Open Collaborative Software is a Lot Cheaper at Scale. Why Don’t We Harness That More?

So I’m sure you know this — supporting 50 individual WordPress blog sites is draining and expensive. But if you have that sort of scale, you can get WordPress Multiuser instead, and put em all on that, and its rather cheap to maintain.  Likewise, as efforts around a technology expand, support per person goes down because the community can start to help with support, and more importantly people start to learn by looking at other people’s models.

The same is true of wikis. Fifty wikis will kill you stone cold dead. But one big wiki where different classes can edit their corner of it — that’s pretty cheap, comparatively at least.

Niche stuff like the Assignment Bank ds106 built and Alan is refactoring is really expensive too — if you do it one class at a time. But once that configuration and integration cost is spread over multiple classes it won’t cost you much per class at all.

The term for these sort of things is scalability, and the key idea is that as scale increases, marginal cost of product and support approaches zero. Your 500th customer costs you a fraction of your first.

We heard a lot about scalability in the MOOC craze — scalability of classes, primarily. And thinking about that is a worthwhile task I think, even if some of those experiments haven’t exactly panned out.

But for people looking for an *easy* win, it’s staring us right in the face. Because the easiest way to really unleash the potential of these technologies is to kill the unprofitable bits of fragmentation and build at scale. What if a *state* or *province* just said — “You know what — we’re going to support one wiki installation across all our two-year and four-year institutions for student use in the classroom. We’ll support it centrally, and let you all work out the details of how to share it.”

Not one wiki contract, mind you. One wiki.

What would that do?

What if a state said, hey, instead of running UMWBlogs and UVaBlogs and So and So Community College Blogs we want to hire the UMW team and we want to support a set of multi-site installs available to all schools in the state. Or if an organization such as AAC&U or EDUCAUSE said look, as part of your benefits, all your students get to run blogs on this thing we’re going to build. Not special pricing on a contract, but something we actually own, maintain, and develop based on your feedback.

What would that do?

Suddenly your wiki isn’t a ghost-town — you’ve got the scale to have a real community around it. Suddenly your WP install is getting upgraded without anyone at your institution having to touch it. Alan could build out an install just for various assignment banks, with specialized themes. That models problem goes away, because you’re not relying of ten people to jumpstart this at your institution, but hundereds of people across many institutions.

But we don’t do this. We buy institutional repository software that no one ever uses. We support our own WordPress install and have the painful year or two where five people are on it, and we have to decide whether we push through, or ditch it. We build a new wiki for every class.

This is really a simple calculus. This isn’t scaling as a metaphor. This is straightforward scaling. Yet we’ve rushed right past it. We buy state contracts with vendors, or support open services locally. we don’t do open services at the state or consortium level.


6 thoughts on “Open Collaborative Software is a Lot Cheaper at Scale. Why Don’t We Harness That More?

  1. This came up a lot at OpenVA and someone correctly pointed out that libraries do this so well. In Virginia they have VIVA ( sharing the cost of databases, working out the details for a strong interlibrary loan system, and education and training for library staff. It boggles my mind that administrators and IT departments don’t see this idea as anything but a huge win.

  2. Hey Mike,

    Tim is exactly right, as is often the case these days—I am a big fan of his! For me OpenVA ( was about sharing stuff like this at the state level—blogging platforms, wikis, Domains, etc. I see a ton of value in it. I was a bit done with OpenVA by the end of that conference given the lion’s share of the work fell on UMW (which I take the blame for). That said, I do believe statewide initiatives are exciting and would really offer some amazing possibility for bringing a sense of community to this stuff that is truly next level. Virginia is in a unique position given it has a lot of really great folks invested in this already. I think there’s a lot still to come from that confernece—a state-level working group on open education is being born from it and OpenVA will be an ongoing, annual confernece that moves to a different campus every year (4-year to community college campus to 4-year school, etc.).

    What worries me about its success a bit is that given OPEN is formally being recognized and embraced, I hope it continues to resist the limited designation of resources and content—something I believe OpenVA was relatively successful at. If open gets reduced to OERs all the interesting stuff will be squeezed from OpenVA. While I thinks resources and content (or even applications) are one way at it, I think focusing on the community they make possible statewide needs to be the goal. I’m not suggesting this is at odds with what you are arguing, rather a possibility I see with the future of OpenVA.

    Another issue for me (and I wonder if you agree here, Tim) is that our Domain of One’s Own project, which is a logical extension for statewide hosting around educational institutions in Virginia, cost UMW 4 to 5x as much as it would on the open market using state vendors. Does this route invite a ton of unnecessary costs, bureacratic red tape, and miscellaneous purchasing/personnell overhead that could kill such a movement quicker than a new MediaWiki install gets spammed?

    I don’t know, and we have to work to make it real—warts and all. Anyway, this an awesome post, and reminds me I need to get back in the OpenVA frame of mind—even though I have been burnt out on OpenVA for a couple of months. I still need to blog it 🙂

  3. Jim, Tim — I’ve been mulling this over a lot this weekend and I think I’ve come back to an old idea of my own that I had let slip away —

    Basically, we are only allowed to get our cross-institutional effects through private means. Vendors aggregate demand and turn that into efficiencies, but of course the price you pay is closed systems and infrastructure you don’t own, but rent. The institutional stuff we do, on the other hand, doesn’t really have any mechanism to aggregate demand, because suddenly there’s this issue of control. Is UVa really going to control the future of UMW? Can competitors really collaborate.

    It’s bizarre, you can have UMW and UVa pay into a common vendor who builds their architecture at the expense of the state and keep the state hostage to a contract, but the minute the two pay into something they will OWN, suddenly there’s all this concern about control. It’s as if the only options for building an interstate highway was to either have it wholly owned by Halliburton or to have each individual town build their own stretch.

    But that’s not how we build highways. We have the federal government say we’ll match your state dollars, just get it done. Then we have the state as the forum through which towns argue over the structure of the thing. And in the end, whatever construction companies you hire to build the darn thing do not own it. I know software is different, but i seems to me there has to be a way bigger than institutions, but more open than corps.

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  5. However, to some extent, the individual ownership /control enshrined in IndieWeb, etc. undoes your notions of scale and efficiency. Instead of setting up one huge wiki or WP instance, every individual goes through the process at very small scale. This has its own benefits but marginal cost of setup and support isn’t one of them,

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