OERs: Publishing Software – Open source or Open API

This blog post relates to my study of Open Educational Resources as part of my Emerging Technologies for Learning Program of study at the University of Manitoba.

I have been asked to comment on the use of “free” open source applications in the context of OERs.  I blogged about this just recently.  My classmate, Stu has responded to the same question in his blog post where he discusses the virtues of open source software in the creation of content in Education. Comparisons have also been drawn between the virtues of open source software, and open educational resources.  It is true that there are some similarities in the spirit of each of these models of publishing and sharing.  Like me in my blog post, Stu highlights the benefits of free technology such as Google Apps in education. However, a clear distinct needs to be made – Google Apps is not open source software.

Google Apps is part of a new breed of software known as cloud computing software.  It brings new ways of sharing and re-using information.  While in spirit, cloud computing software appears to be “open source”, it is in fact typically “open API“.  So what is an API?  In short, it is a published and standardised way for computer programs to interact with one another, typically on the web.

An example will do well here.  Consider flickr.  There are many different software products for uploading your photos into flickr. Each of these products uses the Flickr API to login to your flickr account, select your photo files, tag them, title them, and upload them into Flickr, and so on. Google has similar APIs for interacting with their Google Apps services, and in fact most of their cloud services.

While the API is open and anyone (who is authorised by the service provider) can write programs to interact with the service, the service software programming source code isn’t is open.  So it’s behaviour cannot be changed or extended or adapted for other contexts.  It also means that if the service provider decides to change the terms of the service (Ning) or simply decides to shut them down (ask Google Wave customers about that), then you are out of luck.

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