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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More? Or Less? Google CloudCourse

Google Cloud CourseAfter the announcement of Google’s CloudCourse being open-sourced, I decided to give it a try and see exactly what’s under the hood…at the very least, it would give me a chance to try out a Django app via Google App Engine, which alone is worth the time.

Long story short: I got CloudCourse up and running in a matter of minutes.

Any hullabaloo that CloudCourse as it stands now is a serious contender to existing full-featured online learning systems like Sakai, Moodle, Blackboard, or Desire2Learn is premature. CloudCourse is at its root a scheduling and rostering application, clearly designed for the internal training needs it was apparently developed to serve. No educational institution will be migrating from their current LMS to CloudCourse any time soon.

On the other hand, CloudCourse comes very close to serving a large chunk of the needs of commercial training: an application that enables various training opportunities to be scheduled, attendees to register, and attendance to be recorded. As long as training and assessment materials are developed and delivered externally, CloudCourse’s open source Django foundation would allow relatively easy integration with any remaining missing pieces, such as ecommerce integration, certification, etc. A small commercial training firm with some technical expertise or a larger firm with sizable internal training needs might pick up CloudCourse and extend it to their needs without huge effort.

The larger, subterranean story here is that with CloudCourse, Google adds one more (little) tool into its suite of not-yet-fully-integrated applications that together do indeed approximate—and in some cases far outstrip (eg, Google Wave)—current LMS capabilities. If Google decided to focus on this area and integrate its various offerings—probably not so much for profit as for mindshare—the capabilities they could offer at a price that would blow proprietary systems out of the water would radically transform the educational technology space.

People complain about Blackboard’s near monopoly now, but in a couple of years, Google could make Blackboard cease to matter—if Google decided to bother. Open source communities like Sakai and Moodle should also take heed: we offer deep value neither Google nor any of the proprietary LMS platforms offer, but where, when, and how do we add value in an environment where the cost of the educational technology infrastructure approaches zero?

For Google, one huge issue remains: how to gain trust in the storage and use of educational data. After all, we’re talking about our children here, and as any student of history knows, nothing is more sacred than our children.

Where is Sakai headed? Or: I want my user-centered mash-up with extra gravy!

Hearing Chuck Severance’s presentation at JA-SIG St Paul 2008 about work on the IMS Learning Tools Interoperability 2.0 (LTI) standard restarted some thinking I’d already been doing about where online learning technology is (should be?) headed.

Severance sketched out a model enabled by IMS LTI in which the online learning environment has evolved into a kind of personal workspace, where the user makes choices about what tools appear. Some tools could appear automatically, chosen by the user’s institution, instructor or group organizer. Other tools would be chosen only by the user and could come from either a trusted local service or a wide variety of external sources.

Later in St Paul, the Sakai team at Cambridge University showcased the work they’ve been doing to repackage and deliver Sakai content and tools outside the Sakai framework via JSON into a user-centered dashboard that can also consume and display other similar tools, widgets or services.

At the same time, I’ve been watching what seems like the leading wave of online application design—mostly outside higher education in that space that I’ll call “social media” and “Web 2.0” for lack of a better terms. That wave is headed toward or has in many ways already arrived at a place that matches the user-centered, distributed toolset scenario that Severance gestured toward and Cambridge has enacted.

Sakai ED Michael Korcuska asked Severance the obvious question: Will Sakai—or other learning environments—disappear in the individualized, distributed world he described? I found myself agreeing with Severance’s answer that Sakai or other online learning systems will not disappear. Institutions will continue to want and need an environment where they supply and control some of—or even most of—the user experience.

But where does that leave Sakai as a project?

First, Sakai can and should tell a true story in which it has been moving down this very path toward the user-centered mash-up with extra gravy at a fast clip. Starting out with its web content tool, feed aggregation and consumers for web services, Sakai is now leagues ahead with Cambridge’s working code, Severance’s groundwork, and probably other things as well.

But next Sakai must fully adopt this trajectory as its future. Sakai should evolve toward a well-made, flexible and receptive user-centered container and a collection of first-rate tools for teaching, learning and collaboration that can appear here, there and everywhere.

What will be important in this future? For starters, the Sakai container should be optimzed for education and innovation: usable, accessible, quality-assured and easy to fill with the widest possible variety of other functionality. Key tools for education like tests and quizzes and gradebooks, developed by educators, for educators will continue to have high priority.

Next, Sakai should focus on delivering tools that provide standards-aware interoperability—the glue that will stick all these various tools together, for the user, for the institution, and for the larger conversations and purposes that cross and combine users and institutions. These tools should provide common services—like gradability, testability, tagability, commentability, shareability—that can be applied to items generated by any source.

By fully embracing this model, Sakai can further differentiate itself from proprietary systems like Blackboard, Angel and Desire2Learn, which may also see this future emerging, but have little financial incentive to embrace such a loss of central control, and even if they do are less likely to be able to deliver it anytime soon.