Education and the feature-cost dilemma

Sakai board member Josh Baron drew my attention to a recent controversy in the MySQL community. The article describes MySQL’s plans to withhold some key features and source code from the community, reserving them for paying customers. I won’t weigh in on the controversy since I don’t really know much about the MySQL community.

I’m not surprised, though. MySQL is a business (now owned by Sun Microsystems) and as a for-profit enterprise they will need to find a way to make money. The standard way to do this in the software industry is to have different editions of the software at different price points. Here are a couple of examples:

You get the idea. More features, more cost. Nothing wrong with it.

But I’ll ask the following question: Who doesn’t get the “unlimited edition” teaching and learning application?

This has been a theme of some of my recent talks. I’ve argued that education, especially public education in the K-12 setting, is quite different from most industries. In most of the world it is recognized that a quality education is a basic right and should be provided free of charge. Of course we know that there are great wealth disparities in schools everywhere and this is one of the drivers of disparities in quality (there are many other factors, of course). This is a fact of life and isn’t going to change in the short run.

We should be looking for opportunities to deliver the same quality regardless of wealth. With enterprise software you have another instance of the wealthier getting better quality–it’s a dilemma and one that I don’t think the proprietary software vendors will have an answer to. Open source projects like Sakai (those that don’t have a for-profit company driving development) provide a potential way out of this dilemma. Everyone can have all the features and functions of Sakai for the same licensing cost (zero!).

Now of course I know that license costs aren’t the only ones (or even the largest ones, necessarily) in using a software platform like Sakai. As someone once said, there is a difference between a free beer and a free puppy. But an important promise of free and open source software is to break the model of “more features, more cost.” And we’re already delivering on the promise. If we continue to work together to make the software easy to install, integrate, maintain and use then we really do make a difference in education around the world.

The open source approach is especially important in teaching and learning applications that are the core mission of educational institutions. Open source should be the default assumption for core functions like teaching, learning and research. Educational institutions can should (and many are!) lead the way by providing an escape from this dilemma. Projects like Sakai provide an ideal way to do this. Get involved!

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