Looking Back ... and Forwards. My introduction to the latest Apereo Foundation Annual Report...
The Apereo Foundation is a value-driven membership organization, committed to open software and open innovation in the service of higher education. Apereo member institutions and commercial partners serve higher education on five continents. The Apereo community are realists: we expect higher education to continue to make use of a “mixed economy” of open and proprietary software, infrastructure and services for the foreseeable future, but that the default should always be to consider open first.
This is a matter both of utility and principle. Principle because openness aligns with the core values of higher education. Utility because challenging times demand collective and collaborative innovation that will be prevented by depending on locked-down and essentially hidden proprietary software.
Adapting, articulating and focusing Apereo core values in the face of the pandemic has been a key role of the Apereo Board throughout the year. In late 2020 we produced an extended Apereo white paper “Facing the ‘New Normal’ – The Value of the Apereo Foundation”. This white paper sets out the role of open source as an essential component of higher education’s response to the pandemic and how Apereo works to stimulate and sustain open source in higher education globally. The White Paper can be found online and as a download at https://www.apereo.org/content/values .
Apereo seeks to add value to higher education, and not to duplicate the work of others. A key element of this lies in developing dialog and effective partnerships. Whilst this aspect of our work -like many others - has been slowed by the pandemic, close liaison with the LAMP Consortium of small institutions, and the ESUP-Portail Consortium in France has continued to enrich our work at every level during 2020/2021. The free-to-access live stream of Open Apereo plenary sessions at Open Apereo (in English and French) are a strong symbol and reminder of that partnership and its tangible benefits.
The longstanding partnership of Apereo and ESUP-Portail provides an exemplar that Apereo seeks to expand. In early 2021 The Apereo Foundation agreed a memorandum of understanding with AXIES (Academic eXchange for Information Environment and Strategy), an approximate analogue of EDUCAUSE in Japan. The partnership’s initial focus is on sharing information more effectively between the two organizations, through the AXIES open-source software special interest group. Shoji Kajita, a long-time participant in Apereo communities, joined the Apereo Board of Directors as a representative of AXIES in February 2021.
In 2020-21 Apereo continued to focus on what we termed ‘low carbon collaboration’ as a further contribution to global sustainability. In practice, we believed that meant that events would grow increasingly stronger virtual components, alongside work to demonstrate the connection between open-source software and sustainable development goals. In the event, COVID-19 drove us further towards the virtual than we anticipated: Open Apereo 2020 was our first entirely online community conference. It was marked by increased international participation but remained very much a conventional event in an online setting. A particular focus of Open Apereo 2021 is to maximize community participation by taking advantage of its virtual nature, opening the conference as far as possible whilst maintaining a break-even financial target.
The COVID-19 Pandemic has posed a series of challenges to higher education that have yet to play out. These challenges are too numerous to list exhaustively, but several questions have arisen repeatedly in community conversations:
Has pandemic-driven speed of change led to rounded assessment of software choices? Have issues such as privacy and ethical considerations been downplayed as a result? What happens to the commercial-proprietary “sweetheart deal” when the “sweetheart” period ends?
Is higher education investing in capacity building to better equip itself for future shocks, or investing in software license fees which both reflect and further the financialization of the sector? How much further traction will far-reaching initiatives such as the Hewlett Foundation “Beyond Neoliberalism: Rethinking Political Economy” gain in higher education as a result of the pandemic?
How do we expand advocacy around open-source alternatives in a period where securing volunteer effort is challenged by necessary pandemic-related effort close to home? How can we better network viable alternatives to the prevailing status quo?
In 2014 as Apereo came into being we posited an organisation with a deliberately limited remit around services and functions that added value beyond that of an individual institution or software community. The pandemic should lead to a reassessment of that perspective and, if necessary, adjustment to the role we outlined. Reassessment and adjustment are a constant necessity in a healthy organization – but must be built around inclusive dialog and consensus-building if they are to be effective.
On a personal note, June marks the end of my tenure as Apereo Executive Director. I have been an advocate for open solutions for more than twenty years, and Executive Director of the Sakai and Apereo Foundations for eleven years. It’s time to pass the baton and effect a transition.
We are a diverse and innovative global community. I am confident we will rise to the challenges faced by the sector and continue to fulfill our mission – which is today perhaps more relevant than ever - to assist higher education “collaborate to foster, develop, and sustain open technologies and innovation to support learning, teaching, and research."