Instructure’s Open Source Strategy

I have been watching Instructure and it’s move to offer part of its Canvas learning platform under an AGPLv3 open source license with great interest.

First, Canvas is a compelling product, with some great usabilty and features. I also welcome Instructure’s move to a (forked?) open source path, which I think helps evolve platform options and the marketplace in useful ways.

I am unconvinced, however, by a main thread Instructure CEO Josh Coates takes up in his recent blog post on Instructure’s open source strategy.

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Sakai 3’s Commonplace Destiny

I’ve recently been enjoying some (possibly) healthy, irreverent debate with colleagues at Blackboard and beyond about some of the differences between such proprietary regimes and the open-source community of Sakai. While the Twitter channel we’ve been using generates plenty of pithy ripostes, at times a tweet calls out for more sustained thought and response.

A recent tweet from @georgekroner—one of my favorite Blackboarders—set me thinking and led to some longer—if not deeper—reflections, likely to be far less entertaining than the short salvos in our ongoing snarkument on Twitter.

The tweet that set me off was George sharing his concern that Sakai 3’s planned capabilities might be “commonplace” by the time it is ready for widespread use.

I’m not entirely convinced George’s concern is for real, given that Sakai is one of the most significant challenges to Blackboard’s market dominance in learning technologies and it would seem any failure on Sakai’s part would be cause for celebration rather concern over at Blackboard. But maybe George is just the kind of guy who wishes the best for everyone. Or maybe it’s part of Blackboard’s continued posture that having a near monopoly in the proprietary market is fine as long as there is at least one viable open-source alternative like Sakai, even while Blackboard itself acts like open source can’t really compete.

But I’m not inspired here just to wipe away Blackboard’s crocodile tears. George’s tweet started me thinking: if he is right, and the kind of experience Sakai 3 will offer becomes commonplace, we should all celebrate rather than wring our hands.

If Sakai 3 ends up fitting within the broader scope of contemporary online experience, that means Sakai 3’s open, social, user-centered, integrative paradigm shares in broader understandings of what online experience should be—both within education and beyond. It wouldn’t just mean Sakai 3 “guessed right,” it would also mean a very healthy, widespread vision of what the web can and should be has won out. Far from a concern, I would count Sakai 3’s capabilities becoming “commonplace” as a major success, not only for Sakai, but for the web in general.

George was so kind as to provide some examples that illustrate his observation that technology is headed in the same general direction as Sakai 3. Here’s George’s short list:

The question I asked myself after reading George’s list is whether the widespread use of any of these tools (or others like them) would really make Sakai—or other integrated learning platforms—obsolete or unnecessary or uninteresting—in other words, “commonplace.” I and others have taken up this point before and in the end, I still land in the same place. I think educational institutions will want and need to supply a local platform that enables things like a common user experience, integration, authentication, identity management, and more. I would assume Blackboard also holds this view. At the same time, I agree with George’s thinking (but not his concern) that the best of these local platforms will follow Sakai 3’s model, and often integrate other tools, enable collaboration and social networking, open their APIs, be delivered via devices not yet invented, and so on. Last but not least, I still think the educational community itself is the best engine for the development of the tools specific to its core mission, like teaching, learning, and research.

In the first category from George’s list, Google’s Sidewiki stands alone as an example of what we might call an independent, “web 2.0” tool that provides some specific functionality that might be used in conjunction with a variety of other tools. There are way too many great examples of such tools to list here, from social bookmarking tools like Delicious to web conferencing tools like DimDim. I don’t think any of these tools alone could stand in for a full learning platform, but any might be used to extend a learning platform, or be cobbled together with a number of complementary tools to approximate an integrated learning platform (earlier, I attempted an instructive, but ultimately unsatisfying, experiment of this nature using Ning at EDU Next).

Sakai 3 will provide the perfect platform to integrate these kinds of tools, from user treats like Sidewiki all the way down the stack to important glue like Apache Jackrabbit. The community designing Sakai 3 is highly conscious of where the boundaries should be drawn: where Sakai should provide native functionality, where it should leverage already existing tools, and where it should leave things open for integration (ie, pretty much everywhere).

The second category in George’s list includes Atlassian’s Confluence wiki and Jive’s social business suite (headquartered right here in our own PDX!). Both are examples of more fulsome systems designed primarily for business that one might see as approximating the capabilities of a learning platform (along with similar examples like Microsoft Sharepoint). Yet one crucial difference separates these business systems from learning platforms like Sakai, Moodle, Desire2Learn, a host of others, and—one would hope, Blackboard itself: namely, none of these systems is designed primarily for education.

One could argue (and I would agree) that education is a lifelong process and that all these systems are tending toward worthy common practices to support it that incorporate capabilities such as user-centered experience, collaboration, integrative mash-ups, and social networking. However in the Sakai community, we believe strongly that our work benefits from our clear, primary focus on education. It may be that from Blackboard’s proprietary, corporate viewpoint, it is harder to tell the difference between their products and these systems designed primarily for business use. We don’t have that concern about our work within Sakai.

The last category in George’s examples is represented by OpenSocial. Not just a tool or platform, OpenSocial represents a more general technology, standard or protocol which any or all of the other examples above might incorporate. We expect to see Sakai 3 integrate OpenSocial along with other such standards and protocols that make sense, just as we have seen in Sakai 2. Examples would include other parts of the open stack (eg, OpenID, OAuth, PoCo, etc), JSR, IMS, and others too. The existence of something like OpenSocial doesn’t obviate the value of an integrated, open source learning platform like Sakai, built by education, for education, any more than it suggests the obsolescence of a proprietary system like Blackboard. Quite the opposite: Sakai’s open platform and community provide an ideal use case for technologies like OpenSocial that cut across systems, opening up, rather than closing down possibilities for integration and creative use.

I thank George for the inspiring tweet and thoughtful list. It helped me turn concern into even greater assurance that Sakai 3 is headed in the right direction.

Addendum: for the full context of the tweets that inspired this post, see below:

@nicolamj tweeted:
@georgekroner I think the idea is that Sakai 3 will be a generation beyond *any* LMS…

@georgekroner tweeted:
@nicolamj Sakai 3 looks great, but my concern is that by the time it is launched what now seems beyond will then be commonplace

@xolotl (that’s me) tweeted:
@georgekroner you suggest planned Sakai 3 capabilities will soon be commonplace. Examples? (cc @nicolamj)

@georgekroner tweeted:
@xolotl @nicolamj re: Sakai 3 concepts http://bit.ly/2LVDnf http://bit.ly/19vzgi http://bit.ly/xwlY http://bit.ly/DE98 http://bit.ly/1HQW5u