2020 OERu Open Technology Overview

As a matter of principle, the OER Foundation makes use of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) wherever possible. Partnering with the Foundation provides a distinctive perspective to learn from an organisation with hands-on experience in hosting all its technology infrastructure using FOSS.

The foundation has implemented a component-based approach selecting “best-of-breed” open technologies for assembling the OERu’s Digital Learning Environment (DLE) rather than providing learning materials through a single application like a Learning Management System (LMS).

There are myriad reasons for taking this approach.

FOSS tools are highly advanced and have a low fixed cost as well as negligible variable costs for provision. FOSS tools offer superb functionality and are subject to neither per-server or “per-seat” license fees when self-hosted. If, for convenience, you choose to buy a hosted service featuring a FOSS tool, you always have the option of moving to a self-hosted instance if the service provider’s pricing or terms of use become oppressive.

Hosting our own FOSS tools provides the massive advantage - albeit one largely ignored by software users in general - that the Foundation can determine our own Terms of Use, designed to support and enable our learners, rather than impose upon their privacy or legal rights by forcing onerous terms on them as most proprietary hosted services do. This is contrary to most educational software use, where learners are, in effect, forced to accept the terms of use imposed by corporate vendors.

With FOSS tools, our learners never have to buy third party software. This means that there are no external cost-barriers to their participation.

FOSS tools can be glued together in ways that appear seamless for end users with open standards-based integration approaches, or, in the worst case, small strategic custom development projects. We can achieve incredible integrations using this approach, including our WEnotes system, which discovers course-related posts created by learners in a variety of online tools and services, and brings the Internet to them - it aggregates them for learners to see in the context of each course via its “course feed” like this one for our Learning in a Digital Age 101 course, aka LiDA101.

FOSS tools are managed by communities, often global, who take a shared interest in their projects’ survival, sustainability, and perpetual improvement. They are seldom motivated by profit. Proprietary software tools can be affected by their sole vendor going out of business, being acquired (with the tool merged with other tools or shut down), or the vendor can alter their terms of use at their whimsy.

In stark contrast, FOSS tools continue to exist as long as they provide value to the community that sustains them. If a tool does end up going dormant, the community of those dependent on the tool typically share the responsibility of building a migration path to a successor technology rather than it being the sole responsibility of one vendor or forcing users to fend for themselves.

Because of its low fixed and variable costs and the distributed development and maintenance responsibilities typifying FOSS projects, we believe our approach results in a sustainable and equitable Digital Learning Environment.

A loosely-coupled tools approach allows us to adopt “best of breed” FOSS tools in each software domain and focus our energies on connecting them all in a sensible way that empowers our learners to participate. We can trial and swap emerging standout candidates in and out of our software stack as desired, with no licensing or contractual implications and minimal impact on our learners and collaborators. To keep our staff time costs and risks low, we have adopted common patterns for deploying and managing our tool collection, including the widespread use of Docker server virtualisation and the unparalleled Linux server hosting ecosystem and associated application stacks - almost all modern web-based software is built on one or another FOSS stack (like those centred around PHP, Python, Ruby on Rails, NodeJS, and Java) - you can learn more about the specific technologies in our "tech stack". This offers us a tremendous diversity of FOSS applications and allows us to remain current with the constantly changing and often fickle expectations of Internet users. Moreover, we completely avoid the restriction of needing to find tools integrated with a monolithic LMS (in the case of FOSS LMSs like Moodle or Canvas) or somehow anointed or bundled by the LMS’ authors (in the case of proprietary LMSs like Blackboard). Those integrated tools have limited applicability, namely only working properly in the context of a subset of LMSs, and they are therefore seldom as advanced or long-lived as their stand-alone point solution FOSS alternatives.

Last, by adopting an array of loosely-coupled FOSS tools, our partners (and non-partners alike) can pick and choose to replicate one or more of the FOSS technologies we use and integrate them into their own technology mixes. We actively lower the barriers to those institutions and individuals benefiting from that FOSS by providing overviews and how-tos.

Thanks to our use of open technologies within the Foundation and in collaboration with our Partners, as well as our many years experience as a “distributed organisation”, we were able to respond immediately and decisively to the COVID 19 pandemic, providing crucial technologies, like real-time chat and large scale video conferencing, to our partners and the global community of educators.

With all these clear advantages, we are frankly astounded that the rest of the education sector has not adopted the same FOSS approach. We're keen to help those of you out there who recognise this opportunity to put it into practice!

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