due to the project not being freely and nonexclusively available to the general public in a timely manner; and
      (II) the Board issues a public statement as to the specific reasons of the determination under subclause (I).

I'm no lawyer, but the obvious interpretation of the above is that the federal government is going to be funding (i.e. asking for $50,000,000 in fiscal year 2009, only a fraction of which would actually go into development, but still) ed-tech research of development, the results of which (not withstanding the big exception clause) will be released to the public domain (or, for software, a permissive open source license might be more appropriate).

Aside from the obvious "more and better free software" benefit, this is, to my knowledge, the first US government agency with a mandate to create free software. They're going to have to come up with some coherent policies and practices around this work.

If they can get this right, it may be an important precedent in subsequently dragging NSF out of the 1950's, getting big foundations to think differently about their K-12 programs (and perhaps get the implementation details correct when they're trying to do the right thing), reboot state and local ed tech strategies, etc. The potential leverage becomes a bit more apparent, once you see several overlapping multi-million dollar commitments, loosely coordinated but all contributing to an interconnected infrastructure of free software for schools.

Given the legislation as written, "getting this right" should be feasible, but will likely require some consistent, organized lobbying and pressure. The Federation of American Scientists apparently get the credit for most of the relevant language in the bill, but their track record on open source doesn't look too great (open source, not, not), so expecting them to go to bat for your freedom seems like a bad idea. The academic Learning Sciences community has repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to sell out for the spare change between the sofa cushions in a Redmond staff lounge, so they'll probably write free software if that's what the people writing the checks tell them to do but again, don't trust that they're on the side of the hypothetical users of their software.

So, it is crucial that the free and open source software community get enough sympathetic and well-informed people on the board (like, one for starters) and in the organization to see that the spirit of the law is implemented undiluted. Ideally, we'll have some lobbying help from our putative friends like CoSN, ISTE, IBM, Red Hat, etc., but again, their track records are mixed. I can't think of a single time any of them really went to bat for open source in K-12. That's why we've got to have the community organized.

More on this to come...


Tim said...

Cynicism? I prefer to think of it as healthy doubt.

For one thing, the amount appropriated is far too small to match the mission statement and, as you imply, most of that will probably go for something other than the stated purpose.

For another, we've seen this kind of initiative before. Lots of high minded political talking points with very few results.

However, I would love to be proved wrong on any and all of my cynical observations.

Tom Hoffman said...

I'd say we're both cynical, albeit in different ways.

My underlying thesis here is that $50,000,000 is actually enough money to make a dent if we take advantage of the inherent efficiencies of free software development and distribution, and that poor licensing strategies have been substantial contributors to the failure of previous initiatives.