Image depicting futuristic education(Open source and education will be a key topic of the upcoming Open edX 2018 conference in Montreal, May 29 – 31. Register now!)

Way back in 2005, I began to ask the question of “why does anyone release open source code” and “how is the open source universe still expanding?” Remember, we were still in the aftermath of the dot-com implosion, and yet the drive towards an open source world had continued apace. I still remember being asked by a colleague in 2001 how the open source movement could possibly survive when all those companies supposedly fueling its growth were going under and tanking. In fact, the open source movement never even blinked. I started to get an inkling that the open source movement wasn’t a movement at all and in fact was powered by longer term economic trends, which I delved into in the article that resulted from my thought experiments, “There is no Open Source Community.

Ever since then, I’ve used this as the template to examine markets ripe for open source collaboration, and I’m now turning my gaze to the education technology market. The working theory is that open source collaboration can provide a great way for companies in an ecosystem to compete – by cooperating and collaborating on common technologies and then adding value to those collaborations. It’s also a great way for competitors to challenge a market incumbent. Looking at the educational technology market, it would seem that we’re on the cusp of a grand pivot towards open source collaboration.

Higher education is going through a period of massive transition. Many educational upstarts and non-traditional institutions are beginning to sense market opportunities that didn’t exist before. We have witnessed the success of Khan Academy, edX, and several other mission-focused organizations designed to increase the accessibility of quality higher education to everyone, no matter their location or station in life. These two forces are conspiring to create a massive transformation of higher education throughout the world: how it’s created, delivered, and consumed. As we know from watching several other industry segments go through similar levels of upheaval, some will survive, a few will thrive, and some will be left as footnotes in future case studies. What we haven’t seen is a large open source collaborative effort in the educational technology ecosystem, but that appears to be changing, but more on that later.

Why Open Source is Inevitable

If you look at the landscape of education technology, it’s a smattering of repurposed online services (YouTube), some proprietary MOOC’s serving higher education, learning platforms for HR departments used for corporate compliance programs for employees, and a vast number of MOOC’s and LMS’s under a plethora of licenses, from open source to freemium proprietary and fee-based proprietary. The business models generally break down between selling services around a technology platform or selling content, and sometimes both. There are now thousands of companies vying for a position within this multi-billion dollar market. Given that venture capitalists have now identified the digital learning market as something of potential value, it would appear that many market segments lumped under the “educational technology” umbrella will start to consolidate.

What’s remarkable about these efforts is that almost none of them share or collaborate on code, with very few notable exceptions. From what we know about technology markets in the 21st century, this will start to change and then proceed at a rapid pace. And indeed, we’ve just begun to see the beginning of this transformation at Open edX, one of the few technology platforms in this space to spawn a viable multi-vendor commercial ecosystem. Even the other open source efforts thus far are single-vendor projects that try to upsell users on services, support or licensing.

Why Open Source is Important to Education

Whether or not you believe that open source technology will win in the digital learning space, let’s think about why it should. After all, it’s one thing to focus on market dynamics, it’s quite another to think about what’s best for the learners and educators of the world, whatever their chosen venue or institution. When you think of learning platforms, these are tools that enable learning. As a learner, part of this means being a consumer of course material created by an educator. But many other industries have migrated away from the producer-consumer model and have evolved to a model where there is a spectrum of producers and consumers with significant overlap. A producer can still consume, and consumers can still produce. In this model, an educator can still be a learner and vice-versa. How better to enable the evolution of learner-educators than with open source tools that are created by collaborative communities of innovation, and are in turn the basis for other collaborative communities of innovation. From this point of view, a learning platform cannot be a static set of tools that enable 1-way education. It must enable multi-vectored communication, and it must enable further innovation on these tools for the next generation of learners. This is why initiatives like Open edX are important, and that is why we are committed to enabling more collaboration in the Open edX community.

Tooting Our Own Horn at Open edX

It’s one thing to talk about how things should be, but what about where things are going now? This next segment shows how the trends toward open source education manifest themselves in the Open edX community. Here are 3 charts that show exactly this. The first is a chart of Open edX instances around the world with their combined number of course offerings:

I love this chart. The growth of sites running Open edX is nothing short of phenomenal. “Brisk” doesn’t begin to describe the growth. This next chart shows the number of contributing organizations to the code base, showing that this community is much larger than just edX, the primary community sponsor:

As you can probably surmise, we’re rather proud of our growing contributor base.

And finally, this chart plots the number of attendees at the Open edX annual conference:

The growth of Open edX is strong, multi-vectored, and accelerating. Escape velocity, here we come!

This year, we’re collaborating with our ecosystem partners on industry-leading technologies around adaptive learning; enterprise platforms and tools integration; and multimedia course creation. We are rapidly approaching the point of no return with respect to highly collaborative ecosystems in the digital learning space. At Open edX, we are thrilled to be leading this transformation.

Throughout history, there were moments in time where people redefined what it meant to make education accessible, with each step bringing higher education one step closer to those who thirst for it. In 2013, we began an open source transformation of the industry by unleashing Open edX on the world. This year, we are seeing that initial effort make the leap towards a collaborative, open source future. If ever there was a technology space tailor-made for open source collaboration and innovation, it’s education, where working collaboratively is a time-honored tradition.

You can be a part of this transformation and help lead the educational community into the future. Join us and see for yourself what the future will bring. We’ll put our community on display at the annual Open edX conference in Montreal, May 29 – 31. Come see for yourself what the fuss is all about.

(The Open edX 2018 Conference will be held in Montreal, Canada this year, starting May 29th–31st.  If you haven’t registered yet, please do. This year’s conference is one you won’t want to miss!)