Open Source v Sharepoint: The trouble with bundles
Published 12:24, 31 March 10
"So if I can summarise this, would I be right in saying that Sharepoint does an awful lot of things adequately whereas your Open Source offerings do fewer things really well?"
Thus spake a delegate at a recent 'Sharepoint' conference at which I was presenting an alternative Open Source e-learning stack which included Alfresco, Moodle and Mahara.
“Right on” I thought, then “double right on” when MS's chief Sharepoint bloggist weakly nodded assent!
Naturally enough I was inclined to agree with him.
And, after all as he pointed out at the meeting, Sharepoint 2010 is very much better than SP 2007, much quicker and a lot more stuff works properly now...a complete rewrite apparently and there are a host of third party software packages that will make all of the features work just fine!
My head was spinning a little by now. Admittedly I am not a Sharepoint expert but my counterpart presenters were. How do they cope with the sheer complexity of the features, the third party fixes and the extras?
To borrow a phrase from the vernacular “bundles do my head in”.
The Office Syndrome or bundle-itis
MS Office started it all, Open Office has followed suit but really a Word Processor, a Spreadsheet and a Presentation package have little in common. Supposedly they are an 'integrated' suite but what sense of this word impacts on real life...a live spreadsheet in a word processing document?
Bundle-itis really got going with .NET which provides a glue-like layer to stitch together programs with disparate code heritages. In the Open Source world MONO seeks to extend the idea.
In schools and colleges three bundles pretty much dominate the ICT-scape. These are MS Office (which is an Office suite); Capita-SIMs-MS-SQL; (which is a Management Information System suite) and MS Sharepoint (which is a Portal / VLE / Document Management suite thing). A lot of software, some good, some adequate, some not so adequate.
The real advantage of the bundle is that procurement of software is simplified.
So for a school or college buy just three bundles and you are 80% sorted for software. Perfect for the procurer whose confidence exceeds their expertise.
It's a bit like going into B&Q as a wannabe home mechanic. You can buy some really great tool bundles at low prices which have about everything you could wish for. Of course as an ingénue you won't realise that the tools do nearly everything “in-adequately”. An expert would have a fit if offered such a bundle to actually do some real work.
So here's the rub, school ICT is often/usually bought by non-experts and used by non-experts (children) for whom apparently 'adequate' is more than good enough. However so successful is this strategy that 'adequate' is the de-facto standard. Shades of Ed Balls' 'bog standard Comprehensive School' are to be found here.
But like the “bog standard” school, “adequate” software does not come cheaply.
So, can we save money and increase quality with FOSS?, yawn here we go again...and why would you bother when you already have a comprehensive tool kit with more software than you will ever use?
Here is a clue why you might...
Stacks v Bundles
The most famous stack in the FOSS world is the web-serving LAMP stack which stands for Linux, Apache, MySQL (or increasingly PostgreSQL) and PHP. Very similar stacks are called XAMPP and WAMMP. These stacks form a hierarchy of needs relevant to hosting a sophisticated web site.
So a stack differs from a bundle in that there is a conceptual framework that underpins it, a rationale. The focus of a stack is on the delivery objectives whereas in contrast a bundle has no objective. Note; this does not mean that you cannot achieve various objectives with bundles. A pick 'n mix meander can furnish you with the means to get all sorts of thing done but if so, it is by good fortune not good design.
My objection to bundles is not rabid, just like a B&Q toolkit they can be very useful but in a school or college context my objection to Sharepoint is that it is a rag-bag collection within which you can do some e-learning stuff. In a real sense it is pointless, in that nothing underpins it other than being lots of things; it is not trying to achieve anything.
So at last I come to my point. E-learning in schools and colleges is emerging and developing steadily but it does not know where it is going or what it is trying to achieve.
It is a problem in education generally the “what am I trying to achieve here?” is ever increasing.
In the next section is an attempt to show that there is an E-learning stack and that it is best achieved by best of breed, free, open source software tools.
The E-learning stack is simply scaffolding for an electronic analogue of the time honoured learning stack which comprises:
Resources + a “setting”+ personal contact...traditionally this translated into textbooks, classrooms and teachers and to an overwhelming extent is still the case.
Its electronic analogue would then be:
“digital resources of any type (text/pictures/sound/movies)
+ anywhere the web reaches (school/ home/ what-have-you)
+ any digital communication method (voip/instant messaging/e-mail/forums/wikis not to forget telephone and radio)”.
The above embraces all sorts of technologies and software packages, far too many to enumerate here. This is a recipe for a veritable Tower of Babel
Managing the electronic stack
In order to deliver the learning stack electronically (and in any way efficiently) it needs to be managed using the appropriate tools. At the bottom of the stack we need to manage the sheer diversity of the files that will flow into the stack, both with regard to format (MIME type etc) and file size.
The free, open source document manager Alfresco is arguably the very best tool for this job as it combines good work flow and the now trendy 'dashboard style' for ease of use. But what makes it special is it's ability to apply rules to shared folders on bog standard Win/Office workstations.
These rules allow all sorts of magic to be applied to file size and format standardisation. In other words some sanity into what feeds into the stack.
Most of the content for a web based setting was traditionally supplied by educators but latterly student input into the learning stack via e-profile initiatives has become increasingly important.
The second layer of management therefore involves the control and structure of content in to sensible managed areas.
Course/Content Management packages do this job.
Most CMs morphed into feature-rich VLEs (virtual learning environments) aka LPs (Learning Platforms). These exist to provide structure to the resources and to the activities that are associated with the electronic classroom such as communication, collaboration and assessment.
Such activities make use of wikis, forums, instant messaging, video conferencing, social networking and automated assessment.
The free open source combination of the leading VLE Moodle and the leading FOSS e-profile student-driven software Mahara provides dedicated tools to manage content, input (from educators and students) and activities.
E-learning analogues of traditional learning models generate a hierarchy of needs in order to manage the new challenges. Focused, dedicated, high quality tools arguably do this better than a pick and mix approach from a do it all bundle.
Alfresco-Moodle-Mahara...now if we bundle these all together into a box set...???