Who will save the BBB open-source platform?

The communication and education platform BBB makes universities independent of tech giants for their IT. But now that the admin is leaving, everything will stop. Or will it?

Universities shouldn't make theirselves dependent on tech giants, say BBB proponents. (Photo: Justyna Botor)

‘Over the past two years, BigBlueButton (BBB) has become a much-used platform at TPM. But all good things come to an end, including BBB@TBM which will stop on 31 January 2022’, mailed ‘BBB@TBM administrators’ to their more than 2,800 users at the end of December.

The man behind the mail is Tobias Fiebig, Assistant Professor in IT at the Faculty of Technology, Policy & Management, and administrator of the BBB platform. He started the platform at the onset of the first lockdown in March 2020 as an open-source alternative to education and communication platforms such as Zoom, Discord, YouSeeU and Teams.

He told Delta about the advantages of BBB in November 2020. “It has more teaching options than Teams, for example. There is an integrated whiteboard, built-in surveys, and automatic breakout rooms. And you can play videos in the participant’s browser.”

“And more importantly, universities are not dependent on some tech giant that can change the terms or the usage options overnight,” adds Dr Seda Gürses. She is Associate Professor of Multi Actor Systems at the same faculty. In her own words, she was ‘quite outspoken’ about technology firms that preyed on universities, and to which academics, under pressure from corona, surrendered rather naively and unquestioningly.

She is full of praise for Fiebig who almost single-handedly set up the BBB platform on a server rented by the TPM Faculty. Fiebig not only introduced BBB at TU Delft, says Gürses, he also helped further develop the open-source platform. For instance, he integrated the streaming functionality which allows streaming a session to a wider public. So you can host a panel and many more people can watch the stream on the internet without being in the BBB room.

The flip side of his efforts, says Gürses, was the overwhelming workload that came with being the sole admin of the BBB platform.

The risk of such a ‘one man show’ is its vulnerability. What happens if the admin quits, as Fiebig has now announced? On the reason for his departure he doesn’t want to say more than ‘personal reasons due to the corona situation’. In the mail, he advises users to make backups before 1 February.

Shutting down BigBlueButton is not an option, says Gürses. “We are working day and night to prevent that.” Discussions are underway with Education & Student Affairs and with the TPM Faculty to ensure continuity.

There should be sufficient knowledge in IT and Computer Science (Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science) to continue the service, Gürses assumes. There should be talks with the IT provider Surfnet and the university association VNSU about the longer-term development of BBB.

Instead of discontinuing the open-source platform, it is now time to expand it from an experiment at TPM to the whole of the academic Netherlands, Gürses argues. Even though it is not yet clear exactly how.

  • Latest news: the BBB homepage now says: 12 January: Dear users, we found a way to continue BBB for TU Delft users – more information about this will follow soon via mail. So it seems that help is underway. 
Science editor Jos Wassink

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