Open source in the education field

Dave Tosh, project manager of the elgg project, has a post suggesting that the open source model doesn’t work. He should know, given his three years working on elgg.

My interest in the post is due to a number of factors. I’m hoping to install and use elgg for my group here at CQU – that’s a task for tomorrow. I’m a long-term “open source” fan/promoter in various shapes and forms. That said, I’ve also had similar concerns as those expressed by Dave.

Though I must say that any conclusions based on an empirical data set of 1 case is not real strong. I also wonder how much of this post is due to the regular frustration that comes with being part of a software project. Especially one has good and challenging as elgg.

I think elgg, and more importantly the people behind it, has what it takes to succeed. Dave, for what it’s worth, stick with it.

Is it the education sector

Harold Jarche makes a good point that may it is open source in the education market that doesn’t work? Harold suggests that university IT departments might be to blame.

There may be some point in that, but I think it is more than that, at least in the case of elgg.

The devil you know

Most university IT departments I know have a reasonable reliance on open source applications. Usually apache, MySQL and the like. Something that the lower level staff can install and use. Something that most people can understand, it’s a database or a web server. These projects are also big and well known. It’s almost getting to the stage of the old “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” statement. These systems are known. Are known to be good and are known to be used by a lot of institutions.

elgg is a different kettle of fish. First, it’s one of these “social software” things which reject much of the traditional beliefs of IT and management people. It actively challenges the hierarchical, command and control understanding of management. It’s this novelty that makes it that much harder for a project like elgg to get acceptance.

That acceptance, amongst management, is important if the revenue stream is going to come. Most of the bottom of folk using elgg don’t have access to funds, in large amounts, to help the project along. It’s the institutional money that’s needed and that requires management acceptance and understanding (the former is easier than the latter, and the latter is not necessarily required for the former).

This is why Moodle has found it much easier to get acceptance. For management, Moodle is just an open source course management system. A type of system they are already comfortable with. A type of system that is causing them problems, in terms of maintenance, cost and flexibility. Moodle is a solution to an existing problem. I’m not sure management see elgg the same way. Hence it’s a harder sell.

Even with this easier path, the main way Moodle is succeeding is when a new senior manager is appointed at an institution and brings with them an interest in open source or Moodle. I believe this is what happened at the Open University in the UK.

Novelty is a hard slog

Doing things different is a much harder sell. Takes longer for the pay back, longer for mindsets to change.

There’s more to say on this, but it’s getting late and the mind is freezing.

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