Friday, February 12, 2010

The Mission Behind the Margin

In a recent post on the Educause Openess Discussion List Brad Wheeler counseled that while open-source may indeed be a social movement, the current cohort of adopters are likely to be alienated if it's referred to as such:

I believe arguments for the efficacy of open approaches to aid in research and education are best made in the language of economics, utility, goals, etc. There is no doubt that those who labor to make open projects and services are part of the Innovators/Early Adopters work as a movement. Yet, across the chasm, the language of ‘movements’ and ‘causes’ that may motivate some Innovators/Early Adopters may actually undermine interest by those who seek solutions for the same problems but listen for arguments of economics and outcome. They are sometimes quite turned off as they do not wish to join a movement or be dependent in the long-term on one. [To see this quote in context visit the Educause ListServ archives at: ]

Pragmatically speaking I'm convinced by this. I make the strongest appeals to campus constituencies when I draw attention to the features in an open-source product, when I suggest that it will mitigate vendor-lockin, that we won't be forced to upgrade (or retire) a system because of a merger or acquisition, and that supporting open source helps to combat the monopolization of the LMS marketplace. I’m less sure of my appeal when I bring up references to Richard Stallman’s free software movement or the Edupunks movement.

It is hard to deny the traction of Wheeler’s argument; a lot of CIOs (or at least the CIO conversations I witness on the Educause Listserv) are distinctly uninterested in questions about open-source as a movement or whether the ideologies of these movements are more or less in alignment with university missions. Instead, most CIOs weigh the benefits of open source by reference to more pragmatic criteria. The mindset was captured years ago in a Chronicle article titled “Open Source is the Answer Now What is the Question?” by University of Chicago’s CIO Gregory Jackson. In it Jackson inveighs against so called religious thinking and proposes that we analyze open source through a calculus of costs and benefits:

the meanings of open source are diverse. Not surprisingly, so are the arguments in favor of it. Some of them seem almost religious: for example, that software should be free, meaning that software is merely the representation of ideas and methods, and that ideas and methods should never be commercial property. Other arguments maintain that certain software companies are evil, and that to support open source is to combat evil…Open source can be the right answer when colleges and universities base their decisions on careful, complete analysis of relative costs and benefits, avoid unnecessary heterogeneity, specify integration requirements carefully, and avoid "religious" arguments…..My advice is simple: Treat open source like any other procurement possibility, paying careful attention to the functions it is to serve, how it needs to be integrated with other programs, and its costs. Avoid simplistic notions of good and evil.

Since Jackson’s and Wheeler’s views are representative of those of many other CIOs, we need to attend to these points of view as we’re performing open-source advocacy.

Still, even if these are good pragmatic strategies, choices between open-source solutions and proprietary solutions should be informed by understanding the larger social movements that support and lend significance to free software and free culture. And part of understanding these movements depends on articulating the values, ideologies and belief systems that give impetus to these initiatives.

While one might wish to avoid “simplistic notions of good and evil,” it’s hardly the case that there aren’t important value questions to consider when universities need to choose between open and closed partnerships. Nor should universities avoid using the language of ethics or values to understand what open source is. Indeed, value questions are the soul of the university. Without frank talk about ethics and missions and values we’d be failing to carry forth one of the most important ways that universities have made sense of the world.

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