Monday, July 13, 2009

on the community-source model for open educational software design

For all my fascination with all things open-source, I'm finding that the notion of open source software (OSS) is one that's used far too broadly, to cover more categories than it can rightfully manage. Specifically, the use of this term to describe collaborative open education resource (OER) projects seems problematic. The notion of OSS points to a series of characteristics and truths that do not apply, for better or worse, to the features of collaborative learning environments developed for opening up education.

While in general, open educational resources are developed to adhere to the letter of the OSS movement, what they miss is what we might call the spirit of OSS, which for my money encompasses the following:

  • A reliance on people's willingness to donate labor--for love, and not for money.
  • An embrace of the "failure for free" model identified by Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everybody.
  • A loose collaboration across fields, disciplines, and interest levels.

Open educational resources are not, in general, developed by volunteers; they are more often the product of extensive funding mechanisms that include paying participants for their labor.

There are good reasons for this. As Christopher J. Mackie points out in Opening Up Education, while the OSS movement has produced some "runaway successes" (Perl, Linux, and Firefox), the moveent has less success at tackling certain types of projects, including development of products designed for widespread institutional use (instead of adoption by individuals). There are good reasons for this, he argues; and his explanation points to both the weaknesses and the strengths of the open education movement:

This limitation may trace to any of several facotrs: the number of programmers having the special expertise required to deliver an enterprise information system may be too small to sustain a community; the software may be inherently too unglamorous or uninteresting to attract volunteers; the benefits of the software may be too diffuse to encourage beneficiaries to collaborate to produce it; the software may be too complex for its development to be coordinated on a purely volunteer basis; the software may require the active, committed participation of specific firms or institutions having strong disincentives to participate in OSS; and so on.

Perhaps the two most significant weak spots Mackie points to are the unglamorous nature of developing OERs and the strong disincentives against institutional participation in developing and circulating these resources. OERs require sustained, consistent dedication at all levels, from programmers all the way up to administrators and funders; and this type of dedication is difficult to attain for the following reasons:

  • While OSS is primarily affiliated with the movement itself, OERs are by their nature affiliated first with an institution or funder; as project affiliates change institutions or roles, their commitment to developing the OER can shift or disappear.
  • OERs require institutional buy-in, and the notion of openness, on its surface at least, appears at odds with institutional goals. (Universities survive by offering something unique, something you can only get by paying your money and walking through the gates.)

Mackie suggests an alternate term for OERs designed in keeping with the open source ideals: community source software (CSS). He identifies the following characteristics as key to the CSS movement:

  • Multiple institutions band together to design software that meets their collective needs, with the ultimate goal of releasing the software as open source eventually;
  • Development of the software is conducted virtually, with employees from each institution collaborating;
  • The collaboration aligns with a corporate, even sometimes hierarchical, structure, with project leaders, paid staff, and experts in a range of design and development categories;
  • Everybody is compensated for their expertise, and this supports a systematic, targeted approach to software development that is often lacking in OSS projects.

Embracing the notion of community source software instead of open source is more than a semantic choice, in my view. It opens up new avenues for participation and the possibility for new affiliation structures across institutions of higher education. Just as higher education institutions have historically affiliated around various community markers (cf. The Associated Writers and Writing Programs, HASTAC member institutions, the Doctoral Consortium in Rhetoric and Composition), colleges and universities--and their affiliates--might unite around the notion of opening up education by opening up technologies, access, and information.

After all, let's take our heads out of the clouds for a second and think about what sorts of factors might motivate a university to align with the open educational movement. Asking institutions to relinquish their monopoly on whatever they think makes them unique (cf. the college ranking system at U.S. News and World Report) requires that we offer them something in exchange. "For the good of humankind" is a sweet notion, but you can't take it to the bank.

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