Miles Berry

To describe Miles Berry as a man on a mission could be an understatement. Because there are multiple missions. He's one of the most connected educationalists you are likely to meet. And that's just as well because he combines his full-time job as head of a prep school with, among other things, editing the important new Open Source Schools website.

Open Source Schools, supported by Becta and linked to its first initiative in this area, has got off to an impressive start with an eclectic mix of news, curriculum support, case studies of best and next practice, software directory, security advice, links and forums - in effect a nascent community for open source in UK education. And it's already generating the hits.

Miles Berry's personal 'connectivity' is such that, on return from meeting him, an email is waiting, from a contact, asking how the meeting went. The power of Twitter. But the final impression of that whirlwind of ideas in Starbucks was a guilty anxiety for possibly having made him late for his next meeting - with the BBC. Like all the other good educators he is impressively generous with his time.

Open Source Schools has arrived at a crucial time. The inspiring example set by Scottish teachers has shown that blogging - a key feature both of open source and Web 2.0 - is a powerful tool for learning. And that's just a beginning. Moodle, the virtual learning environment, has been such a global success with schools that companies like Microsoft, UniServity and RM have made sure that their technologies can work with it.

In England the two major capital projects for renewing schools - Building Schools for the Future and the Primary Capital Partnership - both have transformation of learning at their core. However, apart from isolated examples like Sun's work with Bradford schools, open source has yet to put in a significant appearance.

'Open source is already mainstream - it's a matter of perception'

So as well as building the home Open Source Schools community, Miles Berry will be growing the relationships that will have to extend this culture into the "mainstream", which is as much a perception as a reality. Because Open Source is actually already in the mainstream; it's just not perceived as such.

Some Microsoft die-hards will be using Windows on their now-ubiquitous netbooks, but the emergence of the Asus EeePC (aka RM miniBook) demonstrated that the Linux version has better performance and range of functions. This makes it better value for money in this context. And that is reflected in sales. This was probably the very first moment that most teachers - journalists too - knowingly encountered an open source desktop. If they spent 15 minutes with Miles Berry, browsing through his Edubuntu-fuelled netbook, they would come across features that most Windows and Mac users would be entirely happy with, and perhaps even envious of.

As Miles Berry demonstrates, there is no shortage of software to use in or out of classrooms. He has used it for teaching and learning for years, and it's what helped him gain a Becta ICT in Practice Award in 2006 for his teaching in primary (in fact he's comfortable teaching any age group).

Open source has also been used for years to run servers and for the content management servers behind many websites (Joomla for this one). Partnerships for Schools, the organisation at the heart of BSF, uses open source for its own website.

So if open source is so prevalent why isn't it more visible in education, and why isn't there an open source supplier in BSF for example? That's where Open Source Schools comes in. It is demonstrating the good practice already going on in education, and it will point to the partnerships that can be developed to extend that practice.

Open Source Schools will inevitably be part of moves to set up the creative interventions that will pilot open source projects within capital projects like BSF. So far the pace and structure of these projects has tilted the balance between the stability required by schools and the innovation for transformation of learning explicitly demanded by the paymasters. And that balance has, so far, not favoured innovation. This is changing, and there are mechanisms in place, like BSF's little known "Innovation bubble", which ought to help. If BSF was to complete with none of the innovation, 'community' or the economies of open source, difficult questions would be asked.

Open Source Schools will also have to develop the culture that makes it clear exactly what 'free" means for open source. It can be misleading to think of open source as free even though it can undoubtedly release enormous savings. An overemphasis on "free" can be a route to misunderstanding the value of some services and products, and can contribute to theĀ  continuation of the remnants of a culture in which schools were under-resourced. Perhaps a better way of looking at it is the development of a digital community where you don't pay for the things you can do yourself, or do with your friends. Then the investments go into the areas where they are most needed. This might challenge the status quo, but so does most change for the better.

'Free - it's more about freedom than price'

Miles is keen to emphasise that the 'free' aspect of open source software is more about freedom than price. He says, "Open source offers schools the freedom to distribute copies of software to pupils and parents without restriction, and the freedom to customise, adapt or improve applications so that they fit more closely to the needs of teachers and learners."

Perhaps more important is open source's role as an enabler which can help users develop their skills as far as they wish. Miles Berry comes alive when showing a range of software for the curriculum and the ways in which it engages learners. One of them, which can be used in ICT for a range of purposes from control technology through to programming, can demonstrate key processes and, if required, take students into logic and programming, way beyond the arid constraints of an application-focused ICT curriculum. It's an understanding that will be appreciated by Naace, the ICT advisers' organisation, on whose board of management Miles now serves, and by the British Computer Society where he is a member of the education and training expert panel and its e-learning specialist group.

This facility for engaging to the level at which users are most comfortable is also relevant across ages and even roles in the workforce (elsewhere too, as this site's "digital friends" can tesify). And it is far removed from the "techie" image of open source aficionados often offered by people with vested interests. (Although if you want it, you can have techie of the highest quality at the edugeek site.)

Discussing these issues with Miles Berry brings in a range of viewpoints and he, thankfully, always has one foot in the classroom. While it's always a pleasant experience to find common ground, where there's uncertainty and possible disagreement the learning kicks in, and his general affability and silky, rich command of the English language (sometimes the subject of inverted snobbery) smooth the passage of ideas. And that's in both directions as he has the natural appetite for insights and leads that go with his territory.

Miles Berry appears to be on his way to a larger stage in education and, hopefully, his role as editor of Open Source Schools and as a champion of open source will take him there. You can chart his progress the way he would do it - with RSS feeds to and Open Source Schools.

More information

Miles Berry's presentation at BETT 2009

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