Background

Open source: The value of community

Why and how open source software has become so popular

Barbara Ottawa, LearnChamp | November 1, 2016

Adapt collaborator LearnChamp interviewed project leader Sven Laux about how open source is key to spreading responsive elearning and speeding up innovation in learning technology.

Find out how a collaborative approach to developing learning software will help spread these tools in the not-for-profit, public and education sectors as well as developing countries, SMEs and small Learning & Development teams, how open source development changes the way companies calculate resources and why more clients will add open source solutions to their portfolio in the future.

Barbara Ottawa: It seems the perception and use of “open source” solutions has changed over the last five to ten years – is that true?

Sven: Yes, that’s right. Well organised, large scale open source projects have been appearing in many different sectors and the leading open source projects are now much more professional and also better understood and accepted by the industry in general.

many clients needed to get away from Flash-based solutions and replace them with materials that will work both on desktops as well as handheld devices

Open source alternatives have disrupted many sectors and have had a major positive impact on speeding up innovation, driving down cost and putting the emphasis on great customer service. Many professional service providers have embraced open source and are starting to understand how to weave open source solutions into their products and services to meet their customers’ needs quickly and make money at the same time.

Using an open source platform means you don’t have to reinvent the wheel for each client, developers and clients can profit from a shared technology. It’s also much easier to adapt the software for specific needs, which would otherwise not be affordable.

In the case of our responsive learning software Adapt, this is no different. When tablets and smartphones became viable devices for consuming learning materials, many clients needed to get away from Flash-based solutions and replace them with materials that will work both on desktops as well as handheld devices. Adapt is freely available and solves this problem. It’s great to see its rising uptake and global mass adoption.

Multi_Device_Wien_Kurs

Can you list some of the advantages of open-source for customers?

Adapt is licensed under the GPL v3.0 license. This means it’s free and there isn’t a license fee for the software itself. Everybody can use the code and modify it for their needs.

It’s also vendor independent. This means a client can up skill their own team to use it or hire a service provider of their choice, as opposed to the company who owns the software as is the case with proprietary systems. It even allows them to change service provider along the way without having to change the system. This offers a lot of control, keeps costs low and puts the emphasis on good customer service.

But aren’t the costs simply shifted somewhere else – are human resources the new currency in open source developments?

The software industry has changed significantly during the last few years. We no longer see as many off the shelf desktop packages costing between £50 and £100 but rather apps (often costing less than £5 on a one-off basis) or SAAS software with subscription business models.

In the latter case, software companies often tend to invest heavily into a product up front. The cost incurred will include a significant proportion of developer time and also marketing spend. In return the company has full ownership of the product, i.e. the intellectual property (IP) behind it and will then recoup the investment and driving profit by selling licenses to the software.

With Adapt and most open source software, the up front development costs and also marketing costs fall away. The project itself is not for profit. It doesn’t have to factor in the risk of up-front investment and also tends to be very focused on only doing what is really needed as opposed to over investing in features, given that resource is scarce and hard to control. Most open source projects are built on people scratching their own itch at some level (See: “The Cathedral and the Bazaar). The successful ones then make a crowd sourcing model work.

Take Adapt’s collaboration with LearnChamp for example: They have injected resources into the Adapt project since 2014 and to date the Adapt project has not exchanged a single pound of money. Instead, we used contributions of people’s time and resources. So it is true that people’s skills and time are a currency in open source. This industry is trading in things other than money.

So what is the value and where does profit eventually come from in open source solutions?

As for the Adapt open source project itself, the value is in our community, the recognition of our brand and the project’s ability to help the community to solve a given problem. In our case, that’s the provision of technology for the creation responsive elearning materials. This remains the reason for our existence.

the value is in our community, the recognition of our brand and the project’s ability to help solve a given problem

As mentioned, we’ve managed to get to where we are without exchanging money and are successfully providing a solution to a common problem in the industry. We know we have to work professionally and work hard to stay relevant. Our ongoing success will depend upon our ability to harness the efforts from our community and the official collaborators.

As for profits in the commercial sense, we leave these up for grabs by anyone willing to build service revenues based on Adapt. For instance, we’re very pleased that many of the Adapt partners are now providing the Adapt authoring tool commercially (i.e. hosting, support and maintenance) and that we have seen a talent marketplace for Adapt-based project work come into existence in our Projects and Jobs forum.

… and what’s the secret to success?

Having a good solution to a relevant problem, a low barrier to entry and a friendly and helpful community, willing to spread the word about Adapt!

That’s very easily said, of course, and there is a lot behind it. In our case, we’ve followed the advice given on producingoss.com – it has been invaluable and a massive thank you goes out to Karl Fogel. We’ve also learnt a lot from looking at the setup of the incredibly successful Moodle project.

At this stage, we’re really pleased to have a thriving community and visitors from more than 200 countries worldwide. We took the conscious decision not to force people to sign up to keep a low barrier to entry so we don’t know the full extent of Adapt’s uptake. However, we can tell that Adapt is well known and a talking point at the various international industry conferences. It’s also great to have won several awards already.

We feel very encouraged to continue striving towards our vision and staying friendly, approachable and helpful to the community are a big part of this. We’re always keen for more people and organisations to get involved and are committed to looking after our ambassadors.

And coming back to customer advantages: Is open source safe?

Security is a general concern for all systems, whether they are open source or proprietary. It is a myth that open source software is inherently less secure than proprietary equivalents. Each system should be thoroughly assessed on its own merits.

It is true that with open source software issues and bugs are more easily visible but at the same time, on a well-organised project, the visibility will lead to the issue being fixed quickly. As Eric Raymond says in the Cathedral and the Bazaar: “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. Consumers often forget that proprietary systems have the same types of issues, too. These may not be discovered and fixed as quickly as they would on a very active open source project.

With open source systems, end users can potentially exercise greater control over security. For instance, if security is a concern, users can commission a penetration (security) test, which will show up areas in need of tightening up. This approach will result in the greatest possible confidence in the security of a given system, but often isn’t permitted on proprietary alternatives.

Regardless, the key thing is to keep the software up to date and make sure to install the patches addressing bugs and security fixes. In my experience, too many users don’t update their software as often as they should to keep their systems secure.

Another allegation that is often made is open source development sometimes being a case of “too many cooks spoiling the broth”…

I haven’t personally experienced this. In the case of Adapt, we have a great degree of consistent work and implemented some lightweight control mechanisms (review processes and “committer rights”), which help prevent conflicts with the code and within the team. We generally spend a good amount of time to help new developers get up to speed and make sure to communicate well across the various channels (like our live developer chat on Gitter for instance).

We generally spend a good amount of time to help new developers get up to speed and make sure to communicate well across the various channels

I’ve found that new team members “get it” quite quickly and many have developed into greater roles and responsibilities on the project. For instance, I’m delighted to see different community members leading on specific aspects such as tracking, theming, import/export and, in the case of LearnChamp, the multi-language capabilities of the Adapt authoring tool and framework.

As for the bigger pieces on the roadmap, it’s great to see that there has been very strong consensus on what’s most important to develop next. We all tend to want the same thing. It’s also liberating to be working with like-minded people from all over. From my point of view, one of the biggest successes of sharing the technology work is that we work with developers across organisations, who otherwise compete in the marketplace.

Will Adapt remain a free, open source software?

Yes, definitely. Our license prevents anyone from selling the code but it permits selling services around it. For instance, a developer might charge someone for the time spent developing a new theme or an elearning company can charge for the creation of a bespoke learning module, but the Adapt source code will always be free and freely available.

the Adapt source code will always be free and freely available

Our vision incorporates third party companies building professional services around Adapt, including hosting, supporting and training on the Authoring Tool. We’re keen to encourage this as not everyone has the time or skill to install and maintain the software themselves. The official Adapt partners (or collaborators) are the best starting point and many of them already offer a range of professional services around Adapt.

Do you think “open source” will be used much more in future?

As mentioned, there are some big benefits of open source: It can speed up innovation, disrupt the marketplace, drive down cost and put the emphasis on customer service. It also allows us to share technical work and achieve greater things through crowd sourcing and partnerships.

In the case of Adapt, sharing the work has enabled us to build something none of the partners would realistically have done to the same extent, while also providing a benefit to a global Learning & Development community. I think with Adapt we have created a situation where anyone who is looking for an eLearning authoring tool has to at least consider it. It might not be right for everyone’s needs but putting it on the list of options to look at should be a no brainer – and it will keep getting better and easier to access.

There is a definite movement towards open source. It’s being adopted nearly everywhere to a greater or lesser extent. Many government procurement frameworks now make the consideration of open source options mandatory where these exist and we’re also seeing leading corporations adopt open source and even share their code under open source licenses. Google, Facebook and NetFlix are just some examples. Further to this, there are lots of very mature and stable open source code libraries (i.e. helper functions), which save huge amounts of time and cost and can be found all over the Internet.

For developers, I think there is a shift away from having to justify using open source towards having to justify building something from scratch when an open source component or system is available. I’d go as far as to say that in the near future the majority of systems being built will include some degree of open source code.

in the near future the majority of systems being built will include some degree of open source code

With this comes the necessity to understand and assess open source solutions – and not just from a technical angle. There are lots of factors that should influence which open source solution to choose, including the license, project maturity, size and activity of the community, level of available documentation and potentially even if commercial support is available etc. These are new things to learn for many of us.

Is a responsive, single resource software like Adapt the future of elearning… and how does it have to ‘adapt’ further?

Today, Adapt solves a relatively basic problem for elearning, i.e. the ability to create a single learning resource, which delivers an intuitive and suitable user experience on multiple device types. Mobile devices are here to stay and the problem and solution will stay relevant to elearning for the foreseeable future.

we’re still focused on developing the authoring tool to make it easier for non-technical users

With Adapt, we’re still focused on developing the authoring tool to make it easier for non-technical users to access and bring in the many features we have planned. However, many partners are already pushing the boundaries on what’s possible to do within the learning resources. This includes for example: interactive video, gamification and branching scenarios.

It’s also very exciting that the community are building out xAPI tracking, which connects with the thinking on Big Data and learning analytics in the industry. And then, there is what’s termed ‘adaptive learning’, where the content gauges the learner’s level and adjusts accordingly. There is a very exciting future ahead!

Thanks for the interview and good look with the project!

For more information on how Adapt developed you can also read some of LearnChamp’s blog-entries on Sven and his projects:

https://www.learnchamp.com/blog/2015/07/adapt-update/

https://www.learnchamp.com/blog/2014/10/adapt-erste-oeffentliche-vorstellung-des-open-source-autorentools/

https://www.learnchamp.com/blog/2014/04/duerfen-wir-vorstellen-adapt-learning/