Future of FLOSSE: Interview with Alan Levine

sweet spot of technology is not in the way it does things more
efficiently but where it gives you opportunities that weren’t there

Listen (MP3) – 40min – 18,9Mb

I had the pleasure to
interview Alan Levine through Skype for our interview series of future of FLOSS
in education. I have created a future event analysis based on the interview, available in the end of this post. 

The future events will be used in the Comenius 2.1 Contact Seminar Open
Source workshop sessions as a basis for discussion. I will post more of these
interviews in the following days.

Alan Levine is an
Instructional technologist at Maricopa Community College System which
is a 10 college system serving in the metropolitan Phoenix area. Their
institution is by most counts largest such system in the USA: 240 000
students pass every year which is an equivalent to 90 000 full time

His institution has good reputation for being
innovative and providing technology to students and computers in the
faculty hands.

His main job is in experimenting with new
technology in the central office called Maricopa Center for Learning
and Instruction
by trying new technologies and communicating their
potential value to their people.

That means messing around with
Wikis, Blogs, RSS, cool web services and spam prevention and trying to
find out how these technologies could support education.

talks about the last 1,5 years he has been working with these emerging
technologies. Especially he focuses on weblogs, RSS and wikis and their
importance in education, especially what new opportunities these tools
provide for educators.

He is also a bit sceptical about the
adoption rate of Open Source tools in large institutions like his. The
key events that have to be overcome are related to support and staff.
Decision-makers are concerned if they are able to support the number of
students they have. Only the largest universities like MIT are able to
use their own staff to invest in in-house Open Source projects. Support
for Open Source software in education is still sparse and expensive.

perceives that big monopolies in software, music, university training
and publishing industry have to change their offering if they are about
to survive.

Some questions asked in the interview:

  • Who are you?
  • Visionary leadership?
  • Small pieces loosely joined?
  • What is a weblog, wiki and RSS and why are these technologies important?
  • Are teachers going to use RSS in teaching?
  • What is Feed2JS?
  • Are easy and simple tools [like Feed2JS] going to popularize emerging technologies?
  • Rip, Mix and Learn?
  • What about devices?
  • Is FLOSS going to affect the methods of teaching and learning?
  • Are the support issues [of FLOSS software] going to be solved?
  • Open Content in education?
  • How does year 2010 look like?
  • Who are the loosers and who are the winners?

"The future is not the dim one where we are solidary droids in front of our computers alone – the connectiveness and ability to tap into shared expertise is also one of the sweet spots for us"

"Read more" to see the extracted future events and analysis.

Future events

Here is a list of fictional future events extracted from the interview with Alan Levine. If you want to comment or have additional future events to present based on the interview, please do so.

Disclaimer: The future events were constructed from the ideas presented in the interview and do not represent the ideas of the interviewee. No crystal ball or time machines were used in the construction of these events. Bear in mind, it’s the future and everything is possible.

Year: 2006

Monolithic tool environments used in most large educational institutions

Large educational institutions have acquired several monolithic tool
environments for learning. The largest have three or four different
commercial CMS/LCMS/LMS systems which all come bundled with a set of
tightly-joined tools. Only pockets of educators are using alternative
FLOSS or otherwise freely available tools in a bottom-up manner.

Firefox first browser to format XML content automatically

Open Source Firefox and it’s even lighter successor, the XHTML-only
browser called Firedog are among the first browsers to format XML
content automatically. It all started from the innocent looking RSS
button which displayed raw XML code to people who didn’t understand how
to use them. People demanded for a readable version as well and Open
Source developers were fast in respond.

FLOSS based LMS systems not in heavy production use

While educational institutions renew their yearly contracts on WebCT
and BlackBoard they are still looking for people to do more than
experiments with FLOSS tools like Moodle. The decision-makers are in
sleeping mode, waiting for someone in the neigbourhood municipality to
take the first major step towards Open Source.

Adoption of collaborative document writing tools grow slowly

Reportage and hype surrounded by Wikipedia and other Wikimedia services
gain momentum in global press as Google enters in the game as a major
supporter of the world’s biggest encyclopaedia of free content. Wiki
becomes the de-facto tool for creating open content and it reaches new
dimensions in its creative use. Users become familiar with the concept
of creating their own navigation. Most widely used Wikis are Open
Source software. A good wiki experience is still required as people
have hard time understanding what is so special with a page that anyone
can edit.

Year: 2007

Open Source based web aggregators become popular among teachers

After a free popular web-based aggregator service called Bloglines.com
became a service based on monthly fees, Open Source based web
aggregators started to replace the previous leader in aggregation
market. Teachers who previously had built quickly outdated static lists
of web resources are now building lists by collecting RSS feeds in
their Open Source collaborative aggregators – concept which is often
associated with the fact that their students are able to help them out
in the process.

Less move towards FLOSS in education as hoped

Only the largest educational institutions like MIT have been able to
move completely into FLOSS applications. Smaller institutions lack the
staff or resources to pay for the maintenance and customization of
these applications and rely on cheaper proprietary LCMS mass-products.
Especially there is fear of their ability to support the number of
students they have. Cheap commercial support models for FLOSS
applications are available only regionally.

Educators discover one-click publishing

In contrary to large and rigid content management systems, educators
and students have noticed easy personal publishing on a wide scale. One
weblog related to education is created every second according to
statistics provided by Technorati. Google has launched a specially
branded service called EduBlogger™ based on their popular Blogger™

Students install Open Source tools for their teachers

Social software tools have gained great interest by students among the
20-30 age group. Some early adopters are using blogs as an alternative
learning diary and a wiki for drafting out school projects with their
peers. Teachers are given access to these resources. Some teachers have
become interested in the capabilities these new tools are able to offer
compared to LMS systems their institutions provide. The students are
helping their teachers to setup blogs and wikis for their classes.

Software customization prospers

FLOSS tools enable easy customization. Service businesses focused on
customization and delivery of FLOSS tools are a common place. World’s
most successful weblog software company, SixApart popularized the
requirement for easy software customization among personal publishing
tools. LMS providers are pressured to include easier customization in
their packages as institutions notice how they have been able to create
better targeted solutions based on customizable FLOSS software. Even
some web services enable customization of their interface by
introducing versatile web service interfaces in foot-steps of Amazon
and Flickr APIs.

Rip, Mix and Learn is the new metaphor for constructing learning objects

iTunes and several other music stores enabled people to buy only a
single song and mix their own album for listening. The now famous Apple
add campaign, Rip – Mix – Burn started everything. There is a popular
parody of this: "Rip, Mix, ????, Profit". Among educational circles
there is Rip, Mix and Learn, which allows teachers to mix various
learning resources in dynamic RSS feeds to deliver to their students.

Proprietary software vendors have partly opened source code

Movable Type was a semi-free software tool but became popular in its
own user segment because the code was available for modification. A
similar trend is visible in many other software user segments as users
are demanding proprietary software companies to open their code for
customization. Some move to an Open Source business model, others
satisfy their customers by offering them easier means for developing
custom extensions and making modifications while still retaining their
control on the core package.

Software becomes a commodity

As more efficient and easier to use software services come out people are overwhelmed of the possibilities they have with all of the
new technology. New businesses start to bloom, investors offload their
money and we are in the middle of the next IT bubble. Thanks to Open
Source, software has become a commodity which is available to everyone
from enterprise software to simple personal tools. Most importantly,
people are thrilled of the new opportunities that weren’t there before.

Pull beats push

The spam problem becomes even worse as over 80% of incoming email is
spam, scam or viruses. Another popular push technology among social
software tools called TrackBack fails as spammers have rendered the
technology useless in the public internet. Based on this development
users are forced to look for other alternatives to receive the
information they need. Syndication technologies like RSS and Atom come
for rescue as all major browsers now include a built-in aggregator.

Creative Commons starts to promote open content exchange standards

After being successful in creating a concept for people to remix
culture and distribute open content based on CC licensing scheme,
Creative Commons starts to promote open standards for content exchange.
Many analysts believe that this is the key for the future of content
exchange in general, especially in the realm of mobile devices. Imagine
a music player which is able to exchange content between other music
players in the area for letting others to tune in. Content licenses
follow content.

A fair amount of teachers have dropped text books all together

A handful of teachers all around the world have given up text books and try to build very well thought out concepts online. A survey among
students reveals that 85% find the new approach to content more
beneficial to their learning experiences. This is possible because
teachers are now more easily able to join forces with other teachers
all around the world to build quality content together based on
peer-production and Open Content licenses. Even students help in
writing new content.

Year: 2008

Open Content moves faster in education than Open Source software

Open Content in education takes a big leap as educational institutions
find better ways to deploy that content. Previously deploying Open
Content was a problem as schools required students still to buy text
books and there were also unnecessary copyright misunderstandings about
printing and distributing certain Open Content. Also as Wikimedia
started to publish their cheap encyclopaedias based on open contend in
printed form, some educators have started to use them instead.

The gap between digital-illiterate and literate gets wider

People use more and more time online. Some who do not have the
equipment or never joined the digital world have hard time
understanding what people are talking about – a similar experience as
for those who gave up watching television. This affects education as
many universities start to offer certain courses only in online form.
Also, early adopters of new technology jump to new waves sooner than
the mainstream is able to pick up the latest cool technology. It
becomes increasingly important for early adopters to help less
tech-savvy people along with the changes.

RSS is the new information publishing system

People are tired to go for a website for the information they need.
It’s a lot faster for them to receive the content on topics they are
interested in through services that semantically filter a wide variety
of information resources and provide personalized feeds. Content
publishers take an advantage of this by focusing on RSS as a publishing
platform. Some revolutionary websites are published only as an XML
based feed.

Email based mailing lists become less popular

Because email mostly failed as a system for tapping into conversations,
the use of mailing lists has reduced by half. The traffic on mailing
lists becomes harder to differentiate of spam. the small fraction of
user feedback compared to volume of received posts forces people first
to jump into read-only mode through their aggregators. As a
side-product of this, an XML based feedback channel is built into
content aggregators. Users are able to answer to posts directly from
their aggregators. The comments are authenticated and injected back to
the feed based mailing lists.

More and more knowledge assets move to collaborative document spaces

Previously email was the storage medium for most of the knowledge
assets in an organization. After the revolution of freely available
small software pieces, a fourth generation wiki tool is a common place
in many organizations. Knowledge assets are stored in a central place
where anyone from the organization can add, edit and link to them. A
recent study found that writing a new document together is about twice
as fast with a Wiki compared to swapping ancient Word Documents.

Travel expenses decrease as remote collaboration increases

Many prominent institutions have reduced their travel expenses by 45%
through a policy which requires their workers to prefer remote
collaboration tools to connect together in virtual meeting rooms. Even
inside organizations meeting time is reduced as collaborative working
methods transform many face-to-face meetings unnecessary. Internet
replaces the elevator as organizations are able to decentralize their

Year: 2009

Digital convergence happens in two dimensions

New mobile devices become like swiss-army knifes with all kinds of
functionality from IM, blogging to context sensitive learning
applications. In the other hand, web services, FLOSS and open standards
enable small pieces on a larger scale as many different kind of simple
tools are able to connect together through common APIs. "Sometimes
there is a need for a simple blade that is able to cut you some cheese
but it’s also able to connect to knife-rests with other blades"
comments a well-known educational veteran blogger. There is demand for
both complexity and simplicity.

Educational institutions locked into old toolsets

Many educational institutions look from the side as new and better
tools for educational purposes appear. Unfortunately based on their
long-term politics in acquiring software, multi-year contracts of old
LMS/CMS/LCMS systems eat most of the available IT budget. Some have
fought out through the court, some are using FLOSS software in parallel
and others just wait for the contracts to end as there are no resources
or staff to start using FLOSS in-house.

Main argument used against non-open content: Is it useful in 5 years?

The so called lifespan of information shrinks all the time. Content
produced today is considered old in less than two years. Educational
content and books that are incrementally updated by educators,
academics and pro-amateurs in a consistent manner on the web under an
Open Content license is able to survive during the next 5 years.
Publishers still counting on their old business model have hard time to
find profitable ways to counter this act.

Universities are repositioning their selves

The myth of a college student who goes to a university, moves to campus
and finishes his studies in four years is no longer true. People are
working on many things and they rapidly change careers among many other
issues. These changes drive universities to reposition their selves and
their offering.

Year: 2010

Changes coming from the outside drive changes in education

As more and more people do teleworking and spend their time on the
internet and see the changes coming, they start to expect the education
to change as well. Students no longer look for a place where they go
for studying but look for a more rich experience in learning where they
can mix work, gadgets, peers, teachers, offline and online in a
consistent manner that fits their needs.

Microsoft is no longer the dominant player in software industry

People were not able to put up with very large software products that
harshly work. Microsoft fought this by introducing software security
services, spyware prevention, virus prevention and several other
products. Sooner or later people noticed that they are creating a new
monopoly based on a problem they personally invented. Finally FLOSS
makes a breakthrough. Microsoft’s fortunes drain in their counter attack measures. Every single continent in the world has sued Microsoft for
monopoly issues.

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2 Responses to “Future of FLOSSE: Interview with Alan Levine”

  1. Alec Couros says:

    This was an excellent interview, and I am excited to hear that there are more to come. I have announced the existence of this blog on my own blog at: http://www.educationaltechnology.ca/couros/archives/000327.html...

  2. Daniel Brookshier says:

    Shameless self promotion:

    Greetings, I am Daniel Brookshier and I am a community manager for the Global Education and Learning Community (GELC) at java.net. Our community provides free hosting to open source projects dedicated to education, scholarly research, and management infrastructure for teaching organizations. Our web site is http://community.java.net/edu-gelc/...

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