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Open source software
finding its place in higher education

By Laurie Rowell / January 2008

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In the past, the use of open source software (OSS) in higher education was generally limited to system-level applications like operating systems and Web servers, largely because personnel who could modify and customize the software came with the territory. But according to new study by The Campus Computing Project, colleges and universities are far more likely to select open-source Learning Management Systems (LMS) to handle online courseware and e-learning collateral. The open source community has offered several LMS options over the past several years: Tutor, Claroline, and OLAT, for example, all have their adherents, but the front runners among U.S. colleges and universities are Sakai and Moodle.

Just how big a bite these systems have taken out of the commercial LMS pie is hard to determine. For one thing, the low barrier to entry that Open Source LMS Moodle offers with its free-download option suggests there could be a big gap between the number of installations and the number of functional sites that actually use the product. Yet in evaluating Web traffic for LMS systems, the Alexis Web Traffic report found Moodle was second, trailing behind only Blackboard.

OSS is Alive and Well at a College Near You

"Open source is here and it's going to be with us for a long time," said Kenneth C. Green, director of The Campus Computing Project. Green presented this year's findings at the EDUCAUSE 2007 annual conference, which described The Campus Computing Project on its website as "the largest continuing study of the role of information technology in American higher education."

As part of the project, CIOs and other senior campus officials from 555 institutions answered questions about their use of open source. The findings reveal what Green calls an "affirmative ambivalence" toward open source—a willingness to consider it, but uneasiness about how it will play out.

Green saw a clear differentiation in attitudes about two distinct software categories—those administered by technical staff and those used by faculty, staff, and students. In the first category, back-end OSS applications have long been a staple of academia, where Linux and Apache are widely deployed. According to the survey, these applications had a greater than 60 percent usage rate. For the second category, Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) applications, "the numbers fall by half because we're only in the initial stages of deployment…for non-technical end-users," said Green.

Even so, the new survey suggests that Sakai and, especially, Moodle are gaining rapidly in their rate of acceptance. "We're seeing in our 2007 survey some big jumps in these numbers, "Green reported. "The 2007 data suggest that 10 percent of campuses have standardized on an open-source application, and it's upwards of 20 percent in private four-year colleges, where Moodle is overwhelmingly the leader. This is big news.

"This has happened in a relatively short period of time," Green observed. "Very short for Moodle, very short for Sakai—especially when you consider the campus calendar is rigid. These things don't happen mid-year."

Embracing Ambivalence

For the academic CIO, ambivalence about the software they purchase is not limited to open source. At a study last year sponsored by the Mellon Foundation and others (see Software and Collaboration in Higher Education: A Study of Open Source Software, participants voiced three concerns about commercial software:

  • Cost concerns: Vendors could phase out commercial software after institutions had invested heavily in it.
  • Performance: Commercial software is not optimized for use in an educational setting.
  • Control: Software firms in this market have shown how easily they can consolidate, reducing competition and giving vendors unfair pricing leverage.

Concerns about open source software, by contrast, center on legal issues and liability. How could software purchasers ensure a specific OSS application had been appropriately licensed? Could individuals or institutions be liable if the code infringed on someone else's work?

Those keeping an eye on such legal issues to see how they evolve will want to monitor work of the Software Freedom Law Center, which, according to their website, offers legal services "to protect and advance Free and Open Source Software."

Free Puppies

It might seem that tight budgets would be driving academicians into the arms of OSS. But the total cost for any software takes into account more than the price of download.

"Open source isn't free," Green observed. "The common wisdom these days and the analogy that a lot of us use is that open source isn't a free beer; it's a free puppy. You have other kinds of costs."

CIO concern about total cost of ownership is echoed in two studies done by Shahron Williams van Rooij, an assistant professor at George Mason University. (See Open Source Software in US Higher Education: Reality or Illusion? and Perceptions of Open Source Versus Commercial Software: Is Higher Education Still on the Fence?

In one of these studies, van Rooij evaluated responses from 772 individuals, who make enterprise-level decisions on software for higher learning institutions. She canvassed both the CIOs, who make build-or-buy decisions, and the CAOs (Chief Academic Officers, sometimes called Provosts), who are charged with making decisions for teaching, learning, and research. But while some of her respondents said they saved money using open source software, van Rooij didn't see any hard data.

"Cost-saving was not substantiated by reality," she observed. "The savvy ones say that's not why you go into open source—because it ends up costing you in terms of skill set or outside services. The ones who aren't savvy, all they see is that there's no license; all they see is a black box."

A common theme in many of these studies is the gulf between those in IT and the rest of the learning community. For the former, software that doesn't quite fit can be modified and those modifications are made available to the community at large. In that respect, open source software might offer both a potential learning experience and a convenient way to secure customizable applications tailored to need. But maintenance and modification of open source code may prove to be a complex for non-technical users who don't generally dissect and reassemble their software.

"Not a lot of folks on the faculty have that skill set, number one, and number two, even if they did, we don't get paid to do that; we get paid to teach, to do research and publish, and to do service to the institution," said van Rooij. "And unless building software modules helps with tenure and promotion, not a lot of faculty members outside of engineering or computer science are going to do that."

Where is this Leading?

For now many individuals involved in the process of acquiring open source software on an enterprise scale seem to be watching the landscape and keeping their finger on the pulse. Some of the chief virtues of OSS-customizability and adaptability-may not be needed in every academic setting. Larger and better-funded research institutions can be expected to take the initial steps. "UCLA announced this past academic year that it intends to be an all-Moodle campus by fall 2008," Green observed. "Now I'm speculating, I want to be clear, but as word gets out about the UCLA campus, it may be a catalyst for a number of campuses to review and reconsider their planning for course-management systems." His assumption is that UCLA will need to undertake development to migrate from whatever MLS they're currently using and will-as a member of the open source community-make those modifications available elsewhere, thus paving the way for other campuses to take similar action.

OSS continues to provide valuable learning opportunities for those able to work with its challenges. Sandeep Krishnamurthy, associate professor of e-commerce and marketing at the University of Washington and a frequent user of OSS, offers two observations that sum up the major pitfalls of going open source in the classroom: "Be prepared to deal with a) institutional resistance, and b) software that is not plug and play."


  • Tue, 10 Dec 2013
    Post by Olubunmi