RIP Eduspaces, some good commentary from Tony Hirst, Brian Kelly and Graham Attwell (and as usual from Stephen Downes), and I can’t add too much. It’s always dangerous to take a single instance and extrapolate too broadly, every story has a back-story. But since I see the tension between centrally-supported vs. distributed, student-owned applications (and all the fuzzy approaches in between) as perhaps the central question that educational technology managers are wrestling with (at least in higher ed), it’s hard to avoid that kind of specious reasoning.
I don’t have any answers, but some uninformed opinions:
* Comprehensive, centralized, highly managed learning environments are expensive, emphasize insular and locked-down tendencies, and cannot begin to match the dynamism of the wider web. They can be disastrous from a basic usability perspective, and may be even worse from a pedagogical perspective.
* Open source applications are an improvement in a number of respects, but they imply a commitment to ongoing iterative implementation, development, and support that most educational institutions find very challenging, at least as they are presently constituted, staffed, and funded. There aren’t really any turn-key solutions, and success usually depends on a lot of people working together across and between institutions. There have been success stories, but success is hardly guaranteed. Constant change is a given, uncertainty is the only certainty, and those characteristics can make open source a tough sell, especially inside a big institution where you need buy-in from a lot of people who feel they have a lot to lose.
* Third-party applications promise rapid uptake and are inexpensive to get rolling. They are usually the flashiest, grooviest things going. They tend towards an emphasis on individual ownership and responsibility for learning environments that is promising and perhaps empowering. But I’ve learned that nobody wants to make the same third-party choices, and Web 2.0 hype aside these tools don’t always play so nicely with one another. Fostering an approach to technology that allows for fragmenting environments does not forestall a “customer service” mentality from many instructors and students, who are justifiably freaked out by the range of options and the dizzying implications of their choices. There are plenty of legitimate concerns about privacy of data, and the imperative for companies offering “free” services to monetize will inevitably lead to some creepy decisions. The environments and conditions can change at a moment’s notice. And these services can just go away. In a comment to Kelly’s post, Alan Cann adds: “When I was a young man, I thought new year resolutions were naff, but I’ve made (and mostly kept) one for the past few years now. You just helped me decide what next year’s resolution is going to be: work out my strategy for surviving the bubble burst which is surely coming in 2008 and will result in multiple sites/services disappearing.”
So if my focus seems to wander when I am responding to a question on technology strategy, it’s because contingencies like these won’t stop buzzing in my head.