Can Open-Source Infrastructure Move the Market?

Can Open-Source Infrastructure Move the Market?

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So here’s an edtech story you’ve likely never heard:

Budding young programmer notices that his high school’s technology is horrible.

Young--and now dangerously capable--programmer goes to college and finds his university’s technology is equally offending.

Still young, capable--and now credentialed--programmer hears an innovative school leader speak about education technology.

Young, credentialed--and now revenue-generating--programmer approaches that innovative school leader about pursuing high-level technology goals for innovative school.

Innovative school leader uses said leadership to transform young, credentialed programmer into young, credentialed programmer/IT director/network administrator/system administrator/IT maintenance uber-employee that keeps innovative school humming 24/7.

Uber-employed programmer decides to bundle IT/network/sysadmin/maintenance tools into open-source “mainframe 2.0” and freely supports the open-source product through his newly formed software consulting firm.

Innovative school continues operating and innovating--more and more on its own terms.

This is no fairy tale. The budding young programmer is one, Chris Alfano. The innovative school is Philadelphia's Science Leadership Academy and its school leader is Chris Lehmann. The open-source school “mainframe 2.0” is Slate, supported by Chris’s local dev shop, Jarvus. And yes, innovation is live and kicking in Philly. 

Open vs. Closed

For schools that are dealing with long-term, restrictive software agreements or that lack the time and talent to rethink their technology implementation, this anecdote may sound as fanciful as calling on the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion for backup support.

Even still, open-source infrastructure --platforms, portals, mainframes, whichever sounds least threatening-- carries some serious promise for education innovation that to-date has won most of its marketplace success by merely automating the status quo.

Christian Kunkel, Director of Education Technology at Jarvus, argues that ”You need the right infrastructure in place to accommodate innovation.” Proprietary, closed systems, he notes, simply don’t share "mutually exclusive goals" with schools--in other words, each has its own deeply rooted priorities. 

In this sense, Slate is like an open-source alternative to Pearson's PowerSchool. They both do a little bit of everything (e.g., managing student information and demographics, offering a blogging engine, contact directory, advanced reporting) and they integrate with third-party apps. But where PowerSchool nudges its users toward other Pearson products and places restrictions on its integrations, Slate gives a school enough basic functionality out-of-the-box that literally a one-person development team can integrate and manage a school's whole technology system. 

That approach, as SLA has learned, returns power back to administrators, teachers, students, and parents. What's more, if an open-source edtech implementation works well for one specific school population, then sharing that technology only requires a Github fork. As evidenced with Activate Instruction at Summit Public Schools in California, and now with Slate at SLA, schools are more than happy to share what does and doesn’t work with their comrades in action.

And then there’s data privacy and ownership.

What education company explicitly advertises full data portability --that is, the option to download your school or student data, and then permanently wipe it from the product’s database? (If so, do tell!) With open-source products, educators decide when, where, and how data gets moved, stored and shared.

It’s Not as Simple as Flipping a Switch

Of course, there are some real barriers to scaling such open-source implementations. Chief among them: Money. The initial cost of developing an open-source edtech tool that may only be used in-house and never scale is one reason why developing proprietary systems has been such a good business model for businesses.

Before Slate reaches a wide scale, “it’s tough to make the numbers work right now,” Alfano concedes.

Many schools or districts will need to compare the cost of commercial software licenses, support, maintenance, and implementation to the cost of open-source development and third party services for hosting, scaling, and security. Though in the open-source world, it’s possible to split the cost of development between the schools which “license” the technology.

For SLA and Slate, it's more of a pay-it-forward model: with steady work at Jarvus, maintaining and supporting Slate for free isn't a burden for Alfano, Kunkel, and co.

There’s also a human capital issue at play. Procuring capable development talent is never easy. Those challenges get racheted up when a school, one that serves real students and employs real teachers, wants to plunge into the product development process. 

Spending $750K per year for a startup-caliber development team that can scale products to 100 schools at first sounds like a bargain to many district administrators. But identifying and retaining effective leaders who can communicate their schools' needs and vision so that a development team can act is a challenge shared across the edtech ecosystem, not just the utopian open-source universe.

School as a Device

Kunkel says, “think of the open source foundation like Android.” The world’s most used mobile operating system can support free, paid, proprietary, or open source apps. There are great, decent, and downright terrible apps, but they’re all supported on nearly any Android device, from the soon-to-be-coveted Samsung Galaxy S5 to the budget-friendly burner.

Slate takes on its Android-like form through a number of open APIs and dashboards that apps can plug into easily. One particular implementation at SLA lets teachers choose their own favorite online grading book while presenting comprehensive reports for students and parents in one place.

When this kind of open approach is extended to the one-size-fits-some K-12 market, successful technology integration can be measured more along the lines of what products meet the varying contexts of some 130K schools, 3.5M teachers, and 55M students. Slate is certainly hoping as much. Following the lead of other open-source web frameworks, the team is working on an online "self-serve" option to help on-the-ground technology coordinators get up and running at their school or district.

Even with the prospect of full data portability and greater leverage over procurement processes, some school decision-makers may choose the comfort of traditional product providers and a number of interesting upstarts. Others may go hyper-local with a consortium of schools opting to spend their funds with a local dev shop that supports specific technology needs. 

Most likely there will be room for both, but the days of long-term, highly customized, locally served software solutions are fading in the rearview mirror. School and district leaders would be wise to consider what’s next down the road before making due with what’s in front of them now.


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