Tony Mobily recently interviewed David Jacovkis about the future of the Free Technology Academy. The result was published in the Free Software Magazine site.
The Free Technology Academy  is one of those incredible initiatives that spring out of the free software culture, and create something that goes way beyond free software.
Unfortunately, the FTA has recently lost their European funding. I talked to David Jacovkis, one of the people behind this innovative project, to know more about their situation and what needs to be done so that their project can keep on thriving.
Q: What is the FTA?
The Free Technology Academy  started in 2008 as an initiative of the Free Knowledge Institute  (FKI) to promote Free Software in the European higher education space. Since the beginning we worked very closely with two distance universities, the Open University Netherlands  (OU.nl) and the Open University of Catalonia  (UOC). Our initial aim was to set up a virtual campus with course modules on Free Technologies, recognised by partner universities in their master degree programmes.
Since the first pilot in 2009, the FTA programme  has expanded from 3 to 13 course modules, including subjects such as “The concepts of Free Software and Open Standards”, “GNU/Linux systems”, “Economic Aspects of Free Software”, “Software Architecture” and many others. According to the spirit of the Free Software movement, all FTA learning materials  are released under copyleft licenses.
The FTA is set up as a virtual campus fully based on Free Software. Some of its main components are Moodle, MediaWiki, Drupal and Elgg. This last application has been integrated with the main campus to create the FTA Community Portal , an open space where learners (both formal and informal), educators and anyone else with an interest in Free Technologies can meet and exchange experiences, discuss study subjects, share news, create new learning materials and help improve existing ones.
Currently our goal is to work with our university partners to develop a common framework for an international Masters Degree in Free Software.
Q: Why did the European funding go away?
The FTA was set up with the financial support of the Lifelong Learning Programme of the European Commission. This is a project based programme that doesn’t provide structural funding. The EC funded 2-year project ended in December 2010 and since then the FTA’s main source of income are the tuition fees of its enrolled learners.
It isn’t very often that such a project aims to become financially sustainable after the funded period, however this has been one of our objectives since the very beginning. We didn’t want the FTA to become yet another pilot project: we want it to be a successful long term initiative.
Q: What are the risks right now? The “worst case scenario”?
I’d say that the main risk at this moment is being unable to reach the potential audience that we know we have. We need a sufficient number of learners in every course module, and not only financially. Our pedagogical model is mostly based on asynchronous activities (discussions in a web forum, collaborative activities in a wiki, etc.) which don’t work so well if groups are too small.
In the worst case scenario the FTA Consortium (formed by the FKI and the FTA university partners) would decide that the initiative is not viable in its current form. There are a number of ways in which we could scale down the FTA and continue operating with a reduced programme, without compromising our future plans.
Q: How many registrations do you need to keep going, and how many do you have?
There are several scenarios that would allow the FTA to continue operating in its current form. Ideally each course module would run with groups of around 25 participants. This would help us provide a good learning experience and at the same time make the FTA economically sustainable. Until now we have had small groups and bigger groups, with a maximum of 35 learners. During 2011 our offer of courses was expanded, although we have been forced to cancel a few modules that didn’t reach the minimum number of enrolments.
Q: Have you considered alternative solutions?
We have submitted proposals for several projects that would make use of the FTA, expand it or build upon it in some way or another. This increased activity would bring in additional funding and would allow us to share the operating costs of the FTA.
An interesting challenge is making the FTA available to learners for whom European tuition fees are prohibitive. We’d like to offer scholarships to as many of these learners as possible, but right now the only way to do that would be to find additional funding from third parties (foundations, cooperation agencies or others), especially from train-the-trainer programmes.
Other ways to help the sustainability of the FTA include a strong cooperation with our partner network. One way we already see happening is that other universities use FTA learning materials in their own courses. This happens in the Tampere University of Technology , for example.
We are also working toghether with universities inside and outside Europe to establish a common master programme in such way that we define together a harmonised curriculum, with co-developed courses and materials. This will help partners to reduce the costs of setting up a local programme, based on the common framework. For learners this will provide more in depth courses and will allow them to take courses at specialised institutions in different countries. An initial definition of a common framework is emerging in the FTA Wiki  and in a working group within the FTA Community Portal . People interested are welcome to join the debate!