open source

More than features: Criteria for software selection

This report suggests that institutions should pay attention to more than just the features of a given platform. OpenSource (Sakai) and closed-source (Blackboard) systems alike relying on the Java enterprise approach are often too heavyweight for relatively small institutions. Even a basic install requires enterprise-level support. Moreover, more lightweight equivalents Moodle, Elgg and Drupal can be up and running on a single left-over machine and scale up when uptake increases.

Gluing it all together

If we lived in a perfect world, we could design a learning system that would do everything right the first time and serve us perfectly forever after. However, in such a world, we could never get to the system which tends to evolve in similar ways organisms evolve. New revs mutate and some mutations are more suitable to the current environment so they survive. That's how we got some of the best in Web2.0 design inspite of the mirriad of Web2.0 mutations that didn't make it. In other words, this evolutationary approach is a great metaphorical vehicle for technological progress.

Institutional courage for personalised learning?

Bradford college are involved in an interesting JISC sponsored project starting last year involving using ELGG and Moodle to set up a social network.

SpaCE-FD Project Website The proposal also seeks to establish a more seamless link between students, College tutors, and work-based mentors (WBMs), and to open up opportunities for greater collaboration in learning.

I was immediately impressed by the fact that the project aims and approach but also by the fact that it has a website with a blog. I'm planning to investigate the project more but a closer looked revealed that there is only one substantive Blog post at the moment, entitled 'Cannot trust students' (there are some more but those are just testing Live Writer):

Bruce Stafford :Cannot Trust Students: Blog Hi All, We have been informed by Tim, that the Bradford College's net policy regarding collaborative sites is restrictive for operational reasons. If students were given the right to create communities, it is felt that there would be a plethora of such, which could lead to server capacity problems. So we create our communities, and we invite the student into a community which corresponds to their study modules. Those students involved in a single community, could then communicate with each other within that community. Meanwhile, the Moodle site remains the main repository, from which the student downloads the course and module details, along with any learning materials on that subject.

The passage in bold reminded me of how often innovative technological efforts run into restrictive institutional policies from a different age. It is inconceivable that students could create so many groups that it would overwhelm the server! An Elgg group is just a few database entries so the worst thing that could happen is that students would upload large files that can be restricted in other ways. But even if that were the case, I would imagine that the college should be thrilled and run out to buy more servers with a song in their heart! Students have become engaged in the social aspects of their learning and they want to participate. What could be better? You cannot put a price on that!

There are several deeper questions here?

  • Can schools whose first instinct is a close flow of information down and protect privacy effectively support a social space where inappropriate happenings are inevitable? Are institutions willing to reduce their risk-avoidance strategies and deal with the consequences? I've been in a number of meetings that have descended into listings of nightmare scenarios of what could happen describing things that almost never happen. But are a few offensive postings enough to prevent the freedom of expression to a whole cohort of students?(*) But what of those inoffensive postings that are strange and non-learning related or extremely (even unjustifiably) critical of the institution itself? Again, listening to the learners' voice is not always pretty and doesn't always conform to our ideal scenarios of happy self-actualising learners. But aren't we responsible to them and to ourselves to hear what is being said even if we don't like it? All of this requires courage!
  • Should traditional IT departments maintain infrastructure and support innovation. These groups are generally understaffed and mis-qualified so their first instinct is to close things down with corporate closed-source technologies so that an external vendor is responsible for any outages and users have no scope to experiment with things and even break them. This goes against the Open Source agile development ethos of 'fail fast, fail cheap, fail often'. Experimentation and growth in technology requires failure along the way. But admitting failure at the end of a three-year project with massive investment into licences is much more difficult than after a few months of experimenting with a free and open-source platform! But institutional leadership often has to rely on the advice of the very people (IT managers) who it's tryign to supervise. So opening up policies may not be easy. Particularly since often IT departments have to justifiably rein in overenthusiastic managers. How do we provice a safe and creative space for experimentation in this context?
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