Organizational White Paper

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Web Education: A New Activity for the W3C

For the last dozen or so years, colleges and universities around the world have been struggling to determine where the Web fits into their curriculum. Some see it as programming and combine it with the computer sciences. Others see it as design and organize it under the arts. In truth, work on the Web encompasses both of these and far more, making the notion of a "School of Web", much like a School of Law, perhaps more realistic and practical than we may have dared to entertain. [1st ed: in keeping with use of "Web Craft" in the strategic vision section, should this be "School of Web Education" or "School of Web Crafts"?]

In an effort to thoughtfully consider the concept of a School of Web, the Open Web Education Alliance (OWEA) was formed as a W3C Incubator Group. Comprising educators, representatives of industry and other interested parties, OWEA has been working to create a roadmap for Web education realized in the School of Web. As part of that effort, the group has been considering its future organizational options after its current Charter expires. After weighing all of the options, the group strongly believes that this effort would best be undertaken as a new W3C Activity.

The Options

When considering the type of organization OWEA should become, the group evaluated three options:

  • organizing as a for-profit corporation,
  • organizing as a non-profit corporation, and
  • organizing as a part of another organization.

Each option was considered in terms of its legal structure, the costs involved in both establishing and running the organization, how intellectual property would be handled, the degree of autonomy that would be afforded to the organization, where it would be organized, its effect on the organization’s ability to secure partnerships, whether or not it would be tax-deductible for donors to fund the organization, the time to market for organizing the entity, and its effect on the overall income prospects (e.g. the organization’s ability to secure grants).

Option 1: For-profit corporation

Going into the discussion, the option to become a for-profit corporation was a possibility, but by no means a front-runner in anyone’s mind. The group felt it was worth considering as it could be set up to act like a non-profit, has the advantage of being established in a day or less within the United States, and would cost less than establishing a charitable non-profit.

Being a for-profit corporation has one advantage beyond those already mentioned: the ability to establish franchises around the world. This would come into play if the organization were to focus on accreditation (an option under any of the organizational structures) and seek to establish local offices tasked with policing local institutions. Such a move could take some of the pressure off of the central organization, but it could also create more work if there is ever a communication breakdown.

While the group found few compelling reasons to organize as a for-profit corporation, it found several not to. First of all, establishing itself as such meant that the organization would not have any immediate credibility beyond that imbued to the organization by its founders. The for-profit status of the organization could also be its Achilles’ heel as individuals within the community would have an immediate reason to question any recommendations the organization makes as an effort to increase revenue. Moreover, the group felt it would be more difficult, if not impossible, to get grants to support the organization's work. Then, there is the question of how shareholders are determined.

Examined as a whole, this option was clearly not the route the group wanted to take.

Option 2: Non-profit corporation

When the organizational discussion began, the non-profit option, specifically a charitable non-profit, was the front-runner. Similar to a for-profit organization, it allows for a complete autonomy, provides a tax-deductible incentive to donors, is more likely to be favored in the allocation of grants, and is more likely to be viewed in a positive light by the web community as it is decidedly not focused on generating revenue and has no shareholders pulling the strings.

The process for establishing a non-profit corporation in the U.S. takes roughly a day, as it is with a for-profit. Taking things a step further and getting certified as a charitable organization — a 501(c)(3) in the U.S. — can take 6-12 additional months and requires significant legal assistance. The delay and added cost, when coupled with the concern over a lack of immediate credibility — which was shared in the consideration of for-profit status — made this option less appealing than the group' original consideration.

Option 3: Part of Another Organization

As an Incubator within the W3C, the group felt strongly that OWEA should consider establishing itself as a formal part of the W3C (or some similar) organization. Other options that were considered included the Web Foundation, OASIS, WOW, and ISO.

The benefits of becoming part of another organization are numerous. First of all, the organization would have already established an intellectual property policy, which could to be adopted and would not require this organization to devote resources to establish legal frameworks. Secondly, such a move could give the project immediate credibility within both industry and education. Finally, depending on the organization, there may already be an established means of receiving donations and grants.

On the other hand, operating within another organization could have some drawbacks. First of all, the parent organization may have some credibility issues of its own which could be transferred this organization as well. There is also a question of how much autonomy this organization would be granted by its parent and how much resources the parent organization can make available to this fledgling project. Finally, there’s always a possibility that the parent organization would decide to close down this group for any of a number of reasons (e.g. political, financial, etc.).

During the discussion, however, one option was surfaced that really seemed to stand out: establishing Web education as a W3C Activity. The process for establishing a W3C Activity takes 3-6 months. The first step is to draft a Charter. That Charter is then reviewed and commented on by the W3C membership. Issues that are raised during that review period are evaluated and either addressed or dismissed before the Charter is submitted to W3C management for approval. The final decision is made by W3C management.

The Pros and Cons of Being a W3C Activity

When it came to the W3C, the group was not quite sure how its activities would fit in. Most of the visible activity within the W3C involves the authoring of specifications for the Web, but, through the group’s discussion, it became clear that there are some activities taking place within the W3C that more closely relate to the sort of work OWEA would be doing.

The Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) was established as a Domain within the W3C, but funds many of its own activities and staff through grants. Similarly, the Mobile Web Initiative was created as an Activity within the Ubiquitous Web Domain, and has a dedicated funding stream through sponsors. Each of these has a degree of autonomy and even provides a good deal of its own funding; Domains are also given a literal “seat at the table” as the Domain’s director is considered part of W3C management. The organizers of OWEA would like to keep the future option open of being considered as a Domain if W3C management determines it appropriate. Future reasons for OWEA being reviewed as a possible Domain include the opportunity for direct contribution to management decisions, and because the activities and goals of OWEA could be sufficiently different from the other W3C Domains that there would be benefits to direct representation. However, it makes more sense for OWEA to be established as an Activity within a related Domain.

The W3C is flexible on the way in specific activities are organized and managed, which is a major benefit. W3C activities can leverage the existing W3C membership and dues structure, but in the case where this is not sufficient to the needs of the activity, they may supplement this with their own participant and funding models. Going forward, funding for W3C activities can be routed through the Web Foundation, earmarked for specific initiatives, reducing the need for staff to handle funds processing, etc.

For this project, the benefits of organizing as a W3C Activity are quite clear, but it is not the only party that stands to gain from this relationship; the W3C would also benefit in several ways. For one, this is an opportunity for the W3C to increase its membership and further relationships with educational institutions in a capacity beyond research and development. The creation of a School of Web will also promote the use and expand the acceptance of Web standards, helping speed adoption and possibly speed uptake of new standards as the students of such a program go to work for more and more implementers throughout the industry.

Finally, and in what is of perhaps the most profound benefit, the W3C stands to gain a clearer perspective from the broader educational community: the teachability of current and proposed standards. It is this group’s hope that, as an Activity of the W3C, the Web education effort would foster a “feedback loop” for educators to provide much needed commentary on how teachable proposed specifications are. This alone is a huge opportunity for the W3C as it allows the organization a preview of how clear the spec is in addition to whether it is likely to be taught and, thereby, used in the real world.

One concern the group has regarding being a part of the W3C (or any organization) regards both resources and organizational priorities. Depending on how quickly this project ramps up and the directions in which it grows, one of two conflicts could potentially arise: 1) this project grows so large or so fast that it overwhelms the parent organization’s resources, making it a liability for that organization in terms of manpower and a distraction in terms of direction; 2) the project’s goals, as they develop over time, begin to move away from the goals of the parent organization to the point that the synergy is no longer there. The group hopes that neither of these happen, of course, but feels strongly that any organizational language allows for this project and the parent organization to separate amicably should either scenario arise.

The strongest concern raised with regard to becoming a W3C Activity centered around proprietary versus open technologies and W3C specifications versus external standards and languages. The W3C obviously favors open technologies and will not include proprietary technologies within its specifications. In the real world, however, Web design and development requires pragmatism and use of the best tool for the job. Would the W3C be averse to educational work by this organization that involved Flash? What about PDF, PHP or Quicktime?

This organization’s core focus is not, of course, to promote the proprietary technologies of member or non-member corporations, but rather to establish a practical and useful educational framework. To ignore such technologies would devalue the organization’s efforts. The goal of this organization is to promote best practices within the industry, regardless of technological origin or who owns the intellectual property behind them.

In the end, however, OWEA is hopeful that these concerns will be able to be addressed in light of the mutual benefits to be reaped by organizing its Web education efforts within the W3C.

Final Recommendation

In the view of OWEA, it makes the most sense for Web education to become an Activity of the W3C and for all future operations of this group to be subsumed therein. The group feels that the relationship would be one of mutual benefit and is confident that it will strengthen the Web as a whole. By creating a new Activity for Web education, the W3C will continue to take an active role in improving the Web as it currently exists and in shaping the Web of the future.


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