Why use open hardware in the classroom?

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Over the past few years we’ve seen an explosion of “open” models, which emerged as a result of several different factors. The general motivation behind this movement includes the ability for the free sharing of resources and tools in an effort to promote economic efficiency by improving access to a much wider group of stakeholders.

To that end, I invite you—the reader—to take a walk with me to an undeveloped third-world country that can barely scrape by, but wants to provide a quality education to its next generation. What would you suggest they invest in?

Let’€™s take another short trip to a small-town school where, like so many other small schools, teachers have grand ideas, but less than grand budgets. What do we suggest here?

As initial costs fall, the threshold for participation becomes greater and the gap between resources smaller. It becomes much easier for open design and it€™s cooperative nature to take shape, at the same time promoting tinkering and empowering the student to create something of their own making.

I took the time to talk with a handful of educators regarding the potential adaptation of open source hardware. Below, I provide a sampling of our discussions. As you read through their responses, I encourage you to take a moment to share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Does open source hardware actually costs more than proprietary solutions?

(in terms of setup, maintenance, and time spent adapting)

Jerry Isdale of Maui Makers believes that while all new technologies have a learning curve, the key is the support and the resources that are provided (e.g. course materials, sample projects, code, etc.) Support is pivotal, as people tend to want something that JFW€ (just freakin'€™ works). But all too often, even the best commercial products fall short of this.

Dan Green of the Immersive Education Initiative approaches this question from another angle, claiming it depends on your goals.€ He points out that from a business perspective, many schools have contracts for support from vendors that may preclude the use of open source hardware (or software) if not fully vetted first.

Using open source hardware can save an organization money, but what benefit does it offer directly, to students, teachers, and staff?

While saving money is a key factor to consider, Jerry thinks that an even more important benefit is the open platform itself, which allows users to €œreadily afford their own personal version of the hardware (as opposed to more expensive closed source variants).

Open source options are invaluable in educational environments, Dan says. Where the point is to allow and encourage access to what makes something tick and provide a path for those curious or driven enough to find out how to extend it.

Why open hardware?

It goes back to the fundamental principal of it "€œjust working," Jerry says. Although with the right amount of support, you can reap the benefits of €œthe experimental development aspect, allowing us to build locally from public plans that can be tweaked for our needs and shared back.

Which, of course, is the essence of any open movement.


This article is part of the Open Hardware Connection column coordinated by Rikki Endsley. Share your stories about the growing open hardware community and the fantastic projects coming from makers and tinkers around the world by contacting us at open@opensource.com.

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For some years now I have adopted a philosophy based on a quote by Samuel Clemens "... you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do...Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”It is this powerful desire for exploration that drives my approach in almost everything I do.


Open hardware allows teachers and students to tinker and that's a very important part of learning. I like the #JFW, Just Freakin' Works idea and that is the impetus behind the rapid adoption of iOS tablets in education, but on the other hand that same #JFW tablet cannot be tinkered with without voiding the warranty. As a former technology teacher I know that many of my students just wanted to disassemble computers and explore and reassemble them to learn how they worked and open hardware makes that possible. In addition Raspberry Pi & Arduino are relatively inexpensive, scalable and hack-able and can be used in any number of classroom projects. Thanks for a great article.

Thank you Don, I appreciate your feedback. I agree that at least for me one of the most important things is it just has to work (now at home that's different, there I can "Make" it work) but when dealing with a classroom and time constraints it's by far more challenging.

In reply to by Don Watkins

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