Reflecting on a Week of Sakai, Blackboard, and Open Source

I really appreciate that Dave Ackerman (NYU) asked me some questions publicly about my new situation. My response is not particularly to Dave. At times I try to make clear parts of my response that specifically do not apply to Dave and NYU.

Comments welcome.

You were elected as a UMich employee; would folks have voted for you with the added employee hat?

There are other examples where someone on the board has changed jobs and where there was some concern as to whether their new job would cause a problem.   In one of the previous cases, I was privately quite concerned – but that concern turned out to be completely unwarranted and that person has done an outstanding job on the board functioning as an individual, representing the community rather than their company.  They carefully kept the roles separate as will I.  Ethics demands this. 

It is fully my intention to run for board at some point in the future when my term ends at the end of this year. You will be relieved to know that I am not on the Apereo founding board.   The earliest I would consider running for the board would be at the end of this year as I would like to focus  my energies on getting 2.9 released.  So at some point in the future, the question of how will people vote will be answered.   When/if I run for the board in the future, you will be able to campaign against me, vote against me and if enough people vote against me in that election and I lose, my shame and fall from grace will be public and complete.

I would point out that long before I was a Blackboard employee, I had plenty of detractors.  If you read my book, you will see that I do not make strategic decisions based on whether it makes people happy or not.  I was not at all sure that I would be elected to the board when I ran back in 2009.  Perhaps it was because the people who voted for trusted me as a human being and committed community member than University of Michigan employee number 8675309.  Perhaps they knew me well enough to know that my commitment to this community is as deep as it can be and is unwavering regardless of what company or university happens to be paying for my travel expenses last year, this year, or next year.

I consider Blackboard a competitor to Sakai.  How do I feel about serving on a Board with a competitor?  Would Pepsi have a Coke employee on it’s Board?

Blackboard is not a competitor to Sakai.   Blackboard is not Coke to Sakai’s Pepsi.   Blackboard is Coke, Unicon is Pepsi,  rSmart is Starbucks, and Sakai is Toastmasters where we all get together on a Friday evening and give speeches to each other.  

“… Thanks Michael Feldstein, that was indeed an excellent speech about  “Amazingly Accurate Advanced Alliteration” (applause).   But before you all go, lets make sure to thank Unicon for providing the snacks for tonight’s Toastmasters meeting (applause).   Next week it’s LongSight’s turn to provide snacks, right?  See you all next Friday when Nate Angell will be giving a speech on why “Portland is So Damn Awesome” (yes again) (audience groans)…..”

Sakai is an inclusive *open* source project and a non-profit corporation dedicated to supporting, expanding, and advancing an open community around free software that we collectively contribute to.  The non-profit Sakai Foundation was not formed as the “place where commercial market opponents of Blackboard secretly meet with angry former Blackboard customers to  collectively align their attack strategies to achieve maximum damage to Blackboard”. 

Sakai is also not a secret club that meets in a tree house named the “Boys Are NOT Allowed Club”.

Check the bylaws to see if there is any reference to “secret strategy plotting sessions” or membership rules regarding boys.  

Sakai Foundation ByLaws

Please read the bylaws and come back here and quote the parts that justify treating Blackboard differently than any other company with an intention to support and invest in the Sakai community.  I challenge you to find any passage in the bylaws that pertains to Blackboard that does not equally to Unicon or rSmart.

If you look at the board members of IMS (a non-profit industry alliance):

IMS Global Learning Consortim Board of Directors

You see lots of competitors on the same board.  It turns out that this is a *great* idea and frankly the makeup of the IMS board that includes a diversity of commercial interests is precisely why IMS works so well.

Blackboard *is* a competitor to rSmart, Unicon, LongSight, Edia, IBM, OpenCollab, Samoo, Seensoft, Sungard, Serensoft, KEL, Embanet, and many others with commercial interest in Sakai.  

Sakai Commercial Affiliates

If they can be on the board, then why not Blackboard?  If I was on the board of directors of one of those actual competitors and a Blackboard employee it would be a gigantic issue.   

Actually, I was on the board of a company that provides Sakai services and is a competitor to Blackboard and regularly goes against Blackboard in RFQ situations.   This Monday at 7:25PM, I offered my resignation to that board when I became a Blackboard employee and the board accepted my resignation with regrets.  It was very very very sad for me personally because I completely believed in what that company was trying to do and still believe in their mission – but I could not be on their board for the very reasons you cite. I typed the message at 4:45 (10 minutes after the press release went public) but kept it as draft for several hours because I just could not bring myself to hit the send button. I knew that my fellow board members would not see the press release until I sent the message so I wanted to delay it as long as I could. The people that I met through that board have become wonderful friends and I already miss them and the conversations we would have at board dinners after the board meetings were over.  The next board meeting was in Tahoe in a few weeks and I had been looking forward to it for a very long time as all of our other board meetings have been in San Francisco and LA and after five years, we were going to finally have a board meeting in Tahoe. And now I can’t go and spend time with dear friends. Resigning from that board and the possibility that I will never see some of those friends again is the only thing that has brought tears to my eyes this week.

Over the past few years working on IMS standards, I have developed friendships at Jenzabar, Desire2Learn, Instructure, and other companies.  While expect those friendships to continue as friendships, there will immediately be a natural loss of camaraderie, openness, sense of adventure, and shared purpose in those relationships.  This loss is because of my new association with Blackboard – not because of my long-standing association with Sakai.   

While I was working in IMS, I was open about my involvement in the Sakai community – I actively built reference implementations in Sakai and often used Sakai as the first LMS to run through interoperability tests and in public demonstrations of new IMS capabilities.  I continuously used Sakai to help engineer IMS standards.  All the commercial participants in IMS knew I was the “Sakai guy” in addition to the “IMS guy”.  It was never a problem.  Never.  Desire2Learn may compete with rSmart – but they don’t compete with “Sakai” – we all understood that – Sakai was seen by all as a fair and honest participant in the marketplace.  

It is ironic that virtually everyone in the marketplace from the outside (for profit and open source) sees Sakai as a fair, honest and open place where anyone can come and exchange ideas with the other members of a community committed to broadly advancing teaching and learning in a non-threatening manner.  It is literally only a *few* people *inside* the community that see us as “Seal Team 6″ carefully plotting the end of Blackboard since 2003.  Folks, we don’t even have a helicopter – let alone many special stealthy helicopters. If we have been planning some kind of attack on Blackboard all this time, the Sakai board should approve the purchase of a tank or a flame thrower at the very minimum.

If Desire2Learn or Instructure decided to offer Sakai services and started to contribute real resources and real value (not just a check for $10K) to the Sakai community – I would make the case that they should be welcomed with open arms too.

Back to my participation on the Sakai board and in the Sakai community,  both the Sakai and Moodle communities (and foundations) need to be open to all that can help and contribute.  Open source communities like Drupal, OLAT, Joomla, and many others have these commercial-as-evil conversations over-and-over-and-over … … and-over.

The only time there is ever a problem in open communities is when one company becomes so dominant to the point where it employs a significant majority of the committers and creatives that produce an open source product (i.e. like Oracle and MySql) where that company could switch to a closed-source strategy any time it likes and retain enough committers to successfully maintain the code in a proprietary manner.

I wrote about this in a blog post in 2010 when Oracle bought MySql:

Why an Open Source Community Should not cede Leadership to a Commercial Entity – MySql/Oracle

The blog post is not a perfect analog to the current situation because mostly I am talking about how GPL is not as much protection as it claims to be and leads communities to a false sense of security where one company holds the copyright or a majority of committers.   The post *is* about a community that thought things would be all right so they let others do all the investing.   This quote from my blog post seems to apply in the current situation:

“Successful open source projects need to make sure to feed and take care of their bazaar – their volunteer technical core for the product. Be very wary of the “get resources quick” or “get results quick” schemes where you cede leadership to something or someone in the cathedral.”

Wow – that would seem to be highly critical of me and my recent actions, right?  Oops!  Perhaps I should quickly go back and edit that blog post to be more charitable to evil corporations.  Not going to happen. Wouldn’t be prudent. I stand behind my words.

If you read the entire post, it is a call to action to insure *diversity* and avoid apathy in an open source community and to make sure that unaffiliated individuals remain involved in the community and that the collective grooms *multiple* corporations to be involved in the community.  For-profits in open source is frankly the driving engine of progress – without for-profit involvement, Apache and Linux would not function.  I am not talking about RedHat because I despise proprietary forks that remove talent and resources from the community and then turn around and use revenue from their sales of a product they got for free to market against the community product (like Ubuntu).  I am talking about the hundreds of other responsible companies in the Linux community like IBM that pay employees and let them work freely in the community edition of an open source product as a fraction of their job.  Like Google’s 20% time.

In Sakai, Universities are great at forming the starting capital to kick off new initiatives like CLE and OAE.   But frankly they are not so good at writing a check year after year to keep something like CLE properly fed so it can survive.   Foundation staff on the CLE was five people in 2005 based mostly on contributions from Higher-Ed IT.   Since about four months ago, the foundation staff working on the CLE is zero and shortly after the last foundation resource was removed, the CLE progress toward release slowed to a crawl and a few weeks ago, the release was postponed indefinitely.  The only remaining *dedicated* release management resources moving the Sakai 2.9 release forward come from LongSight and Unicon.

I get the sense that all this irrational fear is that somehow Blackboard will “take over” Sakai.  That is simply not possible as long as others in the community remain committed to investing in Sakai.   As long as the community remains rich and diverse, Blackboard is just one of many sources of resources to help us all move forward and their resources make it better for everyone – including Blackboard’s commercial competitors.  If the current members of the community continue to withdraw their financial support from the foundation and their staff support of Sakai projects and efforts, you are ceding the community to whomever is left at the end.

There is the saying, “Will the last person leaving the room please turn out the lights.”   In open source, it is a little different, “The last organization in the room, owns the software.”.   My plea to this community is to “please stop leaving the room”.

It has been said that I can never quit writing a blog post or email message while I am ahead.   And this time is no different.  :)

I would suggest that those who vehemently oppose Backboard’s involvement ask themselves the following questions.  These do not apply to anyone in particular and certainly do not apply to you David as your contributions to Sakai OAE and this community are above reproach.

– Do I really have a logical reason for my opposition?  Is there anything in the bylaws or the tenets of open source that discriminates and declares or allows one to logically determine that one commercial source of resources is “evil” and another commercial source of resources is “good”?

– How can you be opposed to increasing diversity of thinking, ideas and approaches?  How can you be opposed to having one more source of financial and resources to our community?  Tell us all a logical reason for your position without using the word ‘evil’.  I seriously doubt you can.

– Are you uncomfortable finding out that there has been an increasing disconnect between public puffery supporting Sakai and private and shameful reductions in contributed resources?  Have you been part of the puffery?   Have you withdrawn resources?  I am sure you have great reasons as to why you withdrew resources – everyone does.  Talk to the hand.

– Does it bother you that about 40 higher educations stopped supporting the Sakai Foundation over the past five years?  Are you uncomfortable that so far, higher education seems unable take care of its own in the long run?

– Are you uncomfortable that for-profit companies already provide all of the long-term committed resources for the Sakai CLE product?  Would you perhaps feel more comfortable if there were three companies providing consistent dedicated resources for the CLE community instead of two?

– Are you uncomfortable knowing that if community members had continued to contribute enough resources to maintain the “Sakai commons”, I would might not be working for Blackboard right now?

Welcome to open and community source folks.   Resources matter.  The commons matter.  There is no such thing as a free lunch.  

Please don’t read that last point as me having any second thoughts about my decision. Trust me, this will turn out to be the smartest decision I have ever made. I am not looking back. I am looking forward and breathless with anticipation. Soon, you will see that what we have accomplished so far will turn out to have only been the warm up act.

And, ‘no’ – the Sakai Foundation still does not need a tank or even a Zamboni.

I am happy and honored that David Ackerman of New York University has the confidence and respects me enough to challenge me publicly and demand that I explain myself.   He and NYU has been giving an amazing amount of resources and talent to this community (remember the icons on tools – those came from NYU – thank Max – love ya!).  And in particular David *continues* to give resources and has always been willing to *increase* his support when something is important.  This message is *not* about David Ackerman.

But if you have spent the past five years like an ostrich with your head buried in the sand, hoping not to see how bad the commons of the Sakai community have become, and the press release Monday forced you to pop your head up and say ‘holy shit!’ – I am *not* sorry.  It is about damn time you took notice of how so few people are working so hard on your behalf and being treated pretty damn poorly by those they faithfully serve.

Those of you who are still saying ‘no’ to Blackboard resources are voting to continue a downward death spiral of the CLE.   Pop up a new tab in your browser and listen to this – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ab0E8duvuMs as you read the rest of this post. The symbolism is not as simple as it seems on the surface. I will give you one hint – in the song, the lyrics are not me talking to the Sakai community. Drop me an email when you figure it out.

Given that the CLE is an essential part of the OAE and that it will be some time before the OAE can truly fully replace the CLE, I would suggest that the premature death of the CLE will lead to failure for OAE and as such failure for and of the entire Sakai community.   The CLE must continue until the OAE is ready to take its place.  This is absolutely not about OAE versus CLE.  This is about investing in CLE to support the OAE.

I took the most pro-community step I could take in putting my reputation, friendships, my next board election, and everything I hold dear on the line when it seemed like there was no hope of any source of resources for the continued survival of of the Sakai CLE and asked Blackboard for resources.  If you read my book you will see that I have many times over done things that were unpopular or even hurt a few people’s feelings in order to keep this community alive. I assure you that this is one more of those things that a year from now – people who publicly and privately are cursing me right now – will later come up and tell me – “I am amazed at how well this worked out…  You were right all along.”

When that happens, I will not say, “I told you so.” I will say, “Yeah – isn’t it great to be out of the woods in terms of resources. Oh and by the way thanks for the two students you contributed to the CLE 2.9 QA. They were so helpful brought a lot of excitement and energy. We would love to have them back again to help us with the next release which should be a lot easier because we finally have decent coverage on written test plans. Are they available for the next OAE bug bash – OAE QA is even more fun because they have better unit tests than the CLE…..”

Even with all my curmudgeonly ranting in this post, frankly things are looking pretty optimistic in my opinion.  Blackboard will make some healthy investments in the community in terms of my time, access to Blackboard resources, and direct financial contributions to the Foundation and other Sakai efforts.  CLE will begin to move forward and as OAE matures we will gently move from one product to the other as our organizational needs dictate.

And perhaps the best outcome of all is that more than a few people might wake up and realize that they have been under-contributing to the Sakai Foundation and the Sakai Community (particularly the CLE). Perhaps motivated by genuine altruism or fear that Blackboard might take over, those people and organizations will stir from their self-imposed torpor and increase their support to make damn sure that whatever Blackboard spends on the commons – that the rest of the community is spending enough to insure that Blackboard’s contributions to the commons remain a reasonably small fraction of the overall community investment.

Sorry if I moved your collective cheese this week.  That always hurts.  But if in the process, I can cause you to look at the cheese and realize that it is nearly all gone and kind of dried up, and perhaps that once you look at the state of our shared cheese and feel sorry for it – that you will bring some more cheese.

Blackboard has brought some cheese for us all to share.  Will you bring some of your cheese back as well or will you wait until no one is looking and just snatch what you see as your fair share of the remaining cheese and ride off on your high horse and curse Blackboard under your breath?  It is your choice. My path forward is clear and publicly stated.

/Chuck

P.S. Keep the questions and challenges coming.  I have nothing to hide.   Ask them all. 

P.P.S.  When you see me next, I will be proudly wearing a Blackboard shirt.  But my heart, beating an inch below that logo – has always and will always belong to the greater Sakai community.  My permanent tattoo on my right shoulder includes Sakai, Blackboard, IMS, Desire2Learn, LearningObjects, OLAT, Instructure, Moodle and an empty space tentatively reserved for ANGEL (please hurry – don’t let OpenClass or Fronter get that last slot!).   My Sakai logo was my first and is in the center and the largest of all my tattoos.    The other tattoos – while important – are like a small solar system revolving around Sakai like planets.

8 Comments

  1. Chuck,

    In the wake of reading your blog post I tried digging up your Sakai memoir to review why you’d continued to maintain amicable relations with Blackboard while many in the Sakai community were vilifying them during the D2L suit. Unfortunately, the book must be in my office. But if I remember correctly, one of the core rationales was that you saw the D2L suit as a form of defensive patent litigation that any large software company needs to engage in to protect their own interests. While it might not have been an initiative that helped to vitalize LMS innovation, it was forgivable or at least intelligible given the market and legal imperatives that for profit software companies have to respond to in order to protect their interests. I’m sympathetic to that line of argument. Blackboard isn’t evil and we shouldn’t vilify them for those actions: they’re simply another actor caught up in the (often heartless) imperatives of the market. If that rationale holds then it seems understandable why all of us should maintain cordial working relationships with Blackboard or, for that matter, any other for-profit company. If those relationships can work to the ultimate benefit of OSS, then by all means let’s foster them just as OSS has fostered working relationships with Unicon, rSmart, Moodlerooms and Instructure.

    My only reservation is that while the above vendors do share a few things in common with Blackboard (more perhaps than they would like to own up to) there is a difference in degree. I worried and fretted (and occasionally vilified) Blackboard not because I thought they were really that different from other vendors but because at the time their market share and litigiousness posed an existential threat to the rest of us working in the LMS innovation space. If that market share is gone, or enough on the wane, and if OSS is still rightfully at the center of the LMS universe (as your tattoo seems to imply) then we really don’t have to worry any more about BBBB (Big Bad Blackboard)…..or do we?

    Cheers,

    Luke

  2. I did not maintain amicable relations with Blackboard during the time where we felt we might be sued. We (Sakai) were at war and fighting for survival. I was scared that any day as Executive Director I would get a cease-and-desist letter and then what would I do. I did not take the battle to Blackboard in defense of Sakai – that was wonderfully done by Joseph Hardin of Michigan, Brad Wheeler of Indiana and Chris Coppola of rSmart. They of course were aided by Richard Fontana and Eben Moglen of the Software Freedom Legal Center. Through their efforts Blackboard was forced to the negotiating table and forced to propose the patent grant that exempted any open source application from the grant – commercial or otherwise. As a footnote – I would bet this is one of the reasons that Instructure started out as AGPL. I have always felt that Sakai is the “Mother of Instructure”.

    So every open source activity in this field owes Joseph, Brad, Chris, Richard, and Eben an eternal debt of gratitude. I admit I was *not* in the vanguard in this battle am also thankful to those who took the lead.

    Where I and the board parted ways was once the patent grant was in good shape from a legal sense and offered (i.e. we had won what we needed), the board felt that we should not take the offer, but instead use the court of public opinion to pursue the “retreating” Blackboard and beat them within an inch of their life. My opinion is that when you have an offer on the table that is what you need – you accept it. I suggested that Blackboard publish the grant and not expect a big hug from Sakai – and they did. And we got on to business and then many years later Instructure was formed.

    The patent gambit was stupid. It was beyond stupid. Blackboard suffered permanent damage and put D2L on a heck of a pedestal in terms of the market.

    Any startup company must weather a few bumps along the road before it shows it is really here for the long haul. Blackboard is here for the long haul. D2L is here for the long haul. As exciting as Instructure and OpenClass might be – they still have to prove that they have staying power. But D2L is past that and into the “mature market participant” phase. I have a lot of respect for D2L. And it was the patent lawsuit that gave them the trial by fire that proved D2L’s mettle. That which does not kill D2L makes it stronger. Oops.

    I am pretty sure Blackboard won’t try that again. If they are that dumb I can just put in my two-weeks notice and go back to taking summers off :)

    When you say “… litigiousness …” without citing any specifics as your justification, I kind of roll my eyes. I have been researching this for a while and I can’t really find anything other than that oh-so-unfriendly letter about “stop touching the Learn data model” when someone wrote a perl script to hack into the data model and often ended up causing tracebacks in Learn and then claimed Learn had a bug. Bb now publishes the data model and tells you where you can touch it without breaking the core code. I think this is now really just a fun memory that folks hold on to over the years and cite repeatedly where they heard someone who knew someone who knew someone who got the letter.

    If there were one thing that over the years kind of pissed me off about Blackboard, it was how damn opportunistic they were. Each time I would make an alliance between Sakai and WebCT or ANGEL – Blackboard would buy them and take my collaborators away. The last few months, I was working with MoodleRooms on LTI – and then Michael bought them too! Damn! Damn! Damn! I played market chess with Michael three times and lost. I used my cleverness, charm, and good looks and he used a checkbook. Checkbook wins. A week ago I decided I might get me some of that checkbook and bring it into the Sakai. You know the old saying, if you can’t beat them…

    Face it. Michael Chasen is a very very clever guy when it comes to running a business. Having a competitor or market participant that is very clever can be very frustrating when you are trying to play chess against him and you always seem to always lose. That is not evil either – just maddening.

    Maybe we can have a debate some time!!!!!

  3. In terms of tattoo structure – Sakai is the center of *my* universe. Not the center of *the* universe. In terms of the market OSS is here to stay but OSS is also not increasing its market share. Even Moodle’s market share growth may be slowing due to things like Edmodo. For me is is less about Sakai versus Moodle versus Learn than it is about old-style LMS systems versus new-style LMS systems. It is time for some alliances to form to stabilize the market so we can find some spare resources and energy and get to a point where we are once again innovating.

    With Michael’s acquisition, about 100 developers who on Sunday were enemies, on Monday became allies. The money saved by stopping beating each other up can be freed to be invested in innovations. That will be the payoff for teachers and learners.

  4. Matt Clare says:

    Chuck,

    Big issue of accuracy here: Your Zamboni link to http://waterlooinsider.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/img_0394.jpgthat's . I actually think it’s Kitchener’s city hall skating rink, not a Zamboni http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Surfaceuse.jpg

  5. Bruce says:

    Given that the CLE is an essential part of the OAE and that it will be some time before the OAE can truly fully replace the CLE, I would suggest that the premature death of the CLE will lead to failure for OAE and as such failure for and of the entire Sakai community.

    This is an interesting argument I’ve heard many in the Sakai world make. And you might be right.

    But I’d also like to suggest the possibility that you have it backwards: that the belief it is possible to create an elegant next-generation learning experience by falling back on Hybrid mode may well be a pipe dream, and that the failure to embrace this view has stunted OAE development.

    I really don’t know which view is correct. I’d say I lean 51-49 or so. But I do think my alternative ought to be discussed more widely. If I am right, then it probably suggests a rethink of the OAE development approach a bit (which seems to me to be too centralized ATM).

  6. Matt, My posts have layers of symbolism and multi-step metaphors. What initially seems to be a mistake is actually a subtle puzzle. Zambonis are related to rinks. Go find that particular rink on Google Maps Satellite view. You will find a very important landmark in the LMS marketplace within 1/4 mile of that particular rink.

  7. Bruce, I don’t think anyone loves Hybrid mode as an ideal long-term solution – but instead a transition strategy to get OAE into production quicker and lets further development happen while OAE is running production.

  8. Bruce says:

    Yes, I know. It’s a fair perspective. My worry is just that it takes a fair bit of work to do well, and the results aren’t great. That may be a misplaced concern; not sure.

    On my vague point about the development model, for example, I’ve been wondering for awhile if it’s possible to design a really clean, consistent, but extensible new learning activity UI, so that the UI is defined via the URG-led process and is therefore consistent, but that independent development can happen to develop particular activity verb UIs. That might allow labor to be more easily spread and pooled without everything needing to go through a centralized process?

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