OSS Watch at ALT-C next week

I’ll be at ALT-C next Tuesday to  talk about Open Source Options for Education as part of the “OERs and OSSs” session in the morning. I’ll also be around for the rest of the day so feel free to collar me for a chat about anything OSS-related!

Here’s the session details to whet your appetite:

Levelling the playing field for open source in education and public sector

Open Source Software (OSS) offers many potential benefits for procuring organisations, including reduced costs and greater flexibility.

The UK Cabinet Office has taken an active role in levelling the playing field for Open Source Software (OSS) in the procurement of IT systems in the public sector.

This has included a set of open standards principles that favour Royalty-Free standards (UK Cabinet Office 2012a), and a procurement toolkit that includes open source options for commonly procured types of system (UK Cabinet Office 2012b).

These interventions are necessary, as many organisations in the public sector have procurement policies and processes that – whether intentionally or otherwise – exclude open source alternatives from selection, even where it would save organisations money or provide them with the systems that best fit their needs.

This also applies within the education sectors, and OSS Watch, based at the University of Oxford, has worked with the Cabinet Office on extending this guidance to the education sector, publishing Open Source Options for Education (Johnson et al., 2012). This lists open source alternatives for many IT solutions used in education, including subject-specific applications.

In this session we will introduce Open Source Options and the Cabinet Office guidance, and explain how it can be used to open up procurement in education institutions.
We will also invite delegates to contribute their own suggestions for open source alternatives they have used in their own work to include in the options.

UK Cabinet Office. (2012a). Open Standards: Open Opportunities – flexibility and efficiency in government IT, https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/open-standards-open-opportunities-flexibility-and-efficiency-in-government-it

UK Cabinet Office. (2012b). Open Source Options. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/open-source-procurement-toolkit

Johnson, M., Wilson, S., Wilson, R. (2012). Open Source Options for Education. http://www.oss-watch.ac.uk/resources/ossoptionseducation

MOOC provider EdX goes open source – with an interesting choice of licence

Earlier this month EdX, the nonprofit organisation set up by MIT and Harvard to provide a MOOC platform, released part of its code under an open source licence – the Affero GPL.

MOOCs – “Massive Online Open Courses” – have been hitting the headlines frequently in 2013, with high profile proponents and some big name backers. (For a good overview of the subject, I’d recommend reading MOOCs and Open Education: Implications for Higher Education, a white paper published by CETIS.)

The meaning of “Open” in MOOCs has been variously argued; however the prevailing model is one of open access to higher education, but not necessarily provided using an open platform.

The earliest MOOCs, and those operated by individuals or collectives rather than companies, have tended to operate using combinations of free of charge – though not necessarily open – services such as those offered by Google, WordPress, and Twitter, coordinated using open source course management platforms such as Moodle.

However, most of the high-profile commercially-oriented MOOCs have operated a bespoke online service based on either proprietary software, or solutions built using open source software but not necessarily available for others to replicate due to the so-called privacy loophole; that is, the modifications made to the software to deliver the service are not themselves required to be distributed to users.

The EdX announcement is interesting for two reasons – firstly that they are the first high profile MOOC provider to release open source – and secondly that they are doing so under the AGPL, one of a small number of open source licenses that specifically address the “privacy loophole”. This means that if you create your own MOOC service using EdX’s XBlock software, you must make the source code for the service – include your modifications – available to download under the AGPL. This is a form of “service provider copyleft” that ensures that EdX will have access to any improvements on their platform used by third parties.

This can be seen as a very cautious move – using the AGPL will ensure no other services can improve on the codebase without EdX getting access. However its also quite a bold one as it makes a clear distinction between how EdX sees “open” in contrast with Coursera, Udacity and others. (It remains to be seen what direction the UK’s FutureLearn initiative will take). It will also be interesting to see if other components of EdX will be released, and if so whether they will also use AGPL.

For more information on how online services use open source licenses, see How Can Services Be Open Source? 

The EdX XBlock code is available on Github.

Open Sankoré: Open source whiteboard software

Interactive whiteboards are something you find in pretty much every school, college and university these days. Mostly these come from one of two companies, Smart and Promethean, both of which also supply the main software application that typically teachers and students interact with. This application is closed source and runs on Windows and does some basic things like allowing the teacher or student to draw on the board using drawing tools, import presentations and documents, and include some interactive content.

Open Sankoré is an open source whiteboard application, and it does basically the same kinds of thing the Smart and Promethean software does.

Whats also surprising about it is that it also implements the W3C Widgets specification for its interactive content. Which means as well as scribbling notes on documents, and doing drawings, you can also drag in widgets developed for Apache Wookie or created using Widgat or MyCocktail and use those on the whiteboard.

Both Promethean and Smart have also been working on adopting W3C Widgets for a common interactive content standard – Smart even integrated Apache Wookie in prototypes for the ITEC project – but seemed to have problems bringing that innovation to market.

I had a play around with the application and it looks like a very good drop-in replacement for standard whiteboard software, and also works on other kinds of devices. In the screen capture below, I’ve added my Monster Math game widget and a Venn Diagram widget I created – you can also see some of the built-in ones in the palette on the right-hand side of the screen:

You can also record your activity live and publish it directly to YouTube, which is a nice touch allowing you to easily create and distribute tutorials as open educational resources.

I’m particularly keen to give it a try with a homebrew interactive whiteboard using a projector and a wii remote using the instructions from Johnny Lee:

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Smart and Promethean have been having issues recently with declining revenues, which has prompted Promethean to start making some noises about going open source lately so it will be interesting to see how this story plays out. If it continues to improve and to match the features of the main closed-source offerings, Open Sankoré definitely has the potential to disrupt the market – imagine partnerships with commodity hardware manufacturers, for example.

Open Sankoré can be downloaded from http://open-sankore.org/ and the source code can be accessed from the developer site.

The project uses a GPL license, and according to its governance information it appears to operate using a meritocratic governance model.

Google releases online education software

Over to Peter Norvig, Google’s Director of Research:

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Course Builder is in fact a means of building dynamic online teaching materials that must be hosted on Google’s Cloud Platform-as-a-Service App Engine. So although the code itself is open source, it is closely linked with a paid service provided by the code’s authors. While there is a partial open source implementation of App Engine  which might potentially allow institutions to host their own courses built using this software, it is not clear at the moment whether Course Builder is compatible with it. Certainly this thread in the Course Builder forums seems to imply that, for the moment at least, Google’s App Engine platform is a necessary component.

This provides an interesting example of open source code being used to leverage uptake of an associated service. App Engine’s charging model involves a free tier of resource usage below which users are not charged. Go above that level, and you will start getting bills.

Also of interest is the fact that Google are positively encouraging users to share the materials and courses they create using the software, with discussion groups dedicated to code and to content side by side. If this invitation to collaborate is accepted by the educational community, it could provide another impetus for institutions to take up App Engine use, as a key to using third party materials. Overall it’s a generous contribution to the corpus of educational software by Google, and one that may well help them drive custom to their services.

Moodle Hosting at ULCC – A Case Study

As with many Higher Education institutions, Manchester Metropoliton University (MMU) recently faced the challenge of migrating its Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) from WebCT Vista, which was purchased by Blackboard in 2006 and is approaching its end of life.  MMU’s choice was to migrate to the open source Moodle VLE, using a solution hosted at the University of London Computing Center (ULCC), a decision which perfectly demonstrates the flexibility and commercial potential of Open Source software.

I spoke to Mark Stubbs, Professor and Head of Learning and Research Technology at MMU, and Frank Steiner, Marketing Manager at ULCC, at this week’s ALT-C conference in Manchester.

“Students don’t see the join between learning and admin systems, so why should anyone else?” Mark asked, discussing the recent formation of MMU’s Learning and Research Technologies unit.

“We basically had two major options on the table – one was to go the Blackboard 9 route, and one was to look at the major Open Source offering, in the shape of Moodle.”  To inform the decision, and ensure that the new solution would meet all of the institution’s requirements, a thorough review was conducted, the results of which were made public in the shape of the MMU’s Learning Technologies Review.  The review looked at issues such as lock-in and the university’s vision, and the decision was made that a hosted Moodle solution with the right partner was the best fit.

“That vision was developed based on the student feedback.  Their engagement with technology was just one of many things, and they wanted a doorway into the institution where they could find stuff that would help them with their learning.  They wanted the institution to ‘wrap around’ them, and we felt that we’d be able to achieve that integration more effectively by having a group of partners, Software-as-a-Service, but have integration as a core competence.

“We wanted to pick the right partners who had the skill and expertise, but have the expertise in the institution to mash this stuff up, and wrap it around the learner.  The Open Source nature of Moodle meant that if there were customisations we needed to do, we knew what we were getting in to, we knew the art of the possible, and that was important.

“We knew that people knew people Moodle a lot better than us, and wanted to tap into that expertise.  Hence the decision to go with a shared service and hence the decision to go with ULCC, because we’d heard very good things about them from the rest of the sector.”

MMU have found ULCC to be a true partner in the project, not simply providing a product but working through different approaches to issues and helping arrive at the most manageable solution.

“We’re just approaching 1.5 million students on hosted Moodles in the UK.  I’ll have to look up how many students are in the UK, but I think that’s a sizeable chunk” said Frank, discussing the figures gathered by ULCC.

“Now that we have people like Mark who want to integrate a system, we obviously see usage numbers go up, but the per-user usage grows exponentially because we see that personalised approach where everything’s integrated.”

“I try and engage with customers, find out how they use the system, then feed that back to the community.”  ULCC value community engagement, as it allows them to better serve their clients.  “There’s stuff we develop that we’d have to give back to the community anyway, but we might work with Exeter [University, another of ULCC's clients] on some kind of online assessment projects, we’d then go to people like Mark and say ‘we’re working on this, is this of interest to you, how can we tweak this?’, we have guinea pig, then we get other people on board and we refine it, and then everybody can use it. I think that’s a nice Open Source approach.”

Mark says MMU also see the importance in opening the development process up to span the sector. “You start to Move things up from a well-crafted solution for a particular institution to a more generic set of interfaces, and gradually we have a solution that really serves the needs of the sector.  The nature of Moodle in that it’s extensible and has the community to support the extension spreads more widely than the source code, it also spreads into the way people approach working with the project.”

ULCC find that Moodle’s open nature makes it viable to build services around.  “It started in the FE sector, and we started building up a customer base.  Once you start working with a few colleges, you develop something and it works, like we developed our ILP, and you can either download it yourself or come to us and we’ll support it.  You can develop things on an individual customer basis, but chances are 10 other people are looking in to the same thing.  In a way, there’s the Moodle community, and our customer community, there’s some overlap there and that’s what we can build our services around.”

Beyond hosting, ULCC’s experience at working with a community of customers provides a knowledge base for its services. “With a lot of Open Source things, there’s a myriad of opportunities, but unless you delve in and start using it, you don’t know it’s there.  Because we have that customer base, it’s sort of perpetual, when a customer comes to us there’s a 99% chance we can say ‘well, we’ve done that for X’ or ‘maybe you don’t want to go down that route, but this’.  The other thing is, we’re not-for-profit as part of University of London, so we offer pricing that’s perhaps more attractive than going with a proprietary system.”

MMU’s solution offered some unique challenges to ULCC, says Frank, “…but in a good way.  We have a few partnerships already, some are with proprietary systems, so it’s not Open Source but it does the job you want to do very well. The fact that we use Moodle and it’s open means we can integrate that.  But you haven’t gone down that route before so you test the water, we haven’t done that before, MMU hasn’t done it, CampusM hasn’t done it, so it’s a bit of a playground and you have to find your feet.  Now that we’ve done it with MMU and it works, someone else can benefit from that.”

Mark’s happy that the Managed solution lets MMU concentrate on using the solution, rather than administering it. “We can actually concentrate in growing it, knowing that someone is taking case of making sure the growth is a managed risk, rather than ‘we don’t grow this because’.  We couldn’t have gone as fast as we did, without the support of a partner who knew what they were doing, I think that’s the bottom line for us”.

MMU’s engagement with ULCC gave them a leg-up in their community engagement, and are now close to being able to contribute back to the community. Frank says it’s mutual, “I find, unless you have you have that customer who has that crazy idea, you need someone to challenge what you do… now we’ve got MMU as a sort of flagbearer, that’s good for us and good for MMU as well.”

Mark says that the success of the partnership is self-evident. “Moodle is regarded across the whole university as an astounding success story.  We’ve done a lot of the things that students were asking for, but we’ve used Moodle as a focus for pulling that all together”.

A big thank you to Mark and Frank for taking the time to chat with me.

Widget Bashing

Last week JISC CETIS put on a WidgetBash event. OSS Watch pitched in since W3C Widgets are an area we are particularly interested in having taken some code from the University of Bolton into the Apache Software Foundations incubator as Apache Wookie (incubating).

This two day event focused on getting people up to speed on building widgets. Our approach was to give some very light touch training and then get our hands dirty on code. Overall the two days were extremely successful.

in the run up to the event I had committed a few new widget templates to Wookie in order to make it easy for people to get started. This turned out to be a great tactic. Some attendees used these templates as a base for their work, looking to enhance them, one attendee even submitted a patch to fix an error in my work (which I have now committed to the project, thanks Sam Rowley). Another attendee reported that one of the tutorials was misleading (another issue I have now addressed, thanks Simon Booth).

A team from the Manchester Metropolitan University enhanced a widget they had already created to tell students which labs had available PCs in them. Now it’s a fully geo-locating widget that sorts the results by proximity to the users position (interestingly using the tutorial Simon helped us improve). Another team from Strathclyde enhanced the Moodle Plugin for Wookie; now widgets are able to get a little more context from Moodle and thus provide more targeted information to the user. We hope to see patches and contributions from both these teams.

Many other participants who had never build widgets before reported that they’d learned a great deal. There were plenty of “almost working” enhancements to our templates as well as completely new widgets. Again, I look forward to applying their patches.

Why not come and join us on the Wookie project and find out what it’s all about.

You can read more about the two days on Sheila’s blog.

Contributing to an open source project

OSS Watch spends a lot of effort actively promoting the practice of open development as an effective means of achieving project sustainability. There are also important benefits for users who are developing tools based on an open source project and today I came across a great example that illustrates how to engage with the community and reap the rewards.Mark Johnson is employed by Tony Whitmore at Taunton’s college to develop their Moodle VLE. What makes his work particularly interesting in terms of open development is that where appropriate he works directly with the Moodle community. He has now had his first patch accepted into the main Moodle code and so congratulations are in order.The issue was a small accessibility problem and you can can follow the process on the Moodle ticket. The main points that I want to emphasise as being  important for similar community interactions are:-

  • Once the problem was found Mark investigated it and when he could reproduce it and describe it he raised a ticket to alert the community of the issue.
  • A discussion followed with a possible problem being suggested by the Moodle developer who picked up the ticket (Tim Hunt). This was followed by a request for either more information or further investigation.
  • Mark then tried harder to track down the problem, keeping Tim updated, until he eventually located the source. He then created a solution. Note Mark was not an expert on the code in question but developed an improved understanding through digging deeper. In general the community will provide any help you need to do this.
  • Mark then submitted a patch allowing Tim to see his solution and review it.
  • Tim graciously confirmed the error and accepted Mark’s patch into the Moodle code. It will appear in Moodle 2.0.

An alternative scenario is that Mark simply made a local fix to their Moodle code. Doing that would miss out on the opportunity to engage with and learn from the development community. Worse that fix would have to be reapplied each time a new Moodle release is installed, something that could involve costly merging of changes.However the actual result is that Mark now has better understanding of the code, Moodle has bug fix and both parties have a positive interaction to look back on and that will hopefully encourage further work together. Mark also has a good standing with the Moodle community, something of benefit to him personally as well as his employers.This small bug and subsequent resolution neatly illustrates how to engage as a user with the community and some of the key benefits of practising open development. No bug is too small to bring to the attention of the community. Perhaps you have an outstanding bug you could submit right now?

Two OSS Watch event speakers nominated for UK learning technology award

OSS Watch would like to congratulate Josie Fraser and Simon Mather, two of the contenders for the Learning Technologist of the Year Award. Both have presented at OSS Watch workshops earlier this year. Emerge’s Josie Fraser spoke at one of the five expert workshops OSS Watch organized in July. Simon Mather, Head of Software Engineering for UFI learndirect, contributed to our Risk Management in Procuring Open Source Software event. Simon will also present at OSS Watch’s forthcoming Community Building and Open Source Development workshop on 20 October in Oxford.

WebPA get more traction

Why is it I only ever seem to blog about WebPA and its successes? Surely there are other JISC funded projects out there that have similar levels of success in engaging with a user and developer community? I suspect the difference is that Nicola Wilkinson, systems developer on the WebPA project, puts the effort into informing the wider community of what is happening, thus I get to hear about it (other projects that have equally vocal team members should let us know via a comment here).
This time Nic posted the following on the projects mailing list:

Today, the WebPA team have received some really good news from Dr Bob Cherry
at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). WebPA has been piloted there
with one of Bob's modules. From this pilot Bob has been able to report that...

"WebPA is now embedded in our first year and will be for the next five
years. Typically 180-200 students will be subjected to.. [WebPA] ..every
year." (Dr Bob Cherry, MMU)

Further more "Another Head of Department suggested that if it was successful
then it would find further deployment at MMU (everyone has issues with
student group work)."

This is a great success for MMU, the WebPA team and JISC, showing the real
need for the WebPA tool in Higher Education.

Well done to the WebPA team. As I’ve said many times before, more users means more people willing to pay for services around the software and more people willing to contribute to its development.

Microsoft’s OOXML Wins ISO Approval

Perhaps wary that the date might detract from the news, ISO – the International Organization for Standards – waited until today before announcing that Microsoft’s Office Open XML (OOXML) document description schema has finally been accepted as an ISO standard as of April 1, 2008. There has been a long and bitter battle over whether this schema should be adopted. For one thing, an ISO-approved XML standard for describing office documents already exists in the form of OpenDocument created in association with Sun Microsystems by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards or OASIS. Many argue that having multiple standards for the same objects defeats the purpose of establishing standards in the first place. While this is on the face of it a reasonable argument, it seems a little Utopian to expect complete global unanimity on these subjects, particularly where such valuable commercial interests are at stake. After all, the world has not even managed to agree on a standard standards body, so expecting agreement at any lower level seems over-optimistic. Microsoft’s OOXML has been a standard according to ECMA International since 2006, while OASIS approved OpenDocument back in 2005.

So why is there such bitterness over this issue? Well, some of it comes from the perception that OOXML is in itself an inadequate standard which has triumphed through Microsoft’s expertise at lobbying ISO member bodies for their votes. Critics point out that the standard is itself is incredibly long and complex – over six thousand pages. It has also been widely observed that rather than trying to select a set of characteristics that need to be described in order to define a document minimally and efficiently, OOXML instead describes a huge set of overlapping characteristics that define the many different ways Microsoft has described documents over the almost twenty year life of the Microsoft Office product. It is easy to see why they have done this; it greatly facilitates conversion of all legacy documents into the new format. Still, it also results in a swollen specification that competitors will find very difficult to implement in their products. For example, OOXML defines many functions such as shapeLayoutLikeWW8, which instructs a rendering application to arrange text around a shape in the same way as Microsoft’s Word 97. Clearly Microsoft will have an advantage over competitors in making their products reliably behave in these ways.

Back in September 2007 OOXML lost an adoption vote at ISO, partly as a result of muscular lobbying from the free and open source communities, and hundreds of changes to the standard were requested by the voting members. While many of these were implemented by Microsoft and ECMA, the majority remained unimplemented at the time of OOXML’s approval.

Another controversial aspect of the OOXML standard is Microsoft’s patent non-enforcement promise that accompanies it. International standards must at the very least include fair and non-discriminatory terms for the licensing of patents that their use might infringe. Generally the standards bodies prefer that associated patents are licensed at no cost, and this is essentially what Microsoft has done with their Open Specification Promise. It promises that Microsoft will not enforce their patents against anyone as a result of their activities implementing OOXML readers, writers or renderers. However Microsoft make no explicit promise that subsequent versions of OOXML will also be covered by such a promise, merely saying that they aim to continue the promise in areas where they continue to engage with open standards bodies. This has alarmed many people, pointing to a possible future where everyone has adopted OOXML only to find that Microsoft withdraw from engagement with standards bodies and also withdraw their patent promise for subsequent versions. In comparison, Sun’s Non-Assertion Covenant for OpenDocument offers a perpetual promise not to sue for both version 1.0 and all subsequent versions. In the run-up to ISO’s decision, the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), a free-and-open-source-supporting public interest legal practice, released a document filled with dire warnings about Microsoft’s Patent Promise, and telling anyone writing software under the GNU General Public License to shun it. SFLC’s argument is twofold. Firstly they argue that, despite the promise, a piece of multi-purpose code might be protected when used to implement the standard but infringing when used for something else. Secondly, they argue that Microsoft’s failure to extend the promise to future revisions of OOXML means that projects attempting to progressively implement newer and newer versions of the standard may hit a legal brick wall down the line.

Are these worries justified? Certainly the SFLC’s first point is well taken, given the propensity of free and open source developers to repurpose code. The second point is less persuasive, I think, and a little opaquely worded in their document. To be clear, implementations of the current version of OOXML will always be protected from patent action by Microsoft, whether they withdraw the promise from future versions or not (provided the code in question is actually used to implement the standard). As to whether Microsoft will actually withdraw the promise from future versions, it is a difficult issue to predict. Microsoft got into the open standards game in the first place in order to win procurement contracts – often in the public sector – where open standards are listed as pre-requisites. While it may be notionally possible for Microsoft to partially re-enclose their format by either withdrawing the promise from a future version or withdrawing from the open standards process altogether, the practicality of such a move would depend heavily on how Microsoft’s users would respond to it. Thus the future of the standard really depends less of Microsoft’s whim and more on ourselves and the organisations for which we work.