“Universities can’t make software”

“I mean. I’m just saying, that sounds a lot like a company. Have you thought of making a company?”

Yes. In my mid 20s (so 2010-11ish), when I plotted out the impacts of the work we would do, I thought about not writing about it, burying it deep in my notebooks and taking it to someone, anyone who might understand. Maybe some VC somewhere would throw money at it (had one or two on the phone but I would never elaborate).

Why wouldn’t I give it up… because.. it’s not mine to give. As a Christian, I don’t claim my ideas as my own. I was gifted with talents that I am the steward of. You were as well; whether or not you attribute them to a higher power, it is a moral imperative to humankind, our children or the future in general, to make the most of our time on this earth and our talents to sow the seeds of a better future. We owe it to those who made the world in which we live (no matter how imperfect it may be).

So..what happened to the idea? I let it go. I unleashed it on the world, and published it under the banner in which I represent my ideas as (legally my ideas are their IP). The reason for this “alignment”? My banner told us we can publish everything as open source (copyright us of course). And so, under the banner of open source and transforming society we lay in wait, building infrastructure for years that no one could comprehend… Knowing that one day, some day, people would come. (If you build it, they will come).

Well.. the chickens are coming home to roost. ELMS:LN has picked up 1.5 core developers in the past month, with the prospect of potentially another core developer in the coming months. Sitting in the “bull pen” today (because that’s what it’s become when 5 people are there writing code, SVGs, and learning how to build the future) I realized how special the season of life we are all in. We’re walking in the same direction.

So what is that direction? Transforming education. (minimalist goals as always from me of course). But what does that even mean? I relate an example I related to the newest member of the project;

I dono… maybe examples help. 8 years ago, we replaced a $250 textbook with a $30 fee to help make the material sustainable. Now you, as a student if I told you I was saving you $200+ dollars you’d say…. “Oh wow cool, 200 bucks I have for something else” right? You get the benefit but economies of scale, not a huge deal.

But, that course has run for 8 year, across 300 students a year. That’s $600,000 in savings distributed across 2,400 students but more important then the students, that’s $600,000 out of the pocket of knowledge arbiters of yester-year. Now this is one course… and we’ve been doing this in close to a dozen….

Now… take this story and extrapolate it. What happens to when we intentionally devalue the nature of information over time? What happens when that 100$ chemistry textbook with all it’s interactive content is now free (or damn close to free)? What happens when those SaaS are replaced by free, better, more open, community and faculty driven alternatives? What happens when those require no effort to maintain at distributed scale? With services like lets encrypt automating (and eliminating profit motive) in the SSL / HTTPS space; we’re not that unreasonable of a space to attempt similar offerings in.

It’s the waves that the publishing industry (print media) has been sacked by. NYT, Time, etc have no idea how to craft a publishing model when anyone can blog for free (and unfortunately, opinions come close to free then we devalue knowledgable sources in media).

So I ask… is it that crazy to think we can intentionally cause this singularity in educational technology? What happens when we give faculty access to multi-million dollar toolsets for pennies on the dollar (salaries) running on servers that continue to push the boundaries of performance and efficiency simultaneously? What impacts on society does this intentional application of technology provide? What if we had access to deploy these technologies on AWS and the same ecosystems that all of our vendors are?

“That sounds like a company” — too many to count now…

Yeah.. it does doesn’t it. But as I keep responding to much confusion… “yeah… but what if it didn’t become a company.. what if it just kept growing.. what would happen then?”

When we intentionally devalue work we collapse traditional business models in that space. As an example…

It’s the year 2009. Websites cost most units 40k to build (oh… I dono, random number). Single websites, let’s say less then 50 pages of content; 40k. Now, that 40k is either in personnel or it’s in SaaS style offerings that have that price tag. What happens if I come in and can offer the same services, at higher quality, for cheaper? Well, capitalist market forces come into play and lower cost for higher quality = success right? Well, what if instead of accepting more money for this, we just let you ride on the services that already exist; assuming a form of “basic income” stream attached with keeping a service afloat at all.

What does this do to market forces when there’s nothing to combat them? When money is no longer the bargaining chip and all others are equal. In this scenario, let’s assume all tech rides on open source, and the only thing people are paying for are contracts that make them feel good about their decision (ala every LMS the last 20 years).

“Universities can’t make software”

But what if they did? What if we attacked this narrative. What if our institutions didn’t have to pay multi-million dollar contracts for software that other spaces get for free (pages + educational content = education; no liberated space pays the insane money we do for so little in return. I’m talking about you LMS vendor space).

What if we decided to start making software, free software.  The most accessible, usable, open, software imaginable, built off of the latest technology and powered by secure, scalable backends. Built with a philosophy of technology in mind and an eye towards where we know we can take society instead of just meeting the needs of the next meeting objective.

What if the up-tick in processing, combined with a growing chorus of voices that believe in something more then just “getting rich” or “making it big” decided to make a difference. What if we all decided to realize what we’re waking up for every day for work and that that work is transforming education through low cost, high quality, customizable, user-driven educational technology platforms and solutions?

Then what if I told you this isn’t the world we hoped to create, but the world I Know we will create; you will create.

I’m 33.

and Hey….

I’m playing this game with an eye towards 40. and then 45. and then 50. and so on till expiration.

This isn’t some job to me. This is my mission; more importantly, no longer just my mission but our mission. Some of us have kids, some of us have a desire to make education cheaper, whatever the reason, we have a need to make things better tomorrow then they were yesterday. But I assure you, all of us have motivation and enough fuel in the tank to make it happen.

We will transform education. And it won’t be from the side-lines or silicon valley or endless committees. It will be from within. Because we recognize who we have to be. And we hope you’ll join us in our journey to make education a better, 0 cost place.

One Open sourced webcomponent, bash script, docker image, vagrant vm, jenkins script, Drupal module, css, javascript, and html line at a time.

Buckle up. Things are about to get even more real; real fast.


  1. juststormy · May 24, 2017

    “We will transform education. And it won’t be from the side-lines or silicon valley. ” It won’t be on committees, either.

    • btopro · May 24, 2017

      Oooo that’d be a good amendment!

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