Open Source Software: An Interview with Richard Wyles of Eduforge

Eduforge is an open source community which originated in New Zealand. I conducted this interview with Richard Wyles, one of its co-founders, via email.

TF: How and when did the idea for Eduforge originate?

RW: In late 2003 I was involved in putting a funding proposal together focused on selecting and then contributing to e-learning application software for use by the New Zealand tertiary education sector. We started by investigating learning management systems and now the project team is very active in the Moodle community. With a consortium of 8 institutions (which has now grown to 20), we recognised at the project proposal stage that we needed an online project space with particular features to enhance transparency and collaboration.

We looked around but there was nothing that was a close fit so we developed Eduforge initially just using the GForge code base.

TF: What are its aims and objectives?

RW: The primary goal of Eduforge (http://www.eduforge.org/) is to establish an environment that brings together educators and education technologists to collaborate, share ideas, and develop open source software for education. The challenge is to make the site useful and friendly for technologists and educators.

TF: What geographical area is it intended for?

RW: It’s an international resource for anyone, although admittedly some language packs are more developed than others. Initially we hosted Eduforge here in New Zealand but have shifted the site to the US to eliminate latency issues that some users were experiencing.

TF: Could you explain what you mean by “latency issues”?

RW: When we had the site hosted at our facilities in Wellington, New Zealand then users in South Africa and elsewhere thought that Eduforge was slow. That’s partly because the SA network is not as developed as European and the US. Because Eduforge has a lot of dynamic publishing caching techniques are less useful.

In short, since most Internet traffic is routed through the States we thought we’d eliminate the extra hop down and back to NZ. It has made a difference to our international users.

TF: Who are the target members, eg teachers?

RW: Anyone undertaking research or projects related to education. This includes instructors, learners, researchers, education technologists and others. The site is oriented towards supporting open source, standards and content. Some projects are focused on software development for education but many projects simply use the collaboration tools.

TF: What is the membership level currently?

RW: Approximately 700 and growing week by week.

TF: Are you the founder? If not, who is, plus what is your role plus some biographical details please

RW: Co-founder really. At the time I was working with Ken Udas who is now the Director of the SUNY Learning Network, in Albany, New York. Together we bounced around ideas on what we needed, recognised that there was a common need for such a resource, and therefore developed it with an international focus.

I am currently the E-Learning Director at the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, a specialist distance learning provider with approximately 35,000 students. However, my primary role is the Project Leader for the New Zealand Open Source Virtual Learning Environment project (NZOSVLE), and I’m involved in a number of related open source initiatives in education. I’ve been involved in enterprise level Internet projects for around 8 years now both within and outside education. I very much support the open source ethos and potential it has to positively transform our societies.

TF: Does the reality of how it works in practice match the vision you had?

RW: It’s very pleasing that we have delivered a resource that others are finding useful. Naturally the vision continues to evolve as you learn and as new technologies develop. For example, Planet Eduforge ([http://planet.eduforge.org/]) wasn’t part of the original scope. Planet Eduforge is an RSS aggregator of interesting blogs related to open source, standards and content in education. It’s a great resource. Next up will be an online academic journal with an international peer review board.

So, while it’s totally consistent with the original vision, we’re committed to continuously improving the services across Eduforge.

TF: How does its function differ from, or are similar to, other sites or organizations, eg that of SchoolForge ?

RW: Eduforge uses a combination of Gforge, PHP Wiki, and Serendipity code bases to deliver a suite of project and communication tools. It aims to be part of the landscape that is supporting open source, standards, and content in education.

So, in many ways the philosophies are aligned with those of SourceForge although our membership structure and procedures are significantly different. There’s many other initiatives out there like [http://www.opencourse.org/] or the Shuttleworth Foundation (http://www.tsf.org.za/) which is doing an enormous amount with open source for education, focused on needs in Africa.

Eduforge is probably more akin to an education focused Sourceforge with the tool-sets it offers.

TF: Do you think that open source represents a viable and sustainable alternative to commercial products for use in schools, given support issues?

RW: Dropping the total cost of ownership for e-learning infrastructure clearly assists sustainability for all concerned. However, it’s true that few organisations are currently geared towards the open source paradigm. Support models need to be developed that provide the necessary expertise, quality assurance and service delivery.

I believe a co-ordinating neutral entity can hugely assist collaborative consortium or cluster deployments. For example, the NZOSVLE project now has 20 partners. Six institutions, representing approximately 50,000 students, have their open source e-learning infrastructure supported on an education “server farm” thereby lowering costs for hardware and support even further. The benefits are that we can apply the appropriate expertise and collaborate on common services such as e-portfolios, webmail, learning object repositories etc.

The key is to have a light structure that connects consortium partners or users with a common need, technology service providers and the open source communities from which core code is being adopted and contributed back. This approach can deliver superior service levels compared to some of the experiences some organisations have with commercial vendors.

In addition, what we’re finding is that collaborative models start to deliver benefits elsewhere such as professional development and course development.

In summary, a resounding Yes! Not only does open source help deliver an economically sustainable ICT investment pathway, but it enables a far more innovative environment for delivering educational outcomes.

TF: Do you have links with other such organisations?

RW: I wouldn’t describe Eduforge as an organisation as such. It’s simply an open access toolkit of resources to support communities of interest. In that sense, it’s only as strong or as useful as those participating and contributing to the community.

Registered users will have links to all sorts of organisations.

TF: Can you suggest 3 strengths/benefits of the service?

RW: Strengths can also be perceived as weaknesses. Our key challenge is that there’s a lot of functionality to support projects at all levels. There’s blogs, wikis, document management, CVS or Subversion, Tracking, project management Tools, forums, file management etc. While this set of tools can be highly useful it can also be a little daunting to people who aren’t familiar with all of the tools. That said, you can simply select which tools you want in your project space. So, one strength is the range of functionality.

The real strength though lies with the community members that contribute to Eduforge and use the site for their projects. There’s a lot of innovation going on.

A third strength I believe is the fact that we’re not organisationally aligned. It’s open access to anyone with an interest in education.

TF: Can you suggest 3 weaknesses of the service?

RW: There’s always work to do to build up resources and improve the tools. For example we recently replaced the journal system with a fully featured blogging system. Also, the List Serv was quite clunky so instead we’ve further developed the forum tool so that you can reply to an email straight to the forum without logging on.

Wiki functionality is fast developing. I think we can improve our current wiki system based on PHP Wiki.

In the end though, the community is as strong as its members. I’d like people reading the interview to have a look around Eduforge — where they see areas that need building up perhaps either let us know or help out.

TF: How is the service financed?

RW: In late 2003, the Tertiary Education Commission, an arm of the New Zealand Government implemented a contestable fund for e-learning capability. We were successful with a proposal to select and further work on an open source Learning Management System suitable for the NZ education environment. We selected Moodle in early 2004 and the project team has been very active in the Moodle community ever since.

Eduforge was, sort of, a foundation part of that project as it allows us to collaborate across geographically spread consortium partners.

Of course it’s now turned into a major project in its own right. Recently we received some much appreciated help from the eXe project (http://www.exelearning.org/)

TF: How will the service be developed/extended?

RW: The next initiative we have is to establish an online academic journal or journals that can be accessed via Eduforge. I’m also keen to further develop the RSS feeds area on Planet Eduforge.

TF: Is this an idea whose time has come?

RW: I certainly believe that we’ve hit an inflection point when it comes to using open source solutions in education. There’s some really major projects going underway with some large enterprise level deployments. Open source is a proven, viable alternative to commercial systems.

The Eduforge team would like to be part of the landscape that continues in this direction. Open Source is a real driver for innovation in education and it’s a lot of fun to be involved.

Thank-you for the opportunity for the interview.

Richard Wyles and the team at Eduforge.

[https://eduforge.org/blog/blog.php?/archives/120-Origins-and-Objectives-of- Eduforge.html]