Building an open source learning ecosystem: does anyone want to?

My Learning Ecosystem by ianguest, on FlickrLast week I saw a few tweets in between sessions whilst I was at the ASME annual scientific meeting (#ASMEASM2014) from the annual Blackboard World get together.  Over the weekend I read a few articles and this piece in Inside Higher Ed – The post-LMS LMS caught my eye.

IHE report that Chuck Severance, who’s Chair of the Sakai Project Board has commented that this year’s round of LMS/VLE vendors have been characterised by their lack of major announcements.

“I think we’re in a weird place right now in the marketplace — partly because there’s a lot of parity between the systems,” Severance said. “You can almost throw a dart at a dartboard and pick an LMS, and it won’t be that bad.”

He added, “Everyone is struggling to figure out what the next steps are.”

The article goes on to mention that the major LMS/VLE platforms are embracing interoperability standards and moving to the notion of a marketplace of apps and add-ons rather than trying to build clunky bloated tools into their platforms.  This leads us back to the notion of an online learning ecosystem which includes different tools that hopefully are all usable and do what’s actually needed.  The piece ends with Chuck Severance reminding us that the notion of a learning ecosystem was something that was talked about years ago in educational technology circles.

The idea of a learning ecosystem was a hot topic at ed-tech conferences years ago, Severance said, but instead “everything fell back to ‘let’s all stay inside our silos.’”

“Everyone wants to make proprietary ecosystems,” Severance said. “That’s not what a learning ecosystem is.”

How true – we’re still stuck in walled gardens and too often teachers are given a technology and told to use it rather than starting with what and how they want to teach and looking at what tools might best support and enhance what they’re trying to achieve.

Severance continues:

“Higher education needs to be present with real participation to ensure that the right things happen, and that it doesn’t just go to the quickest, dirtiest solution it can possibly be,” Severance said. “The sad thing is that if an open ecosystem does not get built, a closed ecosystem will. If the open-source people don’t stand up and actually get involved …, then we’ll just wait for the vendors to tell us how much it costs.”

Is there an appetite to develop this open learning ecosystem?  At first glance it would seem that in the current climate of cuts and reduced funding in HE in the UK that perhaps this isn’t achievable.  In times of plenty we seem to have seen lots of projects funded and technical solutions developed which haven’t been sustained and adopted by the wider community.  There are countless reasons for this, I have my own thoughts, but sometimes it’s when we have to be a bit more resourceful and creative that we can work together and come up with solutions that work.  The wider issue is whether HE in the UK buys into the open source ethos and I’m not sure it does in the way that other sectors have.
Are there others interested in working together to build an open learning ecosystem and can we make it happen?  Or is everyone past caring?  Back in March Joss Winn from Lincoln talked about hacking the University at the JISC Digifest.  In the medical and healthcare professions education field we’re now working on organising two hackday events, is there anything similar happening in HE more broadly?  Perhaps everyone’s happy with proprietary solutions?
Image Attribution
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  ianguest  


  1. Great summary of the situation and I think that you hit the nail on the head. We are well aware of how much we are trapped in stovepipes. Even an open source LMS like Sakai is not a ticket to real freedom – it just means that it is easier to change our stovepipe. The problem is that it takes a lot of ground-level investment and coordination to get to “escape velocity” and the problem I see is how to get folks to invest at the early stage where we are defining new foundations that will lead to this super responsive and flexible world. I see one of two ways of funding the effort to build a new “base technology” that makes this easy. One way is to simply give folks in Higher Education IT some 20% time and a bit of travel money and let them flow to the best ideas and make real investments in those ideas. The second way is for a funding agency like JISC to award funds that lead in the right direction. But since these awards are competitive the right way to get funds is to promise the moon and claim to solve all the problems of learning using maching learning and text analysis – this gets you the funding but they you completely fail to deliver because you proposed something that was impossible. Funding agencies need to stop funding impossible “swing for the boundary” attempts and fund efforts that can make a few runs here and there. These smaller more feasible efforts will lead to real change over time.

    1. Hi Chuck – I like your first suggestion about giving guys in HE IT some time to get on with it, but unfortunately not sure that’s likely to happen. With the changes to Jisc here in the UK not sure if they any longer have money to fund this. I’d like to see the two groups come together and find some creative ways to tackle this the key though is having leadership in HE that really gets this and at the moment I think that’s perhaps one of the key things that’s missing. I’m not going to give up though!

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