I develop free software because of CUNY and Blackboard

For two reasons, Blackboard is the key to why I develop free software.

The first reason is historical. I first got into free software development because of my work with the CUNY Academic Commons project. As spearheaded by Matt Gold, George Otte and others, the Commons is intended to create a space, using free software like WordPress and MediaWiki for members of the huge community of the City University of New York to discover each other and work together. The project is not pitched as a Blackboard alternative, for a number of reasons (primary among which is that the Commons’s Terms of Service prohibit undergraduate courses from being held on the site). Still, the Commons was conceived, at least in part, out of frustration about the near lack of collaborative tools and spaces in CUNY. And more than anything else, Blackboard (by which I mean Blackboard Learn, the proprietary learning management software that has been CUNY’s official courseware for quite a few years) is the embodiment of what can be so frustrating about academic technology at CUNY: central management, inflexibility, clunkiness, anti-openness. In this way, Blackboard begat the CUNY Academic Commons, and the CUNY Academic Commons begat Boone the developer.

There is another reason why Blackboard is integral to my free software development. It is ideological.

Short version: I love CUNY and I love public education. Blackboard is a parasite on both. Writing free software is the best way I know to disrupt the awful relationship between companies like Blackboard and vulnerable populations like CUNY undergraduates.

Here’s the longer version. I’ve been affiliated with CUNY in a number of capacities over the last decade: PhD student, adjunct lecturer, graduate fellow, full-time instructional technologist, external contractor. I’ve seen many parts of CUNY from many different points of view. Like so many others who have philandered their way through CUNY’s incestuous HR departments, my experience has rendered a decidedly love/hate attitude toward the institution. You can get a taste of the what CUNY hate looks like by glancing at something like @CUNYfail. The love runs deeper. Those fortunate enough to have “gotten around” at CUNY can attest to the richness of its varied campus cultures. In every office and every department on every campus, you’ll meet people who are innovating and striving to get their work done, in spite of a bureaucracy that sometimes feels designed to thwart.

And the students. CUNY is the City University of New York, the City University. It belongs to New York, and its history is tied up with the ideals of free education for New York’s residents. While the last few decades have seen the institution (as a whole, as well as a collection of campuses) evolve away from these ideals in various official and unofficial ways, it’s impossible to step into a CUNY classroom without getting a sense that CUNY still serves as a steward for New York’s future. CUNY is too huge and its population too varied to make general statements about the student body, but I’ll say anecdotally that, of all the universities I’ve been associated with, none even approach the level of racial, economic, and academic diversity that you find on a single campus, to say nothing of the system as a whole. CUNY is (to use a lame but apt cliché) a cross-section of New York: her first-generation Americans, her first-generation college students, her rich and her poor, her advantaged and her vulnerable. (See also Jim Groom’s I Bleed CUNY, which makes a similar point with a lot less abandon.)

Public education is a public trust, maybe the most important equalizer a state can provide for its citizens. CUNY, with the population of New York City as its public, could demonstrate the full potential of public education in a more complete and visible way than perhaps any other public university. It’s for this reason that it breaks my heart and boils my blood to see CUNY money – which is to say, student tuition and fees – poured into a piece of software like Blackboard.

In virtue of their age, undergraduates are inherently a vulnerable population, and CUNY undergraduates – reflecting as they do the full demographic spectrum of New York City itself – are doubly vulnerable. Many CUNY undergraduates go to CUNY because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t go to college at all. This imposes certain moral strictures on those responsible for managing and spending the money paid by CUNY students in tuition and fees. Wasting CUNY money is a far worse crime than wasting, say, shareholder money in a private company. Shareholders have freedom; if they don’t like your management, they vote with their feet/wallets/brokers. CUNY students, by and large, do not have the same freedom; it’s safe to say that, for most CUNY students most students, big-ticket NYU and Ivy Columbia are not reasonable alternatives. CUNY students are, in this sense, captive, which means that their hard-earned tuition money is captive as well. Thus it is a very bad thing to spend that money on things that aren’t worth it.

And Blackboard is not worth it. Vats of digital ink have been spilled expounding Blackboard’s turdiness, and this is no place to rehash all the arguments in depth. A short list, off the top of my head:

  • The software is expensive [EDIT 9-21-2011: See this post for more details on cost]
  • It’s extremely unpleasant to use.
  • It forces, and reinforces, an entirely teacher-centric pedagogical model.
  • It attempts to do the work of dozens of applications, and as a result does all of them poorly.
  • Blackboard data is stored in proprietary formats, with no easy export features built in, which creates a sort of Hotel California of educational materials
  • The very concept of a “learning management system” may itself be wrongheaded.
  • As recently reported, the software may be insecure, a fact that the company may have willingly ignored.
  • Blackboard’s business practices are monopolistic, litigious, and borgish

In short, Blackboard sucks. Blackboard supporters might claim that some, or even most, of the criticisms leveled above are false, or that they apply equally to other web software. Maybe. And I certainly don’t mean to downplay the difficulty of creating or assembling a suite of software that does well what Blackboard does poorly. But the argument against spending student money on something like Blackboard goes beyond a simple tally of weaknesses and strengths. As Jim Groom and others have argued for years, shelling out for Blackboard means sending money to a big company with no vested interest in the purposes of the institution, which in the case of CUNY is nothing less than the stewardship of New York City’s future, while the alternative is to divert money away from software licenses and into people who will actually support an environment of learning on our campuses. Frankly, even if Blackboard were a perfect piece of software, and even if its licensing and hosting fees were half of what it costs to hire full-time instructional technologists, programmers, and the like to support local instances of free software; even if these things were true, Blackboard would still be the wrong choice, because it perverts the goals of the university by putting tools and corporations before people. The fact that Blackboard is so expensive and so shitty just makes the case against it that much stronger.

As long as our IT departments are dominated by Microsoft-trained technicians and corporate-owned CIOs, perhaps the best way to advance the cause – the cause of justice in the way that student money is spent – is to create viable alternatives to Blackboard and its ilk, alternatives that are free (as in speech) and cheap (as in beer). This, more than anything else, is why I develop free software, the idea that I might play a role in creating the viable alternatives. In the end, it’s not just about Blackboard, of course. The case of Blackboard and CUNY is a particularly problematic example of a broader phenomenon, where vulnerable populations are controlled through proprietary software. Examples abound: Facebook, Apple, Google. (See also my Project Reclaim.) The case of Blackboard and its contracts with public institutions like CUNY is just one instance of these exploitative relationships, but it’s the instance that hits home the most for me, because CUNY is such a part of me, and because the exploitation is, in this case, so severe and so terrible.

On average, I spend about half of my working week doing unpaid work for the free software community. Every once in a while, I get discouraged: by unreasonable feedback, by systematic inertia, by community dramas, by my own limitations as a developer, and so on. In those moments, I think about CUNY, and I think about Blackboard, and I feel the fire burn again. For that, I say to CUNY (which I love) and Blackboard (which I hate): Thanks for making me into a free software developer.

Project Reclaim

Update: I have begun aggregating these posts at projectreclaim.net.

Lately I have been feeling increasingly uneasy about the state of my digital affairs. I am a leader on a number of open source software projects that pride themselves on, among other things, their ability to enable users to “own their own data”. Moreover, I am trained as a philosopher, and have spent a pretty fair amount of time reading and thinking carefully about the nature of data and our relationships with it. If anyone is in a position to develop and advocate for good models of digital independence, I am.

Yet, when I look around my digital world, I see instance after instance where I am, to a greater or lesser extent, completely reliant on the good will of commercial entities and their propietary systems. To wit:

  • My Twitter account is a big part of my online identity
  • The last five years of my private correspondence, personal and professional, is in Gmail
  • I use Dropbox for syncing documents between devices (like my blog_sandbox.txt file, where I’m writing this post!)
  • I use Picasa Web Albums to back up and share photos
  • I have a Mozy account to back up the rest of my important files
  • Until recently, I had an iPhone. I still use a Mac
  • I use Remember The Milk for task management
  • I store source code for all my projects in Github

Some of these are products; some are services. Some are free; some of them I pay for. And – for sure – some of the companies behind the products and services listed above are more evil than others. So I don’t want to pretend that my reliance on each of them is equally bad. But each item on this list plays a crucial role in my digital life, and each one of them operates in a way that is beyond my control, both literally (I can’t modify the source code) and more figuratively (questions about ownership, exportability, transportability are icky).

I’m planning to extricate myself.

Project Reclaim

In order to make it sound a bit fancier, I’m giving my project a name: Project Reclaim. ‘Reclaim’ because it’s a manifestation of my desire to fight the inertia that leads us to give up control over our computing experiences, my desire to reclaim control and ownership. ‘Project’ because this will be hard, and ongoing. And why give it a name at all? I’m hoping that, by being public about it – putting my experiences in a series of blog posts and tweets under a common tag – that I’ll be able to hold myself accountable, and hopefully guide others who are hoping to reclaim their lives a bit as well.

In short, Project Reclaim is the process of weaning oneself off of digital platforms that are closed source and/or under the control of others.


How will Project Reclaim actually work?

  1. Assess the situation I’ll first need a way of figuring out which systems and platforms are worth moving away from, what their replacements should be, and in what order I should effect the transition. I’ve got a few rules of thumb.
    • Open source is better than closed source. I write open-source software for a living. I believe that, on balance, it makes better software. And I believe that using software where one has access to the source code is a necessary component of maximizing one’s digital autonomy. Thus: if the third-party system I’m currently using is also a benefactor of open-source communities (like, say, wordpress.com), it makes it less urgent to move away. And, when selecting replacements, select open source if at all possible.
    • Paying is better than getting something for free This might seem like a contrast to the previous rule, but I don’t think it is. When you use a free service, somebody’s paying the bills. Usually that means targeted advertising – think Facebook and Gmail. Paying service fees, on the other hand, and agreeing to the contract that comes with it, generally has the effect of making the relationship more transparent. Of course, this is far from absolute, but it seems reasonable in a broad sense. Plus, I like to support developers and services that are truly valuable.
    • Go for the low-hanging fruit In cases like email, there are well-established, straightforward (though not necessarily easy…ugh) ways of fending for yourself. No need to invent the wheel. On the other hand, some of the areas where alternatives are less obvious – social networking-type data springs to mind – also happen to be areas where I have some expertise and leverage. So, in those cases, it might be worth innovating.
    • Get the important stuff first My email history is more important to me than my Twitter history; the convenience of Github is more valuable to me than the convenience of Dropbox. Plan the Reclaim accordingly.
    • Get the vulnerable stuff first Recent statements by Twitter have made me think that the way I interact with the services is more subject to change in the upcoming months than, say, the way I interact with Gmail. That’s frightening. The more profit-hungry the company is – and, thus, the more disinclined to have the customer’s freedoms in mind – the more urgent it is to pull yourself out.

    Clearly, some of these considerations are at odds with each other. But they give a rough framework for deciding whether, when, and how to carry out the mission of Project Reclaim.

  2. Make the switch Here’s where the action happens: I do what I need to do to move myself to the replacement.
  3. Write about it This weekend I spent an afternoon on the problem of Twitter, and I ran into a ton of technical problems that remain unresolved. I imagine that there will be similar hurdles for each part of the project. I’m hoping that, by writing about the problems (and, where they exist, the solutions) I can help other people to take some of the same steps themselves, or even to spur someone really smart to come up with better solutions than the ones that currently exist.

What I expect from myself

My goal, ultimately, is to move away from third-party, closed-source services and platforms altogether. It might take some time. So I’ll make some interim goals: by the end of 2011, I’m hoping to have my email moved, my microblogging federated, my own backup system on my own server space, and my computer running an open-source OS.

Even if I manage to meet this goal, there’s a very real sense in which Project Reclaim will necessarily be an exercise in futility. I’ll always have to buy server space, and who’s to say that Amazon or Slicehost won’t go berserk tomorrow? I’ll always have to connect to the internet, which leaves me perpetually at the mercy of the ISPs, who are IMO more evil than all of the other service providers put together. It’s a depressing state of affairs: the kind of autonomy I want might be impossible given the way that the economy works. I take some solace in the fact that philosophers have spilled much ink over the problem of free will without coming up with a clear formulation of exactly what kind of autonomy would be worth arguing for. At least I’m not alone in my delusion.

That said, it’s a fight that I feel I have a responsibility to fight. If I’m going to continue to argue for the use and development of open source software, I have to start putting my money where my mouth is. And so, to me, Project Reclaim is less about my being a paragon of virtue, and more about my wanting to sleep a bit better at night.

Do I think that everyone should do this? People should prefer open solutions to closed ones, all things being equal. But generally, all things are not equal. Most people don’t have the time to write their own software, to run their own servers. For those people, decisions about their digital life are (rightly, I think) made more on the basis of aesthetics and convenience than lofty concepts like Autonomy and Ownership. But there are a few considerations that are perhaps relevant for the kinds of people who read my blog:

  • Open source developers who tout the importance of data ownership and other such freedoms have a special responsibility to model best behavior in these areas.
  • Academics, more than anyone, should be sensitive to the dangers of leaving the crucial pieces of one’s online self in the hands of corporate entities. That’s true for personal artifacts like email, but perhaps doubly so for scholarly work that ought to be part of a public trust.
  • Educators, like open source developers, should model best practices, encouraging students to take control over their digital identities.

So, while I wouldn’t belabor the point for the average Joe, I do think that people who consider themselves members of one of these groups – as most people reading my blog probably do – that they should think carefully about their relationship with the tools and services that enable their digital existence.

To freedom!

Related posts:

  1. Project Reclaim and the email dilemma
  2. Done with Apple
  3. Shorten your own dang URLs