Will Open Source Software Unlock the Potential of eLearning?

Technology has great potential to expand and improve the ways people learn, yet eLearning has done little more than mimic earlier learning and teaching practices. Why isn't technology living up to its tremendous potential? The answer may be, in part, that education has been treated as a market of learning rather than an environment for learning. Markets, and the commercial considerations at their base, are driven toward uniformity and reproducibility. Environments, structured with educational underpinnings, support diversity, a requirement for the experimentation needed to unlock the potential of eLearning.

Open source applications

You've probably noticed the "buzz" about open source this past year. Open source is a way of building, owning, and using software as a community. Online, in the journals, in meetings, and in hallway conversations at conferences, open source projects like Sakai, OSPI, uPortal, and others are getting a lot of attention. In fact, Educause 2004 will probably be remembered as the tipping point when the open source movement spread beyond the early adopters and innovators who nurtured it over the past several years.

Open source is not a new phenomenon. It has a history nearly as rich and long as the software industry itself. So why all of the buzz now? The buzz, I think, is about the accelerated evolution of open source. For many years open source has thrived, even dominated in many parts of the software stack. Probably the most well known examples are the Linux operating system, the Apache Web server that claims 67 percent market share, and uPortal, the most successful enterprise portal among colleges and universities. The illustration below shows prominent open source software in platforms, servers, middleware, and tools. What is new and exciting is that in the past few years open source has spread into a new part of the software stack--the applications layer. This evolution brings open source in touch with many more users and offers an attractive alternative to proprietary software, high prices, and limited innovation.

Open source provides users the freedoms to use, modify, and share software, where proprietary software limits users' ability to do these things. Although the freedoms of open source revolve around access and re-use of software and source code, we'd miss the more important implications if we focused solely on the code. Interchangeable parts and assembly line production sparked far reaching soci'economic impacts we call the industrial revolution. The Internet, which is largely built on top of open source software, has generated similar impacts on societies worldwide. The processes of building open source software and the economics of open source similarly have far-reaching implications.

The collaborative nature of open source has a strong cultural affinity to higher education and its mission to advance and share knowledge for the greater public good. This cultural fit stimulates adoption and leads to new collaborative practices for building enterprise software, unlike any other industry sector. Leading institutions are responding to the new opportunities presented by the evolution of open source. There is a growing desire and ability to work together on projects like Sakai, OSPI, uPortal, Fedora, and VUE. These communities develop and distribute innovative enterprise software that competes with, and even drives innovation in proprietary alternatives.

The open source movement can be viewed with many different lenses. For this discussion, I'm going to focus on two things: (1) how open source can lead to more effective use of technology, and (2) how open source can stimulate greater innovation.

Using technology more effectively for learning and teaching

Aside from leveraging new media, proprietary eLearning software has done little to improve learning and teaching. Two characteristics of proprietary software make it ill-suited to the task: (1) the rapidly escalating cost of proprietary software leaves too little of an institution's IT budget available for creative exploration, once the software has been installed and minimally supported; (2) reduced flexibility to adapt to institutional culture, teaching practices, and disciplinary uniqueness occurs when software development is driven by mass market economics.

Institutions that have the capacity to build their own software gain control over their destiny and applications well suited to their needs, but bear the full cost of development and maintenance over time. For some institutions this may be an appealing option, but it still leaves precious little of the IT budget for the non-software activities like planning, customization, and professional development essential for success.

Open source software offers the potential to reduce the cost of the software while providing an institution greater control over its destiny. Three characteristics in particular make it an attractive solution:

  1. Elimination or reduction of license and maintenance fees leaves more budget available to invest in adapting the software, managing organizational change, providing professional development, and responding to end-user requests.
  2. Commercial services are kept in check by market forces, because companies offering commercial support for open source software must compete on the quality and value of their offering rather than relying on an artificial lock on customers that makes switching prohibitive.
  3. Customizing open source software can be done more effectively because there are few barriers to adapting, sharing, and collaboratively developing new applications.
Stimulating eLearning innovation

Open source eLearning applications like Sakai, Moodle, and LAMS are reinvigorating learning technology by making new eLearning systems available to the world. These new open source systems have a number of advantages that make them excellent platforms for innovation:

  1. Many schools adopting open source applications add functionality that solves a local priority and then contribute these enhancements back to the community so that others can benefit from their work. Proprietary systems depend on the company that owns the system determining that there's a bottom-line justification to add a new feature or enhance the software in some way. Resources have to be allocated only to those features that satisfy the broadest possible market.
  2. Open source projects can provide a platform for experimentation so that innovative projects exploring the edge of technology's reach can live on in an enterprise environment already adopted by large numbers of institutions.
  3. Open source initiatives can be combined in novel ways to produce something greater than the sum of the parts. Combinations like this are a key ingredient for innovation and are prohibited with proprietary software.

In addition to the direct benefits of open source software, open source projects also put intense market pressure on the proprietary alternatives to innovate and add value. As open source alternatives to proprietary applications succeed, they will drive down the cost of the proprietary alternative effectively turning the application into a commodity. For example, if the core course management system is a commodity, commercial enterprises must seek new ways to add value to generate revenue from that commodity. One way to do so is to sell innovative new capabilities protected as proprietary software. Eventually the open source movement will replicate the commercial innovation and the company will need to find new capabilities to continue adding value. This healthy cycle perpetuates innovation.

Information and communications technologies (ICT) hold great promise for learning and teaching because they can enhance interaction among people, information, and systems in ways that never before have been possible. The proprietary eLearning systems available today have only just begun to scratch the surface by delivering content and connecting people across distance and time. Yet while these proprietary systems have begun to show the promise of technology in teaching and learning, they also seem to have hit an early plateau. Open source applications are standing on that plateau looking forward.

Resources for more information:
Open source, opens learning

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