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Education and the AGPL: A Case Study

Project: Open edX

This talk will provide a case study of the AGPL as applied to the Open edX Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) delivery platform, and go on to make the argument that the success of the project and its mission of democratizing education on a global scale relies upon its use of a free and open source license.

With online technology being considered a foundation for modern education, it is important to discuss the implications of licensing on the platforms that power online education. Free and open source licenses are necessary in education, whether the learners are millions of primary school students in India or a vocational training class of twelve in North Carolina. The tools needed to meet these demands cannot exist or thrive without the practical and philosophical benefits of free and open source licenses.

These licenses are not only pragmatically useful for an individual platform, but necessary for future development. In order to educate a global population, resources, tools, and content must not only be adaptive and versatile, but also accessible, changeable, and shareable.

Under the lofty goal of “reaching a billion students,” MOOC provider edX opened up their code base in 2013, releasing it under the AGPL. Later that day, the first pull request was made by someone outside of the company. Since then, the Open edX project has grown, with over 120 institutions and organizations using it independently to teach and train all over the world.

The success of the Open edX project is, in part, due to the choice to use the AGPL. This talk will provide an in-depth case study of the Open edX project as a free and open source software project. This will include governance, contributor metrics, and the practicalities of implementing and protecting the license.

Practical benefits of being a free and open source project are frequently viewed from the perspective of providing free developer time or sweat equity contributions. This is also true within the Open edX project. Platform features and other development goals are met by edX, external contributors, and the two groups working in conjunction. However, many contributions are centered around organizations developing features or fixes based on their own needs. Meeting the demands of internal development, external contributions, and edX stakeholders while fulfilling the promise made by adopting the AGPL has brought on anticipated hurdles, unexpected problems, and delightful challenges.

Molly de Blanc

Molly de Blanc lives in Somerville, MA, where she is the community coordinator for the Open Source Team at edX. She has worked in education for six years, and been a FLOSS advocate both professionally and in her free time.

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