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The Impact, Value, and Future of Open Source Technology in Higher Education

Among the things that we do collectively as humans, education is special. In order to build a better world, each succeeding generation must learn what previous generations have learned and then add their own innovations and improvements.

Because the need to educate the next generation is so critical to society, universities and other educational institutions have held a special and privileged position in our social structure for over a thousand years. 

In the past 100 years, "Education for Everybody" has become both a basic human right and essential to the proper function of our modern world. The demand for education is many times larger today than it was 100 years ago. Universities and other educational institutions have struggled to meet these growing needs. Effective use of technologies are essential to help educators meet this ever growing need for education.

The need to use advanced technologies to scale education has led to the development of a number of commercial activities that we call the “Educational Technology Market”. Building scalable educational technology software is not in the core skill set of a university. 

After a few years of building their own simple tools, universities got tired of it and sold their nascent software to companies like Blackboard who purchased their software, cleaned it up and sold it back to the universities while making a profit.

These early products were, however, limited and as universities gained experience teaching using technology there was a need to innovate in this commercial and proprietary software. The problem was, companies like Blackboard with a very high market share (70% at one point) could maximize their short-term profits by limiting innovation.

Therefore a few leading universities decided to experiment with a shared project to build an open source alternative to Blackboard called “Sakai” (Sakai LMS). 

For about a decade, when Sakai replaced Blackboard at a few leading institutions, it unlocked innovation across the entire market and caused the commercial vendors to move forward and innovate to meet the requirements of teachers. 

The other market disruption provided by Sakai was a focus on standards for interoperability through Learning Tools Interoperability and course content portability through Common Cartridge. 

Designing, developing, releasing and supporting an open source learning system is a technically challenging task and requires a long term commitment from the universities that initially led the Sakai project. When the cloud-based Canvas product entered the market and promised that it would all just be “taken care of” - and given that Learning Tools Interoperability allowed innovation to continue, many leading schools decided to spend more money to purchase Canvas than they were spending on building and maintaining Sakai. 

The migration from platforms like Blackboard and Sakai to Canvas also moved the learner data from university owned servers onto Canvas owned servers . As Canvas gained market share they began to significantly alter their implementations of standards like “Learning Tools Interoperability” so more and more tools were forced to add Canvas-only features that depend on proprietary Canvas extensions.

So once again Canvas, as the current leading Learning Management System (like Blackboard in the early 2000’s) is working to lock in their customers through proprietary software, proprietary integrations, and a lack of commitment to open standards. This time, unlike in the early 2000’s, the universities don’t even own their own data or servers. 

As a reaction to Canvas, the other leading commercial Learning Management System companies (Blackboard and Desire2Learn) have taken away the ability for those products to run on university owned hardware and switched to a cloud-only offering where learner private data is placed in the hands of these companies. At this point the only way for a university to maintain possession of their learner data is to run an open source offering like Sakai or Moodle.

The problem with Open Source systems like Sakai and Moodle is that it is difficult to keep up with billion-dollar companies that are increasingly taking all the revenue the lucrative universities in the market. We are in a position that perhaps by 2030, universities will no longer even have an option to host their own data and use open source Learning Management Systems.

It is difficult for one or a few universities to “go it alone” and carry the mantle of Open Source forward with no outside help. 

There are several ways to protect our learner’s data and insure that educational institutions can influence the directions of their educational technology.

One approach is to enact strict privacy laws that prohibit educational institutions from placing learner data on any server not controlled by the educational institution. 

Additionally, we need to subsidize the open source and open standards efforts using funds gathered across many institutions. We should acknowledge the value that open source LMS systems add to the marketplace.

In the longest of long terms, and with enough investment, an Open Source LMS could become both the best and least expensive option much like Linux now dominates the server operating system space. If the Open Source alternative is free and the best alternative, everybody wins, universities control their own destiny with respect to innovation, and learners can rest assured that their universities are not handing their private data over to a corporation with no way to get that data back and no way to stop handing that data and the university’s money to that corporation.

Dit artikel is een samenvatting van het originele, geschreven door:
Charles Severance
6 november 2022    
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