Buying vs Building

Every few months I read about another exciting new enterprise software package that some university or another has licensed, that’ll have such-and-so amazing effects on the academic environment — and reduce cavities, too! As an academic technology enthusiast, I would love to see one of these that I believed in, but I’m strongly inclined to suppose that almost all of these awesomesauce enhancements to university culture amount to a sad misallocation of funds.
In the first place, universities — properly understood — are the enhancement for which these high-ticket purchasers are looking. If you want to improve the atmosphere, encourage thinking, reading, listening, writing, and so on, then invest in teaching and learning. And if that’s not sexy enough for you, invest in learning and teaching. If you must, invest in sexy learning and teaching, teaching and learning, but us homely academics feel dowdy enough as things stand (and failing a ‘sexy’ standard would be a detrimental side effect. If you’re worried about our appearance, buy us new clothes). Did I say ‘learning and teaching’? Good, ’cos that’s what I meant, that and ‘teaching and learning’.
If there’s no way to invest more in improving the conditions for teachers and learners (hint: you can always spend more to support teachers), and if you really must spend scarce funds on a technological widget, make dead sure to have someone who knows something about software design and coding look over what you’re bidding on. Most administrators know less than zero about software, and a number of companies have gotten rich from seductive brochures advertising gussied-up databases as the solution to all your ed-tech fantasies. Don’t spend without a coder saying, ‘Yeah, looks like value for money’.
So, assuming you’re determined to spend a few hundred thousand pounds and you’re actually about to buy (or license) something sensible (not just an elaborate executive-suite shell game), why buy or license a for-profit company’s product? If you’re a learning institution, why not make it an internal priority to develop such a product for your own institution, on your own terms? Sure, some of you will end up with kludgy unattractive interfaces that don’t actually change campus culture much — but your students and staff will have learned through the process, and besides — if you license the software, you will very likely spend that sum on attractive interfaces that don’t actually change campus culture much. That sounds like 100% loss to me.
Almost all universities, and many other higher-ed institutions, have the staff and students to design and implement most software packages designed for moderate-security online purposes. Why pay licenses to for-profit corporations for packages that don’t quite do what you want (or that do something you didn’t think you wanted till a salesperson pitched it to you), when you can support staff-student partnerships to develop educational software tailored toward actual campus needs (and that you might be able to license to other institutions)?

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