Open Source Learning Infrastructure: Nearly 3 Years On, An Idea Whose Time Has Come

August 31, 2023

LearnerShape’s mission is to build and deploy open source learning infrastructure (OSLI) – i.e. modular microservices that can be combined and augmented to deliver customized learning applications. We released our first open source library lsgraph in November 2020, and introduced the “big idea” of open source learning infrastructure in March 2021.

Now, nearly three years on, we are seeing rapidly increasing interest and opportunity for our big idea.

Why The Time Is Now

I stated the core rationale for OSLI this way in my March 2021 blog:

… the reason education is complicated … is because it is as diverse as the people who learn and teach.

Learning tends to be done well when directed by a charismatic educator with subject expertise and direct experience of a specific learning situation, including individual student needs. It is difficult to enable such ideal learning environments online …

But solving that difficulty holds huge, world-changing promise … LearnerShape aims to do so with AI-based learning infrastructure.

There are big reasons why now is a great time to step on the OSLI accelerator.

Most prominently, there has been stunning recent progress in AI, particularly large language models (LLMs), with ChatGPT as the most prominent example. LLMs provide capabilities that can be incorporated into OSLI, and enabling capabilities in other applications in ways that would have seemed like magic just a year ago. (Sal Khan illustrated this eloquently in his May 2023 TED Talk focusing on how LLM technology is being used at Khan Academy.)

In addition, the blossoming of LLMs has crystallized the tension between open and closed models of software development, pitting the closed approach led by (now inappropriately named) OpenAI and ChatGPT against the open approach whose most powerful current incarnation is the Llama 2 model build by Meta (Mark Zuckerberg having suddenly seen the benefits of open systems when they provide him competitive advantage).

LearnerShape is – obviously and firmly – in the “open” camp.

Secondly, as well as these AI-driven reasons to accelerate OSLI, there are strong signals in education markets that new, flexible approaches are urgently needed, particularly in the university and corporate / lifelong learning sectors where LearnerShape focuses.

In the university sector, there has been a persistent decline in enrollment, particularly in the United States. McKinsey has identified key drivers of this trend, and all of them (apart from reduced US birth rates) are related to important shifts in the education market that are unsurprising at this time of rapid global change (driven by AI, evolving supply chains, Covid, geopolitics and other factors).

The big question for universities is what comes next. At LearnerShape we believe that much of the solution is flexibility, which OSLI is specifically designed to deliver.

Thirdly, in the corporate sector, we see depressing growth in a monoculture of lookalike learning management systems (LMSs) and learning experience platforms (LXPs) – at each of my annual visits to the Learning Technologies exhibition in London the LMS/LXP field gets more crowded. These platforms provide standardized functions that many companies want to feel are useful, and many leverage AI or claim to do so. But the persistent experience is that most of these platforms generate poor learner engagement. Perhaps not coincidentally, that also rely on locking a company into one single platform – in the interests of neither the learners nor the company.

Again, we believe more flexibility is needed, and a mission that keeps learners and learning needs at the heart of the technology.

Our Progress and Acceleration With Open Source Learning Infrastructure

During the past three years, LearnerShape has persisted in rolling out OSLI, with highlights including:

Our progress has been steady rather than exponential, because we believe in flexible, organic growth. We have focused on delivering projects and maintaining a financially stable business during the challenging times of the pandemic and the start-up financing hangover that has followed increases in interest rates, the bursting of the funding bubble of 2021 and the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank.

Now is the time to accelerate, for the reasons explained in this blog. We have big plans in the works to do so. Watch this blogspace for more information, and in the meantime feel free to reach out if you would like to join our OSLI journey.

Maury Shenk, Founder & CEO, LearnerShape