Inside the Mind of a Web 2.0 Developer

Among the many emerging Web 2.0 tools is Elgg, an open-source platform that lets users create their own “learning landscape” through personal profiles, e-portfolios, blogs, and other tools. Founded in 2004 by Dave Tosh and Ben Werdmuller, Elgg has been adopted by several universities and a handful of K–12 schools (See “Community 2.0”). School CIO spoke to the Scotland-based Tosh by phone this summer.

Q. Where did the idea for Elgg come from?
A. Two-and-a-half years ago I was working on a European-funded project studying adult learners and basic skills. I was the technical developer on the project, researching e-portfolios. Nothing at the time fulfilled the requirements we were looking for so I built [an e-portfolio] pilot system. While doing that I started a Ph.D. [at University of Edinburgh] looking at portfolios from the student perspective. I became aware that the tools out there were institutional in approach—top down and developed to satisfy institutional criteria. That’s when Ben and I began thinking about building Elgg.

Q. What requirements were you looking for that you didn’t find?
A. [With] portfolios, people talked about student-centered learning. In reality the systems seemed much more about assessment and check lists for competencies. I wanted to explore reflective thinking, to be able to gather up [intellectual] artifacts important to me, foster connections and collaborations, explore informal learning opportunities—research the process of learning, rather than focus on the end result.

Q. How is Elgg different from other systems?
A. Elgg is truly a learner centric environment; it allows learners to make certain choices about their own learning landscape. It is also not designed to be an all-in-one box; it’s more an ethos of choice. We have a standard tool set but the goal is to build a framework that lets learners plug in their own tools and widgets. If a school adopts Elgg but then finds another tool that does a particular job more to their liking—for example, they like Elgg’s blog but not its file repository—there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to use something else and still enjoy the full benefits of an Elgg environment. The days are numbered where you can give people one system and expect that to satisfy everyone’s needs.

Q. Is there anything about the tool that’s specific to the K–12 audience?
A. We’re building and releasing a K–12 module after the summer. It’s a plug-in that people can install which changes configuration to meet the requirements of a K–12 environment. The main areas it deals with are site administration and privacy. Schools have to make sure kids can’t have personal details about themselves accidentally seen by the public. There’s also a need for higher administration levels, so, administrators will have greater control to see exactly what kids are doing.

Q. As an open-source developer, how do you make money?
A. I‘m looking for a job. You can put that in there. In all seriousness, we’re building a services and support business around open-source software like Elgg. This is the typical model for open source. You give the source code away, and then you provide support and customization on a commercial basis.

Q. How does Elgg compare to a social networking tool like MySpace?
A. The big difference between our tool and MySpace is $580 million. I can see why people try to make parallels because of the social networking ethos. I don���t see anything [similar] beyond that. MySpace is a commercial venture which harvests user details and sells ad space. Elgg is built from a pedagogical stand point. You install it on your own servers and have complete control over it.

Q. What direction do you see the tool going in the future?
A. Well, we’re enhancing the framework—making sure the code is rock solid and scalable [the current roadmap is available at href=""]. We’re also working on an interesting project with a few people in the States, building a service that integrates Elgg, MediaWiki, Moodle, and Drupal. Another thing we’re working on is making it possible to connect different installations of Elgg. In a school district, you can have one centrally hosted version; we also want to provide the option for each school to have its own customized environment but still be able to participate in a wider community network.

We are launching hosted solutions for those wanting to try out Elgg or who do not have adequate infrastructure within their organization. Check out for more details.

Q. What’s your opinion on the fate of commercial e-learning tools?
A. I don’t think the shelf life of commercial tools are going to last more than five or six years. They are going to have to change their strategy over the coming years. You can see this already with WebCT and Blackboard providing extensive API frameworks to allow quick integration to external tools. Users are becoming used to choice, being able to pick and choose the tools they wish to use and then loosely joining these together. Locking users into one system will no longer work.

Q. Do you think it’s more difficult for tools like Elgg to take off in the United States given our focus on testing and accountability?
A. Possibly. America has a rigid outcomes-based approach to education and Elgg is more about process. The adoption of tools like Elgg won’t be driven by school authorities, though. It’s going to be driven by students, by people using it and being able to do cool things. As a Ph.D. student, for example, setting up my Elgg environment opened up a range of opportunities and connections for me with people from all over the world. That would have never happened if I had been using OSP.

Amy Poftak is editorial director of School CIO.