After years of stasis and even atrophy, the educational technology markets are suddenly hot. New LMS players like Instructure are making major wins and market share is shifting rapidly across all the major players. Educational technology startups are sprouting up and getting funded at an unprecedented rate. Blackboard’s announcement of support for producing, discovering, and sharing OERs is the latest of a number of signals that the company is changing. Meanwhile, none of its major competitors are standing still either. Pearson’s OpenClass represents a bold and provocative vision that could upend the whole chess board. Then there are the nextbooks, forging a whole new product category. There was even a “startup alley” at EDUCAUSE for the first time. While rapid change brings about its own problems that we have to be wary of, all of this foment is, on balance, good. We are at an inflection point. The ecosystem is producing new ideas and new possibilities. I am a big believer in the forces of entrepreneurialism and consumerism as twin engines of progress.
It is with all of this as a backdrop that I would like to explain why I think the recent re-affirmation of the Sakai/Jasig merger is more important than ever and why I have agreed to continue serving on the foundation board of the new entity when the merger is finalized.
In my last post, I pointed out how ANGEL’s decision to implement Common Cartridge export helped the Open Course Library initiative make it’s library of courses…um…open. What I neglected to point out was that the Common Cartridges are actually hosted on Connexions, a university-hosted, not-for-profit OER repository hosted on open source software built by the educational community. While I believe that vendors can and often do play a vital role in creating an ecosystem for fostering educational progress, I also passionately believe that educators must maintain their independence in order to drive both innovation and more effective consumerism. During the Great LMS Depression of 2005 – 2009, it was Sakai and Moodle that helped create downward price pressure and a sense of choice in the market. Meanwhile, grassroots-driven faculty adoption of WordPress created a sense that maybe there are alternatives to the LMS that can work.
This isn’t just about getting a better deal, though. The people who know what students and teachers need are students and teachers. At their very best, vendors can listen and learn to build better products. But in this age of electronic communication and distributed collaboration, there is no reason why students and teachers shouldn’t take the helm to create and share innovation in educational technology directly.
The challenge is that, even in this networked world, collaboration isn’t totally frictionless. It requires effort and skill. There is overhead. Right now, there a handful of educational technology foundations. Each of them coordinates developers on one or more projects. Each of them maintains a wiki and a source code repository. Each of them holds an annual conference. Each of them manages books and by-laws in accordance with local laws. None of these things I just listed are the good parts of the collaboration. They are just stuff that has to be done along the way. It makes all the sense in the world to start consolidating organizations to do this work for multiple projects. Even better, once those projects are relieved of some of the administrative burdens, it makes sense to use some of that freed up time to share ideas and collaborate with other projects or mentor new groups that have new ideas.
That’s what a merger of Sakai and Jasig could hope to accomplish. The new foundation will manage books and handle logistics. The project groups will focus on building the things that they want to build. And the community of project participants will share best practices and inspire each other to create better things together. I say “things” because it need not be software. For example, the Jasig 2-3-98 project studies various types of “open” practices across universities, including open management. The foundation is really just the minimum infrastructure required to foster the community. All kinds of projects will be welcome. All kinds of project governance structures will be welcome. The community will define and evolve the common ground that holds it together as it grows.
Why start with Sakai and Jasig? For no other reason than that the two communities were both a convenient points in their respective evolutions to consider a merger. That said, once the representatives from the two respective foundations began working together, we found that the two groups have a lot in common in terms of how we like to work. While we very much want the new foundation to be a big tent, it does help to start with a lot of common ground. But really, this merger shouldn’t be thought of as the end. It’s just one step on the road toward creating a sustainability model that is both an alternative and complement to the vendor ecosystem.
To be honest, I don’t really have time to serve on the board of the new foundation. My job has me busier than ever. But I’m going to do it anyway, because I think it’s important, and because I think it’s going to work.
- Worst. Name. Ever. [↩]