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[liberationtech] The Next Wave: Liberation Technology

Yosem Companys companys at
Tue Feb 3 18:40:51 PST 2009

 The Next Wave: Liberation Technology *In everything from course management
to big enterprise systems, universities must choose between monopolies and
the open approach*


If the nineties were the e-decade (e-com-merce, e-business, e-publishing,
eBay, E*Trade, etc.), the aughties are the o-decade (open source, open
systems, open standards, open access, open archives, open everything). This
trend, now unfolding with special force in higher education, reasserts an
ideology, a meme, that has a continuous tradition traceable all the way back
to the beginning of networked computing (in fact, as far back as Thomas
Jefferson's famous defense of the principle that "ideas should freely spread
from one to another over the globe"). Call this meme Liberation Technology.
It has recently been adopted by some venerable institutions --Ýnot only by
some of the great public and private universities, but also by major private
foundations --Ýand it means business.

Since the beginning of Internet time and before, Liberation Technology has
been intertwined with and opposed to another ideology. Call it Command and
Control. You see Command and Control at work in the military roots of the
Internet, in the Recording Industry Association of America's prosecution of
file-sharing college students, and in Microsoft's doubly possessive and
oddly revealing slogan ("your potential, our passion"). Liberation
Technology wants to keep information free; Command and Control wants to make
the Internet safe for private property.

To be sure, not all proprietary operations oppose open inquiry, but the key
to the business success of open-source products like Linux is that they
allow people to make money by selling them, without allowing the seller
exclusive control. Especially with information goods, the notion of
nonexclusive commercial rights is key.

*In the Early Days of the Web, Public Good vs. Property Rights*

By the early 1990s, the Internet was expanding rapidly, going from one
thousand hosts in 1984 to one million in 1992, and new, more sophisticated
applications were appearing, like Gopher (1991) and the World Wide Web (the
first Web server in the United States was set up in 1991, with Mosaic, the
first graphical Web browser for personal computers, coming along in 1993).
Throughout the 1990s, university faculty members and students outside of
computer science were gradually becoming aware of the existence of the
Internet, largely because of the Web; so was the rest of the world, for the
same reason.

In retrospect, it's difficult to comprehend the rapidity with which the Web
went from an obscure science experiment to a fact of daily life, but it took
only about three years. By late 1994, the World Wide Web Consortium was
founded to take over managing Web protocols and their development and to
ensure that the Web would remain a nonproprietary public good. In 1996, the
consortium presented the first draft of XML (Extensible Markup Language, the
encoding format that is now used for exchanging text and many other kinds of
data on the Web); the official draft of XML 1.0 was presented in 1998.

In distinct contrast to that ethos, with its focus on the public good, an
aggressive campaign began in the late 1990s to expand the property rights of
"content providers," in legislation like the Digital Millennium Copyright
Act and the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (both passed in 1998)
and in case law arising out of the Recording Industry Association of
America's suit against Napster in 2000. Mixed in there was the Microsoft
antitrust case, initiated in 1998 under the Clinton administration, first
decided against Microsoft, overturned on appeal, and eventually settled,
quite favorably for Microsoft, by the Bush administration in 2001.

Against that backdrop, during the 1990s all over the United States
universities became big IT consumers, not just in computer science or in the
sciences, but increasingly in all disciplines, on every part of campus, for
all kinds of services. As they came to rely more, and more broadly, on
networked information in teaching, research, and administration,
universities turned away from the strategy of meeting their own specialized
needs with homegrown software and began to license more commercial products.

They also began to be seen, for the first time, as a profitable market for
commercial IT products and services. WebCT and Blackboard, for example, both
appeared on the scene in 1997 and over the next few years they signed up
hundreds of university clients for "e learning" systems to put courses
online, do grading online, accept homework assignments online, etc. On the
administrative side, beginning in the mid-1990s,
enterprise-resource-planning (ERP) systems from vendors like PeopleSoft and
Oracle --Ýfor managing payroll, student records, human resources,
purchasing, etc. --Ýbegan to find a market in universities, partly built on
the fear that Y2K would wreak havoc on older, usually homegrown, systems
that had hitherto been performing those functions, often successfully, often
for years.

Universities also got caught up in the Internet bubble --Ýthat combination
of greed, optimism, and willful ignorance of history that led us to believe
that information technology would create a permanent bull market. In the
heady days at the turn of the millennium, Columbia University, to take only
one of many possible examples, plowed millions into launching Fathom, a
for-profit online content provider for e-learning, confident that such a
foray into the commercial sector would turn a handsome profit for the
stakeholders, which included not just Columbia, but the London School of
Economics and Political Science, the New York Public Library, the University
of Chicago, the University of Michigan, and others.

Some time in 2000, though, the pendulum started swinging the other way,
beginning, perhaps, in reaction to failures such as Fathom's. In his annual
report for 2000-2001, the president of the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, Charles M. Vest, succinctly articulated a return to the original
ideology of the Net when he announced MIT's OpenCourseWare
project<>to make primary materials of its
courses available online --Ýfree. As he
noted, "inherent to the Internet and the Web is a force for openness and
opportunity that should be the bedrock of its use by universities."

Vest's report is not the source of the trend that is now unfolding, but it
is certainly a document that crystallizes a historical moment. It is
significant for another reason, too: It is emblematic of what's changed in
this iteration of Liberation Technology.

*Course Management, Portals, and Enterprise Systems*

This time around, the ideas are being advanced not by ragtag communitarians,
but by major institutions, with substantial backing not just from MIT, but
from a number of other universities as well, and not just from universities,
but from corporations, foundations, and government agencies at home and

In MIT's case, support comes from the institution itself and also from two
major private foundations, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the
Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. On a first visit, the MIT site for
OCW<>looks a little longer on structure
than substance. If you dip at random into
courses, you may see mostly syllabi, perhaps some exercises, and a list of
assigned readings, but not the readings themselves (leading you to wonder
how the effort is going to provide new educational opportunities in the
developing world, as claimed). But on further investigation, you'll find
that some courses have the complete text of every lecture (in PDF), and
others have full-length videos of every lecture (at three different
resolutions for slow, medium, and fast connections). At that point, MIT's
claim to be the first open-source university begins to seem more plausible.

MIT can't give away the readings in its courses --Ýin most cases, textbooks
and articles that come from commercial publishers --Ýbut it can give away
the intellectual property created by its own faculty members, and that's
what it's doing. As with the open-source-software movement from which it
drew inspiration, it permits the reuse, modification, and redistribution of
content. Unlike open-source software, however, it prohibits doing any of
those things for commercial purposes.

That distinction is important, and it is key to understanding the doctrinal
differences among open-source sects. Beginning in the early '80s, the
innovation of the open-source-software movement was to argue that users
should have the freedom to modify source code, but could sell the results,
as long as the source code for the modified version was available for
modification. Those terms are codified in the GNU Public

Since then, other variants of open-source licensing have emerged. MIT's
materials in OCW are covered by a different, newer copyright, developed by
the Creative Commons project <>, an effort led by
Lawrence Lessig, who set up Stanford University's Center for Internet and
Society, with support from Hewlett, Stanford and Harvard Universities' law
schools, and others (including the philanthropic group Center for the Public
Domain). The Creative Commons license allows copying and redistribution, but
also allows the content creator a set of options with respect to
attribution, commercial use, and modification of the work. The Creative
Commons license is inspired by GNU, but also informed by a somewhat broader
perspective, in that it is intended to cover creative work other than

Though legal variants of open-source licenses do exist, at a technical
level, open systems require that everyone who designs or modifies the
systems does so under the same set of rules. In the case of online
courseware, content, and tools, the IMS Global Learning
Consortium<>is providing some important common
ground on which to coordinate a very
broad range of specifications. One of the partners in that effort is another
"open" entity, called the Open Knowledge Initiative, or OKI. That effort,
financed by the Mellon foundation, is based at MIT with Stanford as a
principal partner and supported by a number of major universities. It describes
itself <> as "an open and extensible architecture that
specifies how the components of an educational software environment
communicate with each other and with other enterprise systems." The goal is
to liberate universities from having to choose a single software solution
for managing online instruction and/or online components of classroom
instruction. The result would be greater portability of content, greater
flexibility in choosing and assembling elements of a learning-management
system, and a shift in the balance of power between the client (the
university) and the software vendor, in favor of the client.

Universities --Ýor open-source developers at large --Ýcould choose to
produce and share their own modules for things like calendars, gradebooks,
etc. Commercial vendors could also continue to build and sell proprietary
solutions that adhered to the architectural specification (and that,
therefore, allowed users to unplug some of the vendor's modules and plug in
some of their own, or some from another vendor). That speaks directly to the
practice of monopolistic "bundling" that was at the heart of the antitrust
case against Microsoft.

As with any standard, success will depend on whether both vendors and users
buy into it. That is not yet a certainty with OKI, but in May 2002
Blackboard announced its intention to adopt the OKI architecture. In October
2002 OKI announced that it had joined in an informal consortium with other
"leading organizations developing specifications for e-learning technology
in higher education ... to coordinate strategy and conduct common

While the OKI project aims at specifying an architecture for online learning
systems, and MIT's OCW is focused on content for such systems, another
open-source effort, the Sakai Project, focuses on educational software
tools. According to the Sakai Web
the project hopes to "demonstrate the compelling economics of 'software code
mobility' for higher education, and it will provide a clear road map for
others to become part of an open-source community." Sakai is a collaboration
among Indiana University, MIT, Michigan, and Stanford, which will begin
using its tools in 2004.

Another partner in Sakai is the open-source project
A number of other universities (in the United States and abroad) and
for-profit companies (Sun Microsystems, SCT, Interactive Business Solutions)
are involved in developing uPortal. Once again, the Mellon foundation is
helping to support the project.

Portals can do more than integrate news and weather, or library and course
information. They can also integrate the administrative-computing functions
of the university, such as student records, payroll and human resources, and
purchasing. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, one of the
corporate sponsors of uPortal is SCT, a company whose interests could be
threatened, or at least significantly reoriented, if uPortal achieves the
success for which it seems destined. SCT provides a "solution" called
Banner, one of those enterprise-resource-planning products mentioned above.

Over the past few years, universities have spent hundreds of millions of
dollars to acquire, customize, and make the transition to such systems,
often with very mixed results. The university that now employs me, and the
one I worked at last, are both in the throes of such a transition, probably
too far in to get out, but probably wishing they could.

Admittedly, it's a huge undertaking to retool an entire university's
administrative-computing infrastructure and workflow, and it requires
long-range planning and commitments. An institution makes those plans and
commitments based on the best choices available at the time: Several years
ago, when decisions were being made at the Universities of Illinois and
Virginia, there were no plausible open-source/open-standards ERP
alternatives, so the universities bought into monolithic proprietary
systems. Now alternatives are beginning to come into view. It will be years
before the current generation of university ERP adopters can switch to
open-source alternatives, but their experience will certainly help to make
the case for such alternatives as they emerge.

*Toward a New Model of Scholarly Communication*

There are a number of other pressing IT challenges facing higher education,
and at or near the top of the list are digital libraries (or, more
generally, data repositories). Those could include data held in an
institution's library (licensed or locally produced scholarly information),
data held outside the library (by an office of management information, for
example), and/or data published by a university press.

The case for institutional repositories is laid out convincingly in an
article <> by Clifford A. Lynch,
executive director of the Coalition for Networked Information, published in
the February 2003 newsletter of the Association of Research Libraries. Lynch
argues that "an institutional repository is a recognition that the
intellectual life and scholarship of our universities will increasingly be
represented, documented, and shared in digital form, and that a primary
responsibility of our universities is to exercise stewardship over these
riches: both to make them available and to preserve them."

There are a number of noteworthy "open" initiatives in this area as well,
and familiar institutions and financial supporters. Four very different,
possibly complementary, open-source frameworks for institutional
repositories and/or digital libraries are MIT's
DSpace<>(supported by Hewlett-Packard), the
Fedora Project <> (supported by the Mellon
foundation), EPrints <> (supported by the National
Science Foundation and Britain's Joint Information Systems Committee), and
Greenstone <> (produced by the
University of Waikato, in New Zealand, and developed and distributed in
cooperation with Unesco and Human Info NGO).

Beyond the individual repository, there is the problem of federated
collections, and how to search across repositories, a dream long held in
digital libraries. The Open Archives Initiative
is a project aimed at achieving that goal, by developing and maintaining
standards to facilitate sharing information. Currently, there are 134
registered OAI repositories, and you can see a nice working example of
sample searches across many of them on the Web site for the Perseus Digital
Library at Tufts University <>.

The EPrints software mentioned above is the self-archiving component of a
larger project on open access, supported by the Soros Foundation and
marching under the banner of the Budapest Open Access Initiative, whose
purpose is "to make research articles in all academic fields freely
available on the Internet" --Ýeither by institutional self-archiving of
articles that also appear in for-fee journals, or by authors
publishing in open-access
(free) journals. <>

In the American Scientist Open Access
by Southampton University's Stevan Harnard), there is a lively,
long-running, and unresolved debate on what open access means. That debate
has been attracting considerable attention around the world, both within and
beyond the academy.

The efforts to promote open access to scholarly research, to build
interoperable digital libraries, and to create institutional repositories
coincide with the broadening university revolt against the monopolistic
bundling strategy of Elsevier, in which university libraries are required to
subscribe to packages of titles and are locked into multiyear subscriptions.
Faculty members and libraries at Cornell University, Harvard, North Carolina
State University, the University of California system, and the University of
North Carolina at Chapel Hill have all rejected those tactics in the last

University-press publishers have a golden opportunity here to distinguish
themselves from commercial publishers and join with libraries and scholars
to create a new model of scholarly communication. To seize the opportunity,
though, university presses will require more capital, cooperation, and
creativity than they seem to be able to muster.

*The Battle for the Desktop*

Journals, repositories, portals, and ERP systems are the macro end of IT in
higher education; at the micro end is the individual user's desktop
environment. The desktop has been Microsoft territory for years, but
open-source projects are cropping up here as well. In September 2003 25
universities joined with Mellon to provide funds for Chandler, an
open-source alternative to Microsoft's Outlook. Chandler is (or will be) a
desktop application for Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows, combining e-mail,
calendars, address books, instant messaging, and file sharing. It's being
produced by Mitch Kapor's Open Source Applications
Foundation,<>and it has two subtypes: a
personal version called Canoga, due out in the
fall of 2004, and a version called Westwood that is specifically aimed at
higher education, due out in the fall of 2005.

What Chandler brings into focus is the battle for the desktop between
Microsoft and the open-source community. Microsoft has already seen a
serious challenge to its server market from Linux, but it still has a lock
on the desktop, in spite of a much-improved Macintosh operating system and
the persistence of efforts like OpenOffice, which provide an open-source
alternative to Microsoft's word-processing, spreadsheet, and presentation
software. Kapor estimates that it will be 2007 before Linux makes
significant inroads here. Still, Microsoft is clearly already worried about
its dominance, as one can see from a series of leaked Microsoft memos on how
to combat Linux, available in annotated form on the open-source Web

More immediately, there are some noteworthy open-source developments in the
collaborative creation of content. One is a courseware project from Rice
University called Connexions, <> which converts "raw
knowledge" into self-contained modules of information and places them in
commons, to be used, reused, updated, and adapted. It is designed to
highlight the nonlinear "connexions" among concepts both within the same
course and, more important, across courses and disciplines. It is open
source and based on open standards (XML), and has support from the Hewlett

Another, simpler and more general-purpose collaborative tool that's become
quite popular in the last couple of years is Wiki, a Web-based platform for
collaboration that comes in a variety of open-source incarnations. Perhaps
the most robust and widely used is TWiki. <> Using any
Web browser, you can directly edit any Wiki page, add links automatically,
group pages, search pages, attach files, track revisions, control access at
the individual or group level, and so on. TWiki, which is just one type of
Wiki, has hundreds, probably thousands, of installations, not only in higher
education, but in corporate intranets at places like Disney, British
Telecom, Motorola, SAP, and others.

Combined with something like LionShare <>,
Wikis could provide a powerful tool for collaboration in academe, one that
could change teaching, project management, the work of professional
societies, and many other activities. LionShare (another Mellon-financed
project) is essentially peer-to-peer networking with authentication.
Peer-to-peer networking is the technology underlying demonized post-Napster
software like KaZaA, but it also has less well-known applications in things
like videoconferencing. LionShare's addition of authentication makes it
legitimate for a broad range of applications in institutional settings.

*Choice and Compatibility With Commercial Software*

The university-based open-source projects described here have in common two
key characteristics: unbundling and interoperability. Those strategies are
inherent to open-source software development, but have also proved
compatible with commercial software development. They are hostile only to
monopolistic practices.

Unbundling and interoperability are important because they provide choice
and flexibility. Instead of being locked into a single application or suite
of applications from a single vendor, you can choose to mix different
applications to achieve the best performance for your particular purposes,
at the best price. For the end user, that means that you can use a word
processor from one place, a collaboration tool from another, an e-mail
client and an address book from somewhere else, and exchange data among all
of them using open standards to which all adhere.

At the other end of the spectrum, in administrative computing or digital
libraries, it means that you can use a database engine from one vendor, a
portal kit from someone else, a Wiki for managing projects and discussions.
When something better comes along for one of those functions, you can swap
out that piece, rather than waiting until the whole system is intolerably
outdated, and then undergoing vast, enterprisewide transition from one
monolithic system to another.

On a broader level, what's noteworthy in the various threads of the trend
assembled here is the concerted efforts of a handful of private foundations,
working with public (and some private) universities, to promote
self-determination in higher education's use and development of information
technology. Most of the examples I've cited have been supported by two
foundations, Hewlett and Mellon. Both foundations give to things other than
higher education and, within higher education, both give to things other
than IT projects. Yet they clearly are having substantial impact on the
information infrastructure of the 21st-century university, and the projects
they are helping get under way will liberate it from Information Property
monopolies and IT monocultures. They've achieved those results by
emphasizing long-term sustainability of projects and by adopting and
promoting the open-source ethos of shared goals, shared work, and shared

Open-source methodology has already spread well beyond software development:
In the world at large, the Human Genome Project is a famous example. Over
the coming decade we're certain to see this new mode of production locked in
mortal combat with older methods and the legal and ideological commitments
that they entail. It will be interesting to see whether, at this critical
juncture, the university comes down on the side of freely shared ideas.

With a little help from its friends, it just might.

*John M. Unsworth is dean of the Graduate School of Library and Information
Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is departing
president of the Association for Computers and the Humanities and is
chairman of the American Council of Learned Societies' 2004 Commission on
Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences.*
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