The Untimely Death of Community Source

I was disappointed to learn recently of the passing away of Community Source.  Like many efforts in higher education that have aimed to enhance and support institutional collaboration around software, the primary effort highlighted in this piece, Kuali, provides evidence that it, too, is falling short. My feelings of concern for Kuali began in April when the Chronicle celebrated Kuali’s 10-year anniversary but revealed that only 74 dues-paying members participated in the organization with only dozens actually using its software. This is simply not the momentum that is needed to sustain an effort of this type given its goals.

Kuali is not, however, the only education-related organization that has experienced challenges recently and needed to transform itself in some way. My feelings for Kuali are actually not too dissimilar from the feelings I had when JASIG and Sakai merged to form Apereo when each of the organizations was under financial duress. Jisc, previously an entity of the UK government, recently reorganized into a registered independent charity to continue and sustain its work triggering similar structural changes to CETIS and OSSWatch. Edtech start-ups and established for-profit companies, too, continue to shift strategy and pivot, transforming to survive through mergers and acquisitions, new business models, or by going public or private. Even whole universities themselves are considering shifts in structure to become more nimble.  In the ways that these organizations live on despite change, I’m not entirely convinced that Kuali’s “pivot” indicates that the spirit of community source is dead nor does it indicate that a successor to community source is not viable.

There are many reasons that Kuali in particular may not have taken off as well as had been hoped (some might even argue that it actually has taken off). Maybe the project is too large or all-encompassing. Maybe it is trying to meet too many diverse needs. Maybe institutions just don’t want to accept the level of risk associated with using new software, particularly for administrative systems, for which as a foundation they are directly responsible. After all, it’s easier to blame and penalize a vendor. Maybe investment in a switch or migration would be too complex or cost prohibitive at this moment in time. There are many considerations to ponder.

But even so, I hope that we collectively take the time to reflect on both changes in the software industry and the opportunity that collaboration around software in higher ed affords us rather than simply writing these efforts off as dead. Maybe community source just needs a nudge of its own to transform into a new and more successful model. If this is the case, what are the things that we should consider and ask when making a determination of what a successor to community source might look like?

From what other examples of community source can we learn?
Michael mentions Apereo OAE as one project that has seen greater success by being freed from the consortial/foundation approach. I would also argue that the Sakai CLE also continues to experience more rapid improvement now that the encumbrance of decision by committee has been removed. Are there any others?

Are there any other organizations that have similar collaboration models but have achieved greater success?
If we strip the software pieces away, the IMS Global Learning Consortium (the organization behind popular, open edtech standards such as LTI and Common Cartridge) essentially operates in a similarly-closed consortial approach to the development of open standards. Yes, though these standards end up being open, one must pay to have a seat at the table in driving these discussions. The difference is that while foundation-based, consortial-driven efforts like Sakai and Kuali have faced challenges, IMS has become more successful than ever. Why is this?

How has the perception of open/community source changed in the past 10 years?
Open source software at one point in history was pitched as a way to beat commercial software providers at their own game – as an alternative or a check to commercial software rather than a flavor of commercial software. Now, I hear open source increasingly referred to as an “insurance policy” to avoid vendor lock-in rather than a competing model for building software outside of commercial channels. Does software really need to be developed in a consortial, non-profit manner if the goal is for the code to become open sourced? If collaborative software efforts were managed more like products than projects, would this make a difference?

How has software development changed over the past 10 years?
Several environmental factors have changed since Kuali (and community source) were first envisioned. Software itself is easier than ever to develop. Infrastructure is easier than ever to acquire for purposes of developing and running software. Technical limitations related to performance and scale have become more easily addressable. Standards allow software to be delivered in a more modular manner. The barriers to develop software continue to drop. In light of these changes, should the challenges Kuali faces dissuade similar development approaches or strengthen our resolve to try and find a better way?

How do these changes impact community source software adoption?
Increasingly, institutions prefer cloud or SaaS-based software solutions to in-house ones. Data centers are expensive and so is the experience necessary to keep them running. Because of this, not only has the nature of software development changed but also that of software delivery. Should institutions find a way to operate and run software on shared infrastructure?

Have dominant designs emerged for particular categories of software used in higher ed?
Software tends to become commoditized over time forcing it to compete in different ways – for example by supporting better usability or in edtech, pedagogy. Has the maturity of the types of software that higher education institutions use – such as the LMS and the SIS – led to any dominant design that would provide a good candidate to replicate in a community-source-like fashion?

Does a decision to collaborate make financial sense?
Once a dominant design emerges for any type of software, it becomes increasingly difficult for incumbents to sustain competitive advantage. Competitors and open source options eventually encroach on the existing product’s customer base as features and functionality become easy to replicate. Michael mentioned Instructure in his post. In the case of Canvas, there was a business case to be made to build a new LMS – with better usability and a superior delivery model, but nonetheless still an LMS. Instructure managed to build their product on an incredibly short timeline and now have a software solution that rivals the best and has even surpassed the community-source-based LMS Sakai in terms of market share. They proved that it is easier than ever to launch a new, competing software product in higher education, and their product is (mostly but not completely) open source. Related – just because it would be easy to build a product, does that mean it should be built?

Is certain higher education software more amenable to community source than others?
While administrative software like Kuali is not sexy, it is exorbitantly expensive. Universities are most likely never going to “compete” based on what back-end software they use. For some systems that are expensive and handle back-office tasks, maybe a development model like community source does make sense. For front-end software that directly impacts the student experience, however, maybe institutions want to reserve some way to differentiate themselves and not choose to collaborate on a common one-size-fits-all solution. Alternatively, maybe front-end software would prove too cumbersome to support from a browser/device/end user perspective. Or maybe a common, front-end software experience would open up new possibilities for collaboration among multiple universities for which a community-source-like approach could accelerate new opportunities.

If the goal is open source, do other models besides community source perform better?
There are a couple models where open source software tends to be most successful. One is when the software is a component or framework of a solution rather than the solution itself. Another is when a small, core group (for example, a commercial entity) contributes most of the heavy lifting but freely distributes the code and accepts smaller contributions from others who have interest. Instead of relying on employees from several universities (each having separate employers) to contribute to a community source project, could it make more sense to organize the core development team under a single organization to better-align getting the work done?

Could/should institutions partner differently or in lighter-weight manners but still get the benefit of community?
Maybe it’s worth considering that institutions partner in different ways for different reasons all the time, and not all of these necessitate a new foundation, a huge software development project, or a governing board. Sometimes collaboration is as simple as a virtual handshake and an e-mail between a group of individuals – when we choose to let it be so.

At the end of the day, Kuali may be facing issues, but I would not be surprised to see a successor to the Community Source model emerge. While the original model may have its flaws and potentially have run its course, building on lessons learned from its challenges and shortcomings, we can do better.

This post written by George Kroner