Let a thousand Open edX bloom!

When we heard the news earlier this week I think we all paused to think: wait, is this actually good news or not? Startup acquisition are seldom beneficial for end users; transferring management to a larger company usually slows down the pace of innovation. Many acquisitions actually end up with the termination of the product itself. However, the situation is completely different from a regular startup acquisition: the acquisition money will not go to the founders and investers pockets, but flow into a nonprofit organization dedicated to “reinventing digital learning”. In the words of MIT president:

Freed from competing in the course-aggregation race and equipped with these significant new resources, the nonprofit will have the power to do what edX could not: invest at the necessary scale to sustain Open edX as a fresh, vital, open-source learning platform for the world, and help tackle the next great research challenges in online learning. (source)

I’m an old Open edX hat. I think I’ve seen Open edX at its best and its worst. I’ve been disappointed so many times that I tend to be circumspect about most announcements. But I’ve also witnessed Open edX’ amazing capacity at innovating and embracing change. And this particular line from the official announcement gets me very excited: because it acknowledges, in crystal clear terms, what’s always been the crux of the matter with Open edX. The edX organization has always been at odds with the rest of the Open edX world because they did not share a common objective. But now, with an entire organization dedicated solely to the development of Open edX, and with significant funding, Open edX might finally be able to reach its goal of reinventing education.

To achieve that goal, we, the entire Open edX community, will have to fundamentally change the way we work. To that end, I started writing my own personal wishlist for the upcoming Open edX organization. For each item, I included concrete actions to be implemented.

Because the nonprofit-to-be-created will no longer primarily serve the interests of a single platform, openness and transparency should be the new default in all things. To that end:

  • All decisions related to the roadmap and to technical implementations must be made with the community at large. To do so, I suggest…
  • … the multiplication of Working Groups. In early 2020, @nedbat and I kickstarted the Build/Test/Release working group to delegate the management of named releases to the community. The working group is doing great: the members have demonstrated that this mode of cooperation between edX and the rest of the community is efficient and constructive. The marketing WG organized the last Open edX conference and the data WG was just created. We need to scale that effort and create additional working groups: for onboarding, scalability, accessibility, product management, and more!
  • We need to get rid of Jira as a project management tool. It is time to remove all the barriers that make Open edX a gated community.

Open edX suffers from a reputation of being too complex to manage – and in many ways, this is actually true. Open edX will become more robust by being easier to understand. A customer recently told me that the Open edX native installation feels “fragile”, and that it was more “solid” when run in combination with Tutor. By making the deployment of Open edX fast and transparent, Tutor gives users the confidence to hack at the platform, to try, change and break things – because they know they will be able to fix them. We need to have the same approach with the rest of Open edX:

  • The core of Open edX, edx-platform, is way too complex. If we can’t simplify it, at the very least we need to stop piling technical debt on top of it.
  • We need to wake up to the fact that there are other great LMSes out there: it’s time that we play ball by being compatible with widely-adopted online education standards. In particular, xAPI and LTI must become first class citizens in Open edX.
  • All features need to be thoroughly documented: both from the perspective of the end-user and the system administrator. To write documentation is to establish a contract between the users and the software maintainers: this contract improves understandability and gives confidence. Good documentation is the primary standard by which open source software is evaluated. Although…
  • … great features should not need any documentation. Users should just be able to click on an icon, try out the feature and disable it again if they don’t need it. This is the “Wordpress-way-of-doing-things”, and it’s fantastic, from a user perspective. Open edX needs to get to a point where this user experience is possible.

To achieve this great user experience, Open edX needs to work real hard on platform extensibility. Existing extension points are many but lacking, and not very well documented. edX has little incentive to improve the extensibility of the platform because they only have one platform to manage. So how do we get to a point where we have an awesome extension mechanism?

  • Stop adding new features to the core: instead, all new features must come in the form of plugins. By doing so, the Open edX community will be forced to come up with a powerful extension mechanism that addresses everyone’s needs. When a certain plugin cannot be added to Open edX, then it will mean that the extension mechanism will have to be improved. This is dog-fooding at its best.
  • Encourage third party contributions from companies and individuals by actively promoting their work: Open edX needs an app store for both paid and free apps.
  • Create an Open Collective fiscal host to collect funding for the creators of free open source software that make up Open edX.

By being more open and listening to the community, we will simplify and streamline the existing Open edX platform. This will spark a global community of like-minded educational innovators that will contribute to making Open edX the best open source online learning solution on the market. This will bring even more people to the conversation and then, well… at that point we’ll have a virtuous circle :slight_smile:

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Thanks for writing this up. I think we are all still processing what the coming acquisition could mean for Open edX!

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Thanks for all this, Regis!

This is a great statement, and is at the core of how I’ve been thinking about our frontend extensibility story. We can’t possibly know what will be needed up front, but so long as we have a straightforward way of improving the extension points as needed in an iterative way, we can adapt and keep moving forward, making the mechanisms more powerful and useful.

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Thanks for this, @regis. I fervently hope that future Open edX leadership will use it as a reference. I particularly like the Open Collective idea - didn’t know that existed.

This is the only point that might require some adjustment. It is not clear that the non-profit recipient of the sale will be solely dedicated to Open edX. While one hopes that may end up being the case, the official MIT announcement makes no such claims. Emphasis mine:

2U will transfer $800 million to a nonprofit organization, also led by MIT and Harvard, to explore the next generation of online education.

As far as the announcement goes, this could mean anything from revamping Open edX as you describe, to starting from scratch, something in between, or something none of us have thought of, yet. Which is to say, it’s probably a good idea to manage expectations. :slight_smile:

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+1000 @regis

This is the way of improvement we followed into the the core Graspway (g-Core) on top of Open edX, using WordPress and his well designed arch of plugins and extensions with one idea from the very beginning to be developed in the future:

Build a marketplace the way WordPress did, with a well-designed mixed business and licensing model, and so WP is winning more and more the web content management race: an open source application core, a large well-energized community and a marketplace model where everyone fits.

I think we can take this change as an extra game to do bigger and better things from our great community.

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Additionally, this is my main thought on this matter, which applies to Open edX, as it applied in the past to other open source projects.

If the open source product is good enough, and the community is active enough and healthy, then it doesn’t matter what the acquiring company decides to do.

There are very good examples of continuation and growth, or fork and growth, it all depends on the premise, if it is true. If not, there are other good examples of fast or slow disappearing.

I firmly believe that the premise in our case is true.

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it acknowledges, in crystal clear terms, what’s always been the crux of the matter with Open edX. The edX organization has always been at odds with the rest of the Open edX world because they did not share a common objective.

I cannot agree more strongly with this (and with the rest of what you wrote). For better or worse, the mission of edX.org has never been the mission of Open edX, and that’s fine. But it’s been a continuing problem for the wider Open Source community, and this shift in structure and the investment in the Open edX team gives the opportunity to fix that. This transition will have all of its own challenges, pitfalls, and problems, but what we have before us is primarily that opportunity to succeed and overcome those issues, and avoid falling into the same holes that caused problems for the community in the past.

I’m cautiously optimistic.

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