The other day I had two awesome conversations with folks who work with CiviCRM, an open-source, constituency relations management platform we are considering for HCLE. Each of these young gentlemen was knowledgeable, cordial, helpful and imaginative. Of course they would be — they donate a portion of their work time and know-how to support free software used by nonprofit organizations world-wide. One of them loaded up CiviCRM on our host server so we can try it out without charging a consulting fee. Thank you, Joshua.
One of the most important themes HCLE has to develop is the many ways edtech pioneers, computer hobbyists, students, teachers and company employees found to contribute their efforts for the benefit of all. Sometimes the contributions were intentional – as in the formation of SoftSwap by Computer-Using Educators and the San Mateo County Office of Education. This was before there was much educational software available so teachers wrote their own and put the programs in SoftSwap. From there, anyone could get and use a copy. Talk about “Open Educational Resources“! At other times someone’s creation became “open source” without the expressed consent of its creator — I’m thinking of the episode when one of the Homebrew Computer Club members made copies of Microsoft BASIC and handed them out at a meeting. Bill Gates wasn’t happy about that but once the cat was out of the bag there was no putting it back in. Actually, that event may have been instrumental in spreading Microsoft’s popularity.
The challenge of the “open” movement is how to participate generously in the “sharing economy” without starving in a world dominated by “the dismal science” (economics – meaning a money economy). The fundamental assumption of economic theory is “scarcity” — that to have economic value there must be a shortage or limited supply of something. Software, like many other informational products has an interesting property that puts it in a different category from either “material stuff” (whether raw material or manufactured) or “labor” (which is limited both by the energy of the laborer and the time it takes to do the work). The first instance of a software program may be very expensive to create but the cost of replicating subsequent copies is negligible. How does one make a living in either open source software or open educational resources?
I can think of two solutions: 1. Have a paying gig in some other field and only contribute your leisure time to “open” projects. Geeks who love to code often choose this route. 2. Give away the central core of the software and then let your developer community sell their services to customize these generalized products. That’s how it will work with at least two of the software packages HCLE is trying out: CiviCRM and Mediawiki. That’s how teachers who write open textbooks continue to pay the rent.
So HCLE probably won’t get its open source infrastructure entirely for free in the end. We will have to raise enough money to pay consultants, perhaps the overall expense will not be that much less than buying a pre-configured museum relationship management package. But we’ll get to work with kindred spirits, with people who understand that nickel- and dime-ing a fledgling non-profit doesn’t help build the industry, with seasoned collaborators who regularly participate in “code-a-thons” and have a mission beyond the money.
A lot of people have gotten rich in the computer industry; but a lot more, including me, have gained a supportive and fascinating ‘sharing’ community. Come to think of it, even those who got rich have figured out that they can’t take it with them and have created charitable foundations. I’d better sharpen my proposal-writing pencil so HCLE can afford to stay open-source itself and give away the history we collect.