Jim Gettys rides one of my favorite hobby horses, although he's looking at research in user interface design, rather than educational software (not to say there isn't a huge overlap):
I recently attended the UIST conference, and discovered there was essentially no overlap between the research community and (the free software community). (...)
“This search for fatal flaws is devastating for systems research. It is virtually impossible for a small team of researchers to recreate all of the capabilities of existing systems or to completely examine all of the eventualities of new concepts. The farther such a team reaches into new territory the more compromises will be required and the more supporting ideas must be left unresolved. If a new systems approach is attempted, the omissions of some important feature is guaranteed. The existence of a fatal flaw is a given. If the evaluation of the work is focused on “what does it not do” no research system will ever pass. Flaw analysis will frequently be a barrier to new systems research.”
As a result, UI systems research has stagnated due to combined effect of the middleware of the UI stack being closed (or in our case, until the recent flowering of the free desktop undid more than a decade of stagnation) and this effect. Many good ideas of all kinds have been explored from hardware, to window system UI ideas, to UI ideas for specific classes of applications. But there is much less proof of which ideas actually works in a real system, for the reasons Dan lays out. The resulting research experiments are usually “toy” systems, and toy applications, built in the limited environment of MacIntosh and Windows where much of the system is off-limits. The research community has neither the resources nor (if they work on Mac and/or Windows) the ability to make advances “real”. But we do! We have the resources, the open system, and the ability to and desire to innovate.
Our fundamental advantage we have is the ability to experiment and modify all areas of the stack; from hardware, to the window system, though toolkits to applications. Just as compositing has allowed a thousand flowers to bloom (most of which stink, but we’ve picked some that smell pretty sweet) in eye candy, accessibility and in other areas, compositing and other modern free software technologies can be used in new an unexpected ways. We are able to perform experiments, and have a large audience to test the experiments radically faster than commercial software. Nice as the Web is, there are just some things you can’t do in the web until the underlying technologies have support. 20 years of frustration in the UI research community shows that pushing from research to commercial vendors does not and cannot work at more than a glacial pace. Let us pull people to free software by out innovating and becoming the system with the best user experience, by pulling with the best ideas of free software and research innovation.