I spent much of last week attending the 2011 meeting of Educause, an event devoted to information technology in higher education.
Educause (the organization) describes itself as a “nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology.” The annual meeting features sessions and workshops but also an enormous exhibit hall where various vendors promote their products, software and hardware alike. As Jason and I wrote last year, there is a great deal of money at stake in this particular market. However much your average faculty member--or administrator, or educational technology staff member--may support free and open source software or the open educational resources movement, you’re not very likely to see much about those things in the exhibit hall (though you might hear a good bit about them in individual sessions and workshops).
As much as I enjoyed seeing the Start-Up Alley at this year’s Educause I would also love to see a section devoted to free and open source tools, just to get some of the spirit of what’s going on in many of the sessions and workshops elsewhere in the convention center into the exhibit hall. Yes, I know that exhibitors pay to be able to stake out their position in the exhibit hall. Still, when I came across the Endnote booth I wanted to see a booth devoted to Zotero, the comparable research tool developed by the Center for History and New Media that is not only awesome but also free of charge. I longed to see a Moodle booth next to the space devoted to Blackboard. How many people attending Educause, I wonder, have perhaps heard of a free and open-source product like WordPress (about which we’ve written a great deal here at ProfHacker) but have never seen how easy it is to install and run? What kind of an impact would it make on campus purchasing decisions if these tools were given more prominence at meetings like Educause? I don’t claim to know the best way to make that happen (or to persuade everyone to think that doing so would be a good idea), but it’s what’s been on my mind the last several days.
I’ve often heard it said “Well, the software may be free, but you’ll have to pay people to maintain it.” And to that my response is, “We already employ those people. They currently spend their time maintaining the commercial software our campuses have purchased. It’s not going to increase our costs to eliminate the money we spend on that commercial software.” I’d like to see more campuses open to the idea of experimentation: don’t abandon your commercial LMS, but allow faculty to try out other possibilities. (And how about we stop referring to this sort of experimentation as faculty “going rogue” and start referring to it as faculty exercising academic freedom? We choose our own texts, we design our own assignments, we construct our own syllabi, and we should be able to choose our own educational technology, no?) Students won’t be as confused by the resulting diversity of interfaces as is often feared. They do just fine having to learn how to use different databases in the library or different information resources out there on the Web. If enough faculty and students find that they prefer free and open source tools to the ones you’ve been paying for... then maybe you should stop paying.
How about you? Did you attend Educause 2011? What were your impressions?
Does your campus make use of free and open source software for teaching and learning? Are faculty encouraged to experiment with a variety of possible tools?
Please share in the comments!