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How Open Source Can Reframe a Market

The post is written by Aaron Silvers, Founding Member of Making Better.

I don’t know how many open source project leaders think about the overall design of their project, including the community and the market in which the software or the *thing* they’re building will exist in, but it’s something Megan & I worked through a lot about with the rollout of the Experience API and it’s something we and everyone involved with Learning Pool Learning Record Store is consciously planning for.

To design a successful open source project, one must also design the market for it. I guess one could probably say the same about most efforts, though it’s proven especially true as I’ve had several experiments before xAPI that failed. Those projects didn’t consider a lot of thought around the business models for the projects, let alone how people might derive value (let alone generate value) by their participation.

Open Source is about altruism and the best in people coming together to create something that helps themselves (and others)… but to sustain such altruism, there has to be something that individuals find valuable (not necessarily money — but the delivery of something people can identify and want). The thing people come together to do has to also generate some kind of value.

It’s in this light I want to talk a little about Learning Locker.

A Learning Tech Spec History Lesson

Not to go all standards wonkish on you, but let’s take a very light look at the last fifteen years of history in the eLearning industry and look at what’s happened that provides a model for how Learning Locker meets a market need today.

In 2002, SCORM® Version 1.2 came out and it remains the most widely adopted version of the spec, even though arguably millions of dollars and years of effort went into its successor, SCORM 2004. Lots of reasons why SCORM 2004 never quite took off, and I won’t go into all of them in this blog post (lest I get mocked for writing so many words), but chief among the reasons why SCORM 1.2 became so widely adopted, I would argue, was the presence of Moodle and what it’s availability on the market did for SCORM 1.2 adoption.

You see, kids, up until Moodle, there really was no widely adopted free and open-source route to running eLearning content that used SCORM. That sentence to the outsider to our field reads as something really niche, but the open source community around Moodle that worked to incorporate the run-time for SCORM 1.2 content did more to advance eLearning adoption than all the proprietary vendors of learning management systems could have done.

That’s because for people around the world Moodle, being open source and a fairly easy-to-use set of software, meant instant infrastructure — especially in academic, not-for-profit, non-government and government institutions, let alone workforce development concerns. That Moodle had SCORM 1.2 running meant that people could develop content that worked with the spec… and as their needs grew and their budgets grew, they could afford to upgrade their infrastructure beyond Moodle when they needed to.

In short, Moodle created more customers around the world for eLearning — content, authoring tools and systems.

Back to the Future

The stage is set again with Experience API. Right now the market is consolidated around a few main proprietary vendors of learning record store functionality, incorporated into multiple proprietary products and a handful of independent systems with their own learning record store functionality.

The specification is moving pretty rapidly toward international standardization. But if you want something free and open source to use that’s enterprise ready? Well, while there are a few open source efforts popping up, the one that attracted our attention (and many others) is Learning Locker, and it aims to fill a market demand for Experience API that’s been unmet so far by the industry.

It will likely grow adoption of the spec itself… and grow the market for purchasing proprietary software as a result.

We don’t even know what kinds of proprietary tools this emerging market will need in the future, as what xAPI does is different from the needs SCORM meets. I do know this: while the appetite for open source solutions grows, eventually many of the adopters of such solutions will be able to strengthen their organizational capacity. They will develop the kind of resources that make more infrastructure investment worthwhile and that grows a new market for new proprietary solutions that cater to some interesting new needs.

The investment in Learning Locker is one of sweat equity. I’m most excited about about the ability to catalyze a market in weening off of technologies and products that aren’t really helping.

Designing for value in open source is the kind of challenge I love: it focuses my attention on removing the barriers to adopting fresh and better-designed tools from a more diverse community; that it’s open source means we can see how contributors emerge as the next market leaders for learning technology, clearly helping others as well as themselves.

That’s a positive way to challenge the status quo and make lots of things better: create value. It’s not just for the business types — it’s for anyone who really has the chutzpah to make measurable change. Watch us do just that.

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