The Developer’s Role in Academia
I recall a business instructor advising a class of computer science students that outsourcing software development to a country where labour costs could be significantly reduced presented a return on investment that was hard for businesses to ignore. Dismay among students in that class was palpable. If that proposition had any chance of proving true, hopeful software developers in North America would not be able to look forward to actually producing anything of value. The future would instead be looking at the interesting work from a distance, while managing the vendor.
A portmanteau word like EdTech combines the sounds and meanings of two otherwise freestanding terms. The meanings of both words are wrapped into one new, mesh word with a meaning of its own. If your relationship to both words is fairly innocuous, the pairing of education with technology will seem like a natural fit, a somewhat logical morph, or even a super-couple match such as Brangenlina was a decade ago — though this ended up not working out so well.
The Pencil Maker
On its own, the word technology can simply mean a tool, like a pencil or the printing press. No doubt, education would look different if pencils and the ability to mass produce printed text were not available as teaching instruments. No one questions the value that these technologies bring to the classroom and within this narrow example, the role for the producer of technology is clear. The pencil maker’s role is simply to make more pencils. The technologist delivers a product and the educator consumes it. Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions proliferate in this framework. For as long as I’ve been working in Education, this is the policy preference of governments and institutions alike.
No surprise then that a slow but steady exodus of IT professionals seeking more interesting work other than a contract manager for vendors has been a consistent pattern in education. It’s been this way for at least a decade or more. A reliance on vendors, of course, perpetuates a very predictable lack of in-house resources. Of the few who are left with both the skill and inclination to solve complex software problems, the task is either genuinely too large for an under resourced team or the disbelief in the innovation capability of an in-house team too strong. Budgets allocating a significant portion to licensing fees or service contracts don’t have room for human resources and where money, inclination and resources haven’t been an issue, disbelief/policy/bureaucracy can stand in the way.
The practice of ‘EdTech-nicians’ is indeed the practice of vetting vendors and vendor products. The sheer quantity of vendor solutions and their promise of utility in the classroom has created a need to evaluate and filter on behalf of the system. In this context, the word technology is fraught with commercial interests and hype cycles. The technical landscape is now more complex than it was when pencils were the primary concern. The evaluation of technology navigates through privacy and security, pedagogical alignment, user experience, interoperability, licensing, cost and a host of other criteria. Acceptability in a teaching and learning environment is dependant on meeting these needs, though everyone knows not all needs are the same.
Vendors with off-the-shelf products recognize the impossibility of meeting all business needs for everyone and will sometimes offer support for further customization. More often than not, these customizations are the primary development activities that in-house IT staff are tasked with. They can range from ‘nice-to-have’ requirements to the ‘must-have’ glue that links legacy systems to shiny vendor products.
Instead of seeing itself as a passive consumer of technology and the technologists mere providers, I see the organization I work for playing an active role in the technology that it uses. Internally, it uses and supports open source solutions like OwnCloud, Rocket.Chat, LimeSurvey, WordPress, Mediawiki, Yourls, and Piwik to name a few. When I think about why it chooses to play an active role, I see similarities to how agency and academic freedom describe some of the benefits of adapting an open textbook — participating in the creation and maintenance of educational technology improves our ability to solve our own institutional problems. I also see similarities between how an open pedagogy would encourage students to contribute to a real world project (like wikipedia, or a textbook) and how taking an active role in developing and maintaining open source EdTech benefits more people than just your immediate circle. BCcampus contributes to the maintenance of open source projects and everything that BCcampus produces on its own is released with an open source licence.
Is it enough?
While the approach that BCcampus takes is refreshing, I wish academic institutions once again considered themselves as critical actors with roles to play in shaping, sharing and maintaining the tools that they use. I currently see a cottage industry approach to producing open source EdTech, which could really stand to benefit from some coordination and re-investment in human capital.