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).*

Conclusion?

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.

Historians Moving on Up

So news reports indicate that the new president of Harvard is going to be Drew Gilpin Faust, a prominent historian whose specialties include the Civil War, US Women’s History and Social History. This news comes just a few weeks after Ed Ayers, eminent Southern historian and academic technology pioneer, was announced as the new president of the University of Richmond. [Full Disclosure: I worked on the Valley of the Shadow Project with Ed Ayers for a couple of years before heading off to graduate school.]

At my very first academic conference, the 1997 Southern Historical Association conference in Atlanta, I attended a panel on which both of these eminent historians presented. I remember being impressed at their presence, poise, and good-natured interactions. Who knew that these two would become University presidents within a few months of each other 10 years later?

I’m happy for both of them, because I like and respect them, but also because it suggests that, despite the reputation of historians as out of touch with today’s world, that these two have found ways to make themselves (and more importantly, their ideas) relevant to much larger audiences.

Both Ayers and Faust, despite a number of years as Deans (Ayers at UVA, Faust at Harvard’s Ratcliffe Institute for Advanced Study) remain active, productive scholars in their fields. I can only imagine how difficult that is given the many drains on their time. As a fellow scholar in their fields of interest, I can only hope that their presidencies will not prevent them from continuing to contribute their significant gifts to the discipline. As an academic, I believe that continuing to do so will also make them better administrators of faculty. As Dean, Ayers also managed to continue teaching a class or two a year, something else I hope he’s able to hold on to in his new position. [UPDATE: The front-page February 10 Washington Post article on Faust’s appointment suggests she’s also continued teaching as Dean.] Such activities remind presidents of where their faculties and student bodies are focused.

I know that this perspective is not shared by all academics, many of whom feel that the president’s job is first and foremost to raise money. As important as that is, I have a great deal of respect for those university presidents who continue to teach and research. Leading by example applies to the administrative side of academia as much as it does the classroom.