September/October 2001 // Letters to the Editor
An Invitation to Build an Open Source Professional Development Environment
by Steven W. Gilbert
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Steven W. Gilbert "An Invitation to Build an Open Source Professional Development Environment" The Technology Source, September/October 2001. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Can your institution meet current needs to enable its own faculty, administrators, support professionals, and others to change how they think and act in order to make the most of new options to improve teaching and learning with technology? I do not know of any educational organization that can say "yes" to this question.

To make the most of the new opportunities that continue to arrive in higher education, we need to enable faculty and other professionals to think and act differently, not only with respect to the changing nature of their own responsibilities, but also with respect to their ability and inclination to collaborate with other professionals. Each individual is already striving to keep up with his/her own responsibilities, and many are trying to master new information, tools, and roles. Each individual also needs to learn how to work collaboratively—and to do so effectively and enjoyably. The burden of keeping up with the flood of new information and options would be lightened considerably if we enabled individuals to work collaboratively by teaching them to trust each other enough to divide the labor and share the results. Teachers and learners increasingly depend on access to services and resources that can only be provided and maintained by other professionals. New collaborative efforts can prevent individuals from becoming overwhelmed.

Enabling people to think and act differently is a good definition of "deep learning." Enabling faculty and other professionals to do so is a good definition of "professional development." We need to learn to apply what we already know, and what we're still learning, about teaching and learning to the professional development needs of everyone in education. We are facing an unprecedented need for professional development that cuts across the boundaries between departments, offices, divisions, schools, campuses, and institutions. Even the resources of a large university are small in comparison with the pace and scale of change in professional development.

Ironically, collaboration is crucial not only within institutions but also within the field of professional development itself. Whereas the resources of many institutions might better satisfy local professional development needs, at present, there is only a vast, decentralized, international, interlinking non-system of both highly informal and highly structured organizations, commercial services, professional development events, materials, and courses. Many of the pieces are excellent and serve the needs of a few people very well. But the current need vastly exceeds the current offerings, and it is very difficult for people to know what is available, much less where, when, and how.

The questions facing the field of professional development can be articulated as follows: Can we create a framework to focus and coordinate this non-system of professional development? Can we describe a set of desired characteristics and build the pieces? Can we share the development and continual modification of the overall design and structure? Can we share the burden of developing professional development modules and using and refining them? Can we embed this work in a system of categories and organization that makes the ongoing efforts and intermediate results easy to find and use?


By "open course" efforts, I mean those that enable a group of people with common interests in specific courses to work together to develop, share, and revise instructional resources for those specific courses. By "open source professional development resource" efforts, I mean those that enable a group of people with common interests in improving teaching and learning (including faculty and other academic-support professionals) to work together to develop, share, and revise professional development resources. Professional development resources might include books, workshops, interactive software, online tutorials, online courses, videocassettes, and listservs. Both open course and open source Web sites must include ways that new users can contribute to an ongoing process of improvement, enhancement, and development.

A Proposal

An example of open source software development may provide a timely model for professional development. Many academics are comfortable with the underlying principles of sharing in the development and improvement of a complex system with many interdependent and independently useful modules. Some of the Web-based tools that recently have emerged for managing and facilitating open source software projects could enable a potential Teaching, Learning, and Technology Group (TLTG) project—the Open Source Professional Development Environment for Higher Education. This effort is intended to build on current models for developing and sharing educational resources that already reflect some of the principles of open source software development—such as IMS, Merlot, the Harvey Project, the Math Forum, and MIT's new open course and open knowledge initiatives. (For links to these and other resources, see URLS8-23-01.htm.)

Coordination, attribution, and quality control are essential functions of any system that effectively supports the development of course units or of professional development resources by large groups of people who share common professional goals and needs. People involved with open source software development have made significant progress in each of these areas in recent years. Their online systems coordinate and focus the development efforts of many different people working on the same large software project. Some of these systems also address the challenges of accurately describing and crediting the accomplishments of all who contribute to the joint effort. Open source software developers have also developed quality control mechanisms that rely on the judgment of respected members of the core development team and others. For faculty members who might participate in such efforts, the ways in which open source software development tools could support a peer review process would be quite helpful in enabling participants to get appropriate credit for their work toward promotion, tenure, or post-tenure evaluations.

Since some of the latest thinking about open source structure includes respected roles for commercial services and products, the valuable online instructional resources and services already available from companies like Blackboard, WebCT, XanEdu, Pearson, Microsoft, Compaq, and many others could be linked to an Open Source Professional Development Environment for Higher Education. In July 2001, a step in this direction was made in an open-course modules workshop directed by Robert Stephenson and held at the University of Michigan.

An Invitation

Want to help?

Help launch an effort to build an open source professional development environment by sending me URLs that describe open source professional development resources (i.e., those where the originator(s) encourage others to help modify, improve, or add to the resources). We welcome those that have been developed and are being maintained by individuals, departments, consortia, professional societies, publishers, or commercial entities. For each resource, we would especially like information about accessibility, quality assurance, frequency of revision, purpose, and receptivity to being cited or linked—and the ways in which others can contribute. Please write to

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