Open Source and WordPressMU lovefest at today’s 4th WordCampEd, hosted by Macauley Honors College/CUNY.  There was much to like about the lovefest, mostly because I’m trying to help move my institution to e-portfolio.  With Macauley and Baruch both using WordPressMU, the new CUNY Academic Commons built on WPMU, and the abysmal performance of Blackboard 8 across CUNY in Spring 2009, an open source e-portfolio platform looks a lot more viable at CUNY than it did even 4 months ago.

From my perspective one of the high points of the camp was the lunchtime keynote, “Open by Design,”  with Jim Groom from the University of Mary Washington. Beginning with an extended lampooning of Blackboard, he eventually got quite serious about the important differences between a for profit LMS and an open source alternative, in this case WordPressMU, ScholarPress, BuddyPress, etc.  Groom’s keynote was actually a blog: http://openbydesign.wpmued.org

As Groom put it, the Blackboard model is actually at odds with so much of what a university is really about.  A university is about an investment in people.  Blackboard is an investment in technology, in a corporation, in a package or a box. The open source software itself is free.  Of course, this doesn’t really mean “free” in the sense that it requires no support.

Groom made an excellent point about resources. By selecting an open source alternative, a university is able to dedicate what were software licensing resources to people. In the case of instructional technologies like blogs, wikis, discussion boards, and course websites, the human capital can be dedicated to faculty development, to student support for technology usage, etc. Croom continued to pitch for the use of the Honors College model of Instructional Technology Fellows, a great resource if you can get it.  (The tiered nature of CUNY’s system relegates schools like York and the community colleges to the second class of institutions, those schools without tech fellows. But I digress.)

While attendees would probably claim that Groom couldn’t have been more over the top in his presentation, I don’t think he pushed the point hard enough.  He let the for-profit LMS off the hook too easily.  It isn’t like CUNY hasn’t forked over millions in faculty development, student support, and technology fellows in support of the Blackboard “out of the box” LMS. It has.

And here’s one of the fascinating conundrums we must confront as the university becomes increasingly corporatized.  When an institution ponies up millions for a product, it commits to a level of support that can sustain the tech fellow support we need.  This is the sort of too-expensive-to-fail issue.  When an institution has paid nothing for the platform, it risks placing zero value on the tool.  It was free, and so it doesn’t much matter if we cut the tech support budget. Shoestring-budget innovations in organizations often die on the brutality of this logic.

One of Groom’s most insightful moments came when he turned to RSS and syndication.  As Groom rightly pointed out, RSS is probably a key to the integration of Web 2.0’s focus on the individual and the space of the college course.  I don’t know if Blogs are going to be the locus of this aggregation.  But I do think that RSS is probably the next big thing in online learning.  One promising issue, Groom pointed out and as I’ve certainly experienced in my own classes, is that students still don’t “get” RSS.  Perhaps this creates an opportunity for faculty to harness it for instructional purposes, while also making learning relevant to our students’ 2.0 lives.