Innovation, Open-Source, and CMSs

Over at Running with Scissors, Jerry Slezak has begun a great discussion about innovation. This post began as a comment there that expanded beyond the original point Jerry was making. Building on Jerry’s notion of the UI$ as a new unit measuring “Unit of Innovation per Dollar” and Jim’s point in the comments about the advantage of a close working relationship between tech innovators and the classroom, it seems to me that targeted investment (small grants and/or new faculty/ITS positions) in implementing various open-source (or nearly free) solutions can result in a high UI$ (if I understand Jerry’s new term correctly). Targeted financial and technical support for specific implementations with open-source or freely available tools in a few courses (or even a department) has a much better chance of a good UI$ than adding a massive CMS that everyone has to learn and that not everyone wants to be a part of.

The Counter Argument

One important counter, however, is the argument that standardization (and massive integration of other campus systems) offered by the major CMSs are good things:

1) Because a standardized CMS/LMS is, well, standard. Everyone can use the same interface. Students and faculty don’t have to learn (or relearn) new materials; tech support has one set of training and support materials to create.

2) Because using open-source and free software means using code that is not always ready for prime time. Techno-geeks (of which I am one) are more forgiving of such issues, in part because they can find workarounds for such problems (or accept it as a feature of cutting-edge code).

3) Because of the breadth of offerings. You can hear the sales pitch by the voice-over guy on late-night television: “It doesn’t just manage your courses, it allows you to pay bills, do your laundry and walk your electronic pets!!!!” In all seriousness, the appeal of meeting many institutional needs at once is clear, especially if the package also comes with support from the manufacturer (something less obviously available from the open-source community).*


I understand these reasons are powerful forces in shaping decisions for campus technology. But Jerry’s post is really about innovation, and he is right to recognize that tech investment dollars are limited and need to be spent (invested?) as wisely as possible. Should we be worried that what seems to drive resource decisions at many institutions of higher learning is the notion that “Innovation is good, but stability and uniformity is better”?

UPDATE: I listened to the podcast of Jerry and Jim Groom’s ELI Presentation that was the basis for the post discussed above. In it Jerry and Jim address many of the concerns that I brought up, including noting that enterprise CMSs like Blackboard aren’t going away soon since their stability and breadth still addresses the needs of many people on campuses (albeit not always the students or faculty). Of course, the on-target point of the post and the presentation was that enterprise CMSs/LMSs simply don’t seem to be as responsive to the innovative possibilities for teaching and learning that the vibrant, passionate open-source community members have embraced. The other significant gain for me is the cost of innovation terminology of Jerry’s, UI$. I’ll be using that in the future….

* I suspect that there are many members of the open-source community who are incredibly responsive on support issues, but I’m referring to a formalized, contract-driven support that looks more stable from what we might describe as a business perspective.

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  1. Stability is important, no doubt. But it may not be as important as we think.

    Example – how many students need training before they can use Facebook? I venture to say, not many (or any). Why, then, do they use it so well? Because they figure it out – even if interfaces are a bit different, they can learn it incrementally.

    The big problem I see here may be more generational than technical. Net-Gen students don’t mind clicking around until they figure something out. The ability to navigate different interfaces for different online services is just par for the course. Is that not a skill of value, just like library card catalog research skills were at one point in the not too-distant past?

    The real question is how do you foster that sort of skill in a different generation of users?

  2. Jerry,
    My initial response to your comment is that it’s not students who need the stability, it’s faculty and staff who do. A number of people in those positions get frustrated by changing interfaces (even just because of updates/upgrades) to the point that they cease to use such technology (or at least they gripe about its lack of usability).

    But as I think about the basic navigation problems that even some students have (e.g., figuring out the rules of wiki use as compared to a discussion board), I begin to think that you may be onto something. Since students (and the rest of us) are increasingly interacting with information via web-based interfaces (which come in a variety of flavors with a variety of navigational rules–technical and social) then we have a responsibility to work with those students to foster an ability to adapt to these various environments within which they will have to work in college and beyond.

    To bring it back to the topic of Jerry’s post and my response, since virtually none of these environments will look like an enterprise CMS, exposing students to an innovative array of interfaces becomes one obvious way to “foster that sort of” adaptability.

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