What can the OER movement learn from Open Source Software?

For the second year in a row, there was passionate debate at the SUNY OER Champions day over the role of a for-profit company serving as SUNY’s partner. Last year, in response to the debate, I published a piece called “Selling Open: The Conundrum of for-profit companies in the OER Space.” In that piece I tried to ask some questions about how Lumen behaves, and shine a light on some of their practices.

This year, I want to highlight some successful open source applications and the business models around them. There is an old business school cliche that says, “not-for-profit is a tax designation not a business plan.” The same applies to Open Source, the open refers to the ability to download, inspect, use, and modify the source code. Many of the most successful open source projects have companies that support them, continually invest in their development, and have business plans and investors.

Linux: The most used computer software in the world.

Image licensed CC0

You probably encounter Linux much more often than you are aware. Linux is an operating system that powers much of the internet, many mobile devices, and desktop computers. Android is based on a variant of Linux, and most servers use Linux as the operating system.

If you research the history of Linux, you might learn that Linus Torvalds started the Linux operating system as a hobby while he attended school. Linux is an example of the “Benevolent Dictator” model of open source software development, where although Linus took contributions from the community, he maintained the vision and control of what was included in his version of the code. If you stop reading there, you might think that Linux is an organic community made up of likeminded individuals and developers.

However, there are many commercial venders that maintain versions of the software. Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) is a well known example that many institutions use for their servers because of the flexibility of the open source code, and the expertise of profession support, bug fixes and security releases. Red Hat was purchased by IBM for $34 billion dollars. Today, over 80% of the code committed to Linux is made by workers at one of these for profit companies like Red Hat, Intel, Suse, Samsung or Oracle. This website is run on one of the completely free versions of Linux, Ubuntu. Ubuntu would not be possible without the corporate leadership that maintains the Linux ecosystem.

Moodle: The most used Learning Management System around the world.

By Lepoilu8 – Public Domain, Link

In the United States, Canvas is the institutional leader of Learning Management Systems, recently usurping Blackboard of that honor. However, globally Moodle has the largest number of servers and institutions.

Moodle is free and open source software, however Moodle is controlled and maintained by a for profit company, Moodle Pty Ltd. Martin Dougiamas is the original founder of Moodle and continues to control the day to day enterprise of Moodle HQ located in Perth Australia. This highly successful global LMS is another example of the benevolent dictator model, with Moodle HQ tightly controlling the roadmap of the project and maintaining coding standards.

Moodle Pty Ltd offers MoodleCloud as an easy way for educators to start using Moodle for small numbers of users. Plans for a small Moodle server for 100 users cost as little as $80/year and up to 500 users could cost around $1,000.

For larger institutions or more needs, Moodle has an extensive “Moodle Partner” program. When you contract with a Moodle Partner, 10% of your bill goes back to Moodle headquarters for continued development of the platform. An example would be Colgate University, that provides Moodle for their students, but contracts eThink to do the setup, hosting, upgrades, and helpdesk support. An alternative example would be SUNY Delhi that hosts Moodle onsite and uses the cost savings to hire the larger IT workforce needed to keep the mission critical software moving forward. Delhi hosts servers for multiple other SUNY campuses through shared services agreements. Both solutions are possible because of the open source software.

A new development in the financial support of Moodle is the advent of the Moodle Users Association. The Moodle Users Association is a pay to play network of colleges and universities that help define Moodle’s roadmap by suggesting new features to the software and funding the development by Moodle HQ. SUNY Delhi recently resubmitted a proposal that I originally authored to improve the forum module that was voted as a top priority by the Moodle Users Association membership. This needed change will be funded by the MUA up to $100,000 (AUD) and included in Moodle 3.8.

WordPress: The Content Management System that powers 1/3 of the internet.

The WordPress Foundation is the not for profit organization that maintains the website builder that powers a large chunk of the internet. WordPress has a similar open vs corporate dualism.

If you visit WordPress.org, you visit the frontpage of WordPress Foundation. There you can download the source code, and if you have the skills, run WordPress on your own server. I did exactly that when I set up this server running on the Amazon Web Server (AWS).

If you visit WordPress.com, you visit the frontpage of Automattic, a for-profit corporation founded by one of the co-founders of WordPress, Matt Mullenweg. Automattic provides easy hosting for blogs and websites. A variety of companies like Bluehost, Siteground, WPEngine, and Automattic support WordPress to keep the product they sell competitive with the closed license website builders like Weebly.

So what does this mean for Lumen Learning, Pressbooks, and Open Educational Resources

At OER Champions Day, I was confronted for my defense of SUNY’s partnership with Lumen Learning. The speaker asked if I was undermining my own argument if I said I was a believer in OER but at the same time supported compensating the developers and tech support that Lumen provides us. I replied that it was because of my role in IT and my comfort with that conundrum of commercial involvement in open source projects that makes me not feel hypocritical.

I think that Lumen Learning is the best partner for SUNY right now. My support for Lumen Learning isn’t unequivocal however. I have several dealbreakers:

  1. If Lumen Learning moved away from using Open Source tools or stopped sharing its contributions back to the community I would advocate for SUNY to find a different partner.
  2. If Lumen Learning stopped licensing its original content with a Creative Commons License that allows derivatives I would advocate for SUNY to find a different partner.
  3. Finally, I would hope that SUNY will continue to advocate for Lumen to keep their version of open source programs cross compatible with the programs that are freely available to the open source community. Currently any content hosted on Lumen Learning’s Candela and OHM platforms can be very easily copied and cloned onto servers running vanilla Pressbooks or iMathAS. When SUNY negotiates our yearly contract we should continue to insist that Lumen’s forks of these open source tools continue to maintain compatibility with the vanilla Open Source version. The biggest divergence is currently with their theme and LMS integration protocol. SUNY should advocate that they rebuild their book theme as a child theme of Pressbooks Book 2.0 (McLuhan).

There are alternative vendors that enable OER creation and delivery. The Unizin Consortium that represents 25 Universities including Colorado State University, Indiana University, University of Florida, and the University of Michigan have contracted directly with Pressbooks itself for hosting. Based on a 2-year exploration of platforms and OER publishing policy, the Unizin’s OER Authoring Taskforce recommended Pressbooks as the authoring platform. Core Pressbooks has recently benefitted from investment by eCampus Ontario funding that have brought it up to parity with Lumen’s version of Candela with a new book theme, LMS integration, and an improved glossary that is superior to Candela’s. Core Pressbooks does not have the robust grade passthrough or communication features of Lumen’s Waymaker program, and that is an area where Lumen’s platforms are a distinct advantage over core Pressbooks.

Ed Beck is an Instructional Designer at SUNY Oneonta. 

He works with faculty as they develop content for their online, blended, or face to face courses. Interests include Open Educational Resources, collaborative learning, leaning analytics and assessment of learning, and the creation and scaffolding of digital literacy skills across the curriculum.

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