Open source or proprietary?

Open source or proprietary?

When it comes to assessment solutions, it doesn’t have to be an either/or decision.

Packaged assessment solutions are much like a prix fixe meal—satisfying but limiting. Open source software is like homemade chicken soup—delicious but a pain to make. “A proprietary product is like buying content with technology,” says Caroline Meeks of the Harvard Graduate School of Education Technology. Meeks thinks the commercial- versus-open-source debate is, at its heart, a curriculum issue because software packages targeted to standardized tests won’t align with alternative content: “If you want that, great. If not, consider open source and figure out how to create content yourself.”

Scott Floyd, instructional technologist with White Oak (Texas) ISD, says open source assessment products would generally be considered a software tool as differentiated from an allencompassing commercial solution. “I don’t know anyone who could afford the time to create a comprehensive knowledge test and give it away for free,” Floyd says.

Meeks concurs, saying that open source/free assessment tools “are not yet ready for prime time” but are “closing the gap” with proprietary assessment applications.

The best decision? Most school districts use a mix of proprietary and open products. Rochester (N.Y.) School District, for example, uses McGraw Hill’s Acuity commercial assessment tool, and adds its own questions to Acuity’s nationally normed database. This generates and distributes Rochester’s customized tests and tallies the results, according to Dr. Tim Cliby, coordinating director of instructional technology. “It has no flash or photos,” Cliby says. “But I like the way it’s worded. And we can use it different ways and ask it to assign questions based on student weaknesses.”

Students use a combination of open-source and commercial software for assessments and lessons.

Although Floyd leads Texas teacher’s Strategic Open Source Software Special Interest Group, White Oak ISD, too, uses a mixture of proprietary and open source assessment products. The district uses commercial products such as Kamico, Study Island, and Renaissance Learning to assess reading levels and language skills and Accelerated Reader for monitoring. But the district also encourages teachers to use Moodle to create tests in specific subjects. “It’s more work in the beginning (to put questions into Moodle), but it’s less work in the end,” Floyd says, "and the tests can be modified later for an individual student or a different class. The kids love it.”

Moodle is a gold mine of open source assessment tools, having more than 62 pages of modules, including assessment quizzes, exercises, skill practices, and vocabulary. However, there are other open source or free tools and resources that are less commonly known. Foremost is Texas’ TRACKS practice tests in four subjects, designed to prepare high school juniors for the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) tests required for graduation. Although based on Texas’ state tests, they cover core curricula in English, science, math, and social sciences that are taught nationwide. Anyone can access the Web-based tests free and retrieve the results on each subtopic instantly. In addition, each TRACKS subtopic links back to a library of study materials so students can increase their understanding of sections they missed, according to Erich Pelletier, program coordinator.

Two other free/open source software applications are Hot Potato, a tool for creating interactive worksheets, and LAMS (Learning Activity Management System), a framework and visual tool for combining sequences of activities into online lessons, Meeks says. While Hot Potato is intuitive, LAMS requires more time to create and manage, she says. Other resources include Curriwiki and Merlot, ATutor, Claroline, ILIAS, and the Manhattan Virtual Classroom, she says.

Ken Task, a retired teacher who taught in Victoria, Texas, is helping others create Moodle-based assessments using the Texas Technology Assessments Moodle.

“This module is an example of what can be done collaboratively with little or no money,” he says.

However, despite Moodle’s potential for helping districts benefit from each other’s work, numerous obstacles to collaboration persist, including district policies, data access and ownership, internal power plays in support of one particular Moodle model over another, and intellectual property issues, he says. “There’s lots of growth in free and open educational content,” adds Meeks. “But is it reasonable to expect every teacher to create everything from scratch? Probably not.”

The debate about commercial versus open content seems to mirror that about professional development: One size just doesn’t fit all. The challenge to districts is to find a blend of commercial and open source tools that fits their budgets as well as their learning curves.