Easing app deployment with an open source sandbox

Simple administrative tools help a small university experiment and explore its application needs

I’ve just returned from a day at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., where I participated in the annual Faculty Academy on Instructional Technologies. I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to give a keynote talk on 21st century literacy, and to discuss Web 2.0 with a panel of like-minded thinkers.

It was just as enjoyable to hear about the approach that UMW’s Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies is taking to the evaluation and acquisition of enterprise software.

If you’re working in a higher-ed IT shop, you’re likely supporting one of several course management systems, Blackboard and WebCT being the two names that come up most often. But you’re also acutely aware of the educational relevance of blogs, wikis, and related applications and services sprouting everywhere. This stuff is mostly open source software. There are vendors who will package it for you or deliver commercial alternatives, but the UMW team wanted to work in a more exploratory and iterative way.

So they hooked up with a hosting service that’s providing them with what they provocatively describe as a sandbox. In their case the hosting service is BlueHost, one of many that supports an administrative package called cPanel and -- as an add-on to cPanel -- an automated installer called Fantastico. Using Fantastico, it’s easy to configure and deploy various flavors of open source Weblog, help desk, survey, wiki, or calendar applications.

Of course you can create your own sandbox, but that means you’ll spend way too much time configuring and deploying. You’d rather invest that time on higher-order tasks: connecting people to the software, learning what works for them, building composites tailored to their unique requirements.

In terms of the ability to work at this level, UMW was, by its own admission, behind the curve two years ago. Nor could it afford to spend the way some universities do. But Assistant VP for Teaching and Learning Technologies Gardner Campbell has turned these weaknesses into advantages. From BlueHost’s perspective, cPanel and Fantastico may only be part of a defensive strategy to minimize tech support. For UMW, however, it’s an opportunity to get up to speed quickly with an array of potentially useful applications.

This exploratory mode reminds me of what venture capitalist and former Oracle executive Ray Lane said in the Software 2006 keynote I mentioned two weeks ago. In his vision of the future of enterprise software, services are delivered on demand, they produce value in incremental steps, and they’re paid for when -- not before -- that value is proven.

But there’s more to the story. The question isn’t simply whether to build, buy, or lease, but more broadly how to orchestrate the use of a variety of free and commercial software. That’s a core competency you’ll want to retain and nurture in-house. What will make that possible is software that’s not only delivered mostly through the Web but also packaged as what MIT’s Eric von Hippel calls a “user innovation toolkit.”

The UMW instructional technologists regard their sandbox as an emergent example of such a toolkit. They’re using it not only to craft open source solutions but also to transform themselves into more capable evaluators of the next commercial packages they’ll need to buy from vendors. And, more than incidentally, they are having a great deal of fun.

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