Friday, June 17, 2011

A Today Programme approach to an Open Source vs. Closed Source learning platforms debate

Vegas Pictures 2009 Canon 003
Vegas Pictures 2009 Canon 003 by AdolfGalland. Used under Creative Commons.
I was recently asked to contribute to SecEd magazine on the case for using an Open Source Learning Platform - a piece to go up against an advocate of a "buy a commercial Learning Platform" approach. I didn't know who would be writing the companion / conflicting piece, so it was an odd piece to write. In the end it turned out that Dominic Tester from Costello Technology College was writing the other piece. I've met Dominic at  SSAT learning platform events and he does really good work with CTC's tools, particularly on parental engagement. As I was writing / redrafting / fussing over the piece, knowing it would be edited and thatIcouldn'tfiteverythingIwantedtosayinto800words - in fact on the day I submitted it - I heard Graham Linehan's appearance on the Today Programme to talk about his adaptation of The Ladykillers. You can read about his experience on his Posterous blog or an expanded version on the Guardian's Comment is Free opinion site. Essentially, Linehan thought he was going on the programme to discuss the issues concerned with adapting a film for the stage, with Michael Billington from the Guardian there to provide a wider context. The crux of the issue is in the Guardian piece:
The style of debate practised by the Today programme poisons discourse in this country. It is an arena where there are no positions possible except for diametrically opposed ones, where nuance is not permitted and where politicians are forced into defensive positions of utter banality. None of it is any good for the national conversation.
You can listen to the exchange here, though I'm not sure for how long - but Linehan's irritation with the staged conflict is obvious. I'm not comparing myself to the man who wrote Father Ted and The IT Crowd, nor would I associate Dominic with either Linehan or Billington, but it struck me that we found ourselves in a similar position (I'm not sure what Dominic felt).

I'm not suggesting that any SecEd debate is somehow poisoned - it's not that strong. However, it struck me that having an "either/or" debate on something fairly crucial to schools who want to develop isn't that helpful for decision makers in those schools, who almost certainly won't follow either path, but instead plot a course between. We have plenty of schools who used to use commercial learning platforms and now use Moodle, and there will be schools who change the culture of their school using Moodle and then spend a sizeable budget on another tool in the future. I would loved to have had a constructive exchange of views with someone like Dominic, who is aiming for the same outcomes, using similar approaches, albeit taking a different path to that which I'd recommend. I often find the most interesting opinion pieces in newspapers are those which take the form of a thoughtful exchange of emails or letters from two contributors - which is where the "nuance" that Linehan alludes to might become more clear. If and when I can find a link to an example of this more constructive opinion piece, I'll replace this sentence with a link to it...

Anyway, here's the article as I originally wrote it (the formatting was changed slightly - to fit SecEd's publishing tool? I'm not sure) and some parts were edited out. It also includes direct links to the references. You can see Dominic's piece alongside this (well, underneath, which isn't significant) on the SecEd site, and I recommend that you read both.

Why choose an Open Source option over a proprietary Learning Platform?

When an author or commentator wants to highlight the differences between “commercial” and “open source” tools, some standard statements are often made about these broad categories to attempt to reinforce differences between the two. Such statements normally take these forms:
  • “Commercial products are well-supported, proven, popular and are the route you should go down if you’re serious about [insert whatever function the tools in question are supposed to perform]. Quality and usefulness are directly proportional to how much you pay for something.” 
  • “Open source products are unsupported, flaky, unreliable and unproven. They are interesting, but only if you are at the geeky end of the spectrum, or have a room of tame geeks at your disposal. They’re cheap - and remember, quality and usefulness are directly proportional to how much you pay for something. Using something which is non-commercial is an indication that you’re not serious about the task that it’s trying to perform.”
This is a false distinction for a number of reasons, so let’s deal with some of them, starting with the “quality and usefulness” one. It goes without saying that any school can take on an open-source tool and use it well and effectively, or do the same with a commercial tool. However, to read some of the marketing from commercial learning platform providers you might think that you can parachute a glossy product into your school and transform learning without the need for good leadership, thoughtful & committed staff and an inquisitive and dynamic learning environment. In such an environment any tool, used well, can make a difference [1] - even the ones which don’t involve your bursar signing off on a five- or six-figure contract.

The “open source vs. commercial” dichotomy is a false one, as to use an open source tool effectively requires spending at least a little time or money - and “commercial” simply means “someone makes money from it”. A better way is to see it as a choice [2] between “closed source” (where you as a user have a negligible influence over the direction of what you’re using - if at all) and “open source” (meaning you as an educator can influence,shape and, if you want to, even help build the world’s most popular online learning tool). Imagine asking Microsoft if they wouldn’t mind changing the way PowerPoint works because your staff or students always struggle with an element of it - unless your surname’s Gates or Ballmer (or maybe even Jobs) that’s unlikely to happen. With an Open Source project, you can really influence the direction of travel.

The “free” aspect of Open Source is often cited as a demeaning characteristic - if I had a pound for every time I’ve been told that we as a Local Authority only offered Moodle (an Open Source tool and the world’s leading Virtual Learning Environment) to our schools “because it was free or cheap” I’d be a rich man - actually, I’d probably have enough to pay for about a week’s subscription to some of the more expensive commercial alternatives to Moodle. We use Moodle due to its quality - not because of its lack of licensing fees. Choosing Moodle has given us genuine freedom - over our own destiny. We can change it or implement it if and when we want to and pair it with what we like (integrations with SIMS [3], other MISs, Google Apps for Education [4], Microsoft’s Live@edu [5], Adobe Connect [6], Microsoft Office [7]  and many other tools are available). Our schools can start to use it when they are ready to, not simply because they’ve paid out for a significant contract whose clock is ticking.

Using Moodle as an example, you can pay for as much as you’d like to, including:
  • training - someone to help or show you how to best use the tool;
  • hosting - a third party to host the software - unless you want to host it in school;
  • support - someone on the phone to talk you through how to do something;
  • or none of these.
You’re in control. The critical thing is that you’re not paying for all sorts of things which won’t benefit you and by definition you don’t need - that glossy marketing campaign in a part of the world you and your students don’t inhabit, the you’ve bought our product for n years and feel obliged to use it so please pay through the nose training sessions, or the needs of shareholders and venture capitalists who pumped money into a company when the winds of Government were blowing funding towards Learning Platforms. As a long-time advocate of Open Source options for Learning Platforms one of the most interesting times for me was February 2010, when the parent company of the StudyWiz learning platform hit the financial rocks [8] - and what this meant for those schools and LAs who had backed that particular horse in the Learning Platform Stakes. A school using Moodle via a commercial host which encountered the same problem could simply move its data to a new host & carry on, as they are using what is effectively a lingua franca of online learning..

I’ve had the privilege of supporting all sorts of schools in using Learning Platforms effectively and have lost count of the number of staff I’ve worked with who have used Moodle in Singapore, Spain, France, Belgium to name a few countries - and been able to bring their resources with them to schools in England, without having to recreate them anew. In Australia, Brazil, the US, Sweden, South Africa, Finland and all around the world a community of learning teachers and educationalists can (and are) shaping the way in which new pedagogies are developing across the globe. Some, like the Open University, LSE, & hundreds of huge institutions [9] invest time, money & resource in Moodle knowing that this will feed back into its global community of users as well as benefiting their own. Others - small primary schools, voluntary organisations, faith groups, individuals - teach and innovate using the same tool on a more organic scale. Both ends of the scale contribute to and gain from a global project that’s open in all senses of the word. Whether you buy into the latest Government strategy [10] or not, most people would agree that this constitutes a pretty big Society.

Complete reference list.


  1. I'm currently in school and not in a position to write at length about it, but some very valid points made here. I do agree with your sentiments about being in a similar position to that you have eluded to. I too find some most of the well informed journalism where there is angled, thought provoking discussion, not necessarily debate netween two, or more parties. I think that the fact that there is some more formalised thinking being published into the public domain can only help but set this as a topic for discussion on the education agenda. I totally agree with your statement about the false dichotomy being in place. You always have to pay to play - on one level or another in this day and age. I will have a good read of your original article tonight and flesh a few of my thoughts around it - is there a truly right answer? I'm not o sure there is, it is about being based on context - knowledge, understanding, skills, access to resources that leads effective decision making.

  2. I think I actually agree with everything here, from the Today programme criticism to the points you make. Many people think open source users are calling for use of open source for everything, that's not true, it's about the best tool for the job at the best price, open source isn't the answer to everything but it shouldn't be discounted by any means.

    I hope you don't me linking to my old blog post "Why I've fallen for Moodle" at which makes many similar points.

  3. I do prefer opensource then proprietary for some software. But, actually there still no open source software can beat Ms.Office. Hope OpenOffice will be upgraded and as user-friendly as Ms' one. :)

  4. To my mind this is an excellent piece. I particularly like it for discussing: some of the key fallacies often brought up in blunt comparisons between proprietary and open source software, the natural tendency towards sensationalism in journalism and some genuine advantages the use of free and open source learning platforms can offer. I also appreciate the suggestion to read Dominic’s article which seems far from diametrically opposed. I have a good deal of interest in how or why there is a perception that usability is an advantage on proprietary platforms. Regardless of the method of production of the software most schools have a similar goal here; any chance to share good practice regarding usability and design will likely benefit all involved.

    I’d also agree that it is clear that free and open source software is unlikely to offer a solution for every requirement; this means that software based on the supposedly opposed methods of production are likely to be used alongside and/or in combination with each other. This idea is not new; the two largest technology companies by market capitalisation (Apple, IBM) have made extensive use of open source software in their products and offerings for some time now. I’d suggest this is now a feature of nearly every large company in the sector.

    To the post that suggests there is no equal to Microsoft Office in the open source ecosystem. Regardless of opinions on software quality or usability, it would be easier for local government to follow guidance on the use of open formats and standards:
    “Open standards will underpin all new solutions wherever possible and all documents will use open document formats (such as ODF, PDF and OOXML) wherever practical”

    If Microsoft would fully implement the open standard (ISO/IEC 29500 agreed in 2008) in a shipping product. The alternative standard (ISO/IEC 26300:2006) commonly known as ODF which is implemented in open office is surely preferable at this point? That is assuming local government is to attempt to move to such agreed open standards/formats by 2012.

    Whilst this may not be a requirement for schools currently, there are compelling reasons why avoiding a software vendor "lock in" is beneficial when choosing a format for your own data. In my opinion this avoidance of "lock in" can (and should) be applied to learning platforms just as it can to document formats.