Open to Open Source

Colleges amenable to noncommercial technologies but move cautiously in adopting them, study finds.
March 1, 2006

Open source software has found a permanent home on some college campuses. But according to a study released today by the Alliance for Higher Education Competitiveness, open source products, which enable programmers to modify code and customize programs, have yet to reach the masses of academe.

The survey, based on responses from more than 200 officials who are responsible for software selection at a range of higher education institutions, found that two-thirds of chief information officers said they have “considered or are actively considering" using open source products, while about a quarter of institutions are implementing higher education-specific open source software.

Kenneth Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project, which studies the role of technology in higher education, calls the mindset regarding open source "affirmative ambivalence." Chief information officers are confident the software will be a part of the future but are still taking a wait-and-see approach, Green said.

Rob Abel, founder of the Alliance for Higher Education Competitiveness and chief executive of IMS Global Learning Consortium, shared Green's view. "There's a lot of considering, but commitment isn't very high," he said.

Both spoke of open source software as if it is a promising prospect working its way through the minor leagues. "It’s not quite ready for prime time," each said.

In other words, there are no signs that a large shift from commercial, non-open source to open source software is occurring.

What kind of software is behind an institution’s Web portal or course management or student information systems may be primarily of interest to members of college information technology departments, though a philosophical bent among many tech-savvy faculty members favors the sort of “sharing” that open source is designed to encourage.

But interest remains high among technology officials and commercial vendors in gauging the extent of the reach of open source into academe, and the new survey, titled “Best Practices in Open Source in Higher Education Study -- The State of Open Source Software,” is designed to shed light on that. (Only an executive summary of the report is available on the alliance's Web site.)

Years ago, when Abel founded the alliance, open source software was on the periphery, he said. A combination of commercial open source initiatives and grant-funded initiatives specific to higher education has allowed for a greater investment in the products, and he and others said that the merger of Blackboard and WebCT, two leading commercial providers of course management software, has propelled interest in creating alternatives, given concerns about the potential effects of consolidation in the industry. The merger became official Tuesday.

According to the study, 57 percent of all institutions are using some form of open source infrastructure software (including operating systems and databases). Thirty-four percent of institutions have implemented open source application software (including course management systems and portals).

Still, about a one-third of the market has yet to give "serious consideration" to open source software, the study shows, although with few rejecting it outright. The majority of those institutions that have not considered the software had operating budgets under $100 million. The survey respondents included a roughly equal mix of public and private four-year institutions (35 percent each) and community colleges (28 percent).

"People are looking for alternatives,” Abel said. “Higher education officials are concerned about whether commercial providers can meet their 'unique needs.' "

Some of those needs include having programs such as course management that are easy to navigate and fix when problems occur. Abel said that while there is a perception that open source provides greater functionality, the survey shows that about a third of respondents said they were pleased with how the commercial products functioned.

Many respondents to the survey cited the ability to customize software and the lower total ownership costs as their reasons for switching to open source software. Green said that because some of the software is being developed on campuses, there is a notion that those products will pay closer attention to the needs of universities.

Sakai, a course management system originally developed using grant money from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is being used at a variety of institutions, including Denison University. Scott Siddall, assistant provost and director of institutional technology there, said the college is active in using open source software, including uPortal, a free portal being used by a range of higher education institutions.

Siddall said open source software gives the university “control and flexibility to implement how we want, when we want." He said some of the money Denison would have paid in licensing fees goes back into training faculty in software applications.

Added Kathy Christoph, director of academic technology in the division of information technology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison: "We have access to the code and when we discover problems, we can change them."

But Christoph also outlined the inherent problems with the non-commercial, open source software: "There isn't anyone to go to and say, do it for us." Costs shift away from acquiring the software and toward hiring more IT staff, she said.

Lack of vendor support is one of the largest hurdles limiting the adoption of open source in higher education, Abel said. "The biggest thing is it takes more physical labor to implement open source because it isn't pre-packaged," Abel said. "You have to have software developers that can make this stuff work."

“Most in the survey said they would prefer to work with open source through a commercial vendor,” Abel added.

Richard Katz, vice president of Educause, said the findings on open source adoption reflect the traditional IT cycle. "Any self-respecting  IT leader should exercise prudence when it comes to the use of new technology,” he said.

While some continue to frame the software discussion as open source vs. non-open source, Art Pasquinelli of Sun Microsystems, which helped sponsor the survey, said the real issue is how colleges are going to integrate the two in the future.

“Colleges are taking ownership of the software,” said Pasquinelli, who is director of market development with the education group at Sun. “It’s always going to be a mix and match.”

Both Pasquinelli and John Blakley, chief executive of Unicon, a business that supports and provides services for open-source products (and another of the survey's sponsors), said the survey shows that colleges will continue to seek out technologies that can combine open source and non-open source software.


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