WebCT and Open Source – a rather more reasoned approach

I was in a foul mood the other day when I posted the open source robbery article and totally accept the view that it was, to put it mildly, pretty hostile and not particularly constructive… will try to be moreso this time and explain a bit of my gut reaction.

I think that what Michael has to say about the subject is spot on (as is his funky ‘more’ link, how do ya do that??)… we do need powerful, robust and more-than-likely well supported administrative systems for big institutions and it does seem that if WebCT / Blackboard etc. are good at anything then this is probably it. Am not sure about the operating system though… think we’re taking an evil MS metaphor a bit too far there.

What Scott says is also totally valid, there is definitely a move towards interoperability here, well, at least towards a ‘semblance’ of interoperability, but I guess that my concern is that there’s a lot of lip-service there and that really these companies don’t want to, don’t intend to and aren’t really up for becoming interoperable in any sense.

And in that sense I quote the WebCT rep who commented on that post (good on him for doing so BTW… I’m impressed) who said:

“…Our customers can also use the SDK to integrate with either their homegrown applications or potentially open source applications that may be used on campus.

We have created a site called the Vista DevNet, where licensed customers have access to resources, forums, how-tos, etc. all related to the use of the SDK. A key component of DevNet is a contributions area where institutions can share the code that they have developed, so that others can either use it or build upon it.

We are not integrating open source applications into WebCT – for example, the phpWiki integration allows instructors to easily link from Vista to the wiki application and provides some workflow aids. The two products still run on their respective servers, and no phpWiki code is incorporated into Vista….”

[To which I might ask, what exactly is the ‘WebCT Wiki Integration Toolkit 0.1’ then, just out of interest? Can I hack phpwiki to fit my needs in this context? What’s the difference between an independent phpWiki installation and this? How much are you selling it for? And are you offering the authentication / workflow systems in an open sense so I can, for example, integrate them with Elgg, or WordPress or any other tools I choose?]

Here are my issues:

These companies are in a very competitive and very rewarding market. They have big investors or are publicly listed and, let’s face it, are responsible to make as much as they can.

They also have a stranglehold over this market, moreorless… especially in Australia. And they don’t want to lose it. This is based largely in them providing the ‘One Solution’ product and tying it in with other tools which they have lucrative commercial relationships with. They will do anything to maintain this model and their ‘duopoly’. They’re compelled to by the market.

I, however, don’t believe that education should be so much for sale (that there should be so much money able to be made out of it) or that it is in education’s interest to have such dominating market leaders. Also, I am absolutely committed to the vision of online education becoming a sustainable and multi-faceted environment, as affordable and accessible so that any teacher can use it and as varied and subvertable as any classroom or progressive curriculum.

And to me the appropriation of the tools that will help us achieve this by the WebCTs of this world through stuff like the ‘WebCT Wiki Integration Toolkit 0.1’ is bad news. It’s the same approach that gets people to shop at K-Mart for everything even though they can get a much greater range, quality and price just down the road… and they are not doing it out of a philanthropic to help us teach and learn online better. They’re doing it to lock in the $s.

Granted it’s open source, they can do pretty much what they want with it, that’s their right. But it makes my stomach turn to think of what could be and what might be if this ‘integration’ concept picks up like Scott and others are observing.