Acquisitions and Realignments
I spent the last three weeks visiting Sakai communities in Japan and South Africa, and attending annual regional conferences in both countries. It was a fascinating trip, and particularly interesting to note the similarities and differences between Sakai communities growing in local contexts. In Japan, there is a particular focus on localization and internationalization. The Ja Sakai community have agreed to a series of common approaches, including a common translation vocabulary, and are contributing the results of their work back to the broader community when it is appropriate. This is a sign of the increasing strength and maturity of regional Sakai communities.
Just as they have in North America, our commercial affiliates are helping Sakai grow in other parts of the world. In South Africa, Japan, and Spain there are emerging ecosystems and networks of support for Sakai adoption. Our commercial affiliates provide service offerings which encourage adoption, and act as focal points to pool resource for local development and adaptation. Elsewhere in Europe, in the Russian Federation, Mexico, and Argentina, commercial affiliates are beginning to play a similar role.
In coming months we'll see regional Sakai conferences in Abu Dhabi, Mexico, Australia, and an Ibero-American event in Brazil. All of these events, bar one, have significant levels of support from Commercial Affiliates. All will help to cohere and grow regional communities.
This acts in part to set some context for the main educational technology news event of the week - Blackboard's acquisition of Moodlerooms in the US, and NetSpot in Australia, and their recruitment of Chuck Severance to help develop a Sakai component of a broader services offering around open source software. I hope I've demonstrated, for those who need it, that far from being anti-commercial, Sakai has always sought to stimulate the growth of an ecosystem in which commercial partners play a significant role. So how should we treat this week’s news from this part of the commercial world?
First, a rather general and obvious consideration: ten years ago this would have been unthinkable. An open source service offering by Blackboard, with the support, one assumes, of its new private equity backers, is a measure of how far higher education has travelled towards acceptance of open source licensed software. Communities such as Sakai, Jasig, Kuali and DuraSpace have played a major advocacy role in effecting this change.
It’s also worth examining Blackboard itself. The company has changed significantly – and here I’m not judging supposed intentions, but observable actions. There has been no repetition of the unsuccessful patent suit of a few years back. Blackboard is no longer narrowly focused on the LMS marketplace, and has spread its interests across broader areas within the higher education enterprise. Whatever one’s opinion of that, it makes profound sense, in this context, for the company to both spread risk, and not to allow an institutional choice of LMS to block off potential sales in other areas. Will this be plain sailing? I doubt it. It will be interesting to observe how this weeks news plays out in practice - including areas where, for example, different parts of Blackboard this week might have been competing for business last week.
Those of us who were engaged in or around the patent suit, or indeed who have witnessed Blackboard acquiring competitors have a right to treat these developments with a degree of suspicion. It would be unnatural, in many respects, not to be suspicious.
It's important to set suspicion aside, at least to an extent, and take a more clinical view. Blackboard has outlined a business plan, which includes commercial support and hosting for open source software, which potentially includes Sakai. There are dangers inherent in this, but there are also opportunities. There is little evidence, of course, as to how this will play out as yet. But there are some pretty clear criteria by which we can judge.
Half a decade ago, IT leaders in education were interviewed to uncover the reasons for their increasing support for open source licensed software. Their concerns with proprietary software – documented by the authors of 'Software and Collaboration in Higher Education: A Study of Open Source Software' (often known as 'The Courant Report') – centered around cost, performance and control. The same IT leaders also noted the potential for monopolization of the relatively small higher education software marketplace, and resulting negative impact on the ability to innovate. These concerns are at least as valid today as they were in 2006. Indeed, one might argue that there is rather more evidence now than then to support them.
Community source, and open source in higher education, came into being to support a range of needs, including those surrounding choice, and control which were highlighted in the Courant Report. Ultimately, we should assess the impact of the week’s developments from precisely the perspective of how they impact choice, control, and our ability to innovate, over time. Which brings us around to those things a commercial entity can’t buy, or hire, but can learn to participate in - the Sakai community itself.
The Sakai community faces many challenges. Resourcing the continued support and development of the Sakai Collaboration and Learning Environment, whilst at the same time developing a next generation environment for academic collaboration, the Open Academic Environment, are pretty all-consuming activities. The example of Blackboard’s broader offering to our institutions, alongside many other increasingly consolidated commercial vendors, should provoke some broader thought and conversations. There has been a discernable growth in what one might term multiple ‘open agendas’ within higher education over the last several years – open source software, open content, open data, open publication, open education. There are more. As yet, the organizational expression of those agendas has tended to create external silos mirroring those within our institutions. I am not for a moment suggesting a wholesale throwing together of organizations supporting those multiple open agendas. I am suggesting, however, that we need to begin to seriously consider broader, structured collaboration to move those open agendas forward, and gain economies and synergies across them.