Open Source Software in Higher Education

The higher educationaldepartments sector are comprised of a mix of some proprietary application vendors and some key open source community initiatives. PeopleSoft, Oracle, SunGard and Datatel are some key vendors that offer tightly integrated ERP packages for the education sector.

Recent consolidation in the industry, like the acquisition of PeopleSoft by Oracle and of WebCT, Angel, etc by Blackboard, has caused considerable unease in the education fraternity. The concern stems from the fear that the trend of consolidation would lead to the monopoly of a few key vendors. The plans of these vendors to offer tightly integrated systems heightens the fear that this will provide an unfair leverage to these vendors as it would extend the community’s dependence on them.

One area of concern about proprietary applications is a seeming disconnect between the industry and software application developers. Institutions also have strong reservations about the currently available administrative software and course management systems. The feeling is that applications provided by vendors such as SAP and PeopleSoft are adapted from other industries and does not work well for educational enterprises. Moreover, the proprietary nature of the applications implies that the source code is not available and customization efforts involve substantial costs.

In the context of such a wide breadth of requirements, open source can prove to be a viable alternative. In fact, these constraints provided the impetus for open source initiatives in higher education. Some of the success has helped provide a strong foundation to building an alternative support model for the education industry.

In the Sakai project, the participating institutions decided to integrate and synchronize their educational software into a pre-integrated collection of open source tools termed Collaborative Learning Environment (CLE). Sakai has active implementations running at multiple institutes including the University of Michigan and Indiana University.

In parallel, Sakai also established a set of activity based communities that have spawned an active cooperation between the industry and application vendors. The Sakai Educational Partners Program allows educational institutions to participate in the program for a small fee. Besides, there are the Sakai Commercial Affiliates, who offer fee-based services for installation, integration and support..

Kuali, on the other hand, mainly addresses aspects of educational administration. The Kuali Financial System (KFS) is the most prominent application. It handles administrative and operational tasks like general accounting, purchasing, salary and benefits, budgeting, asset management and grants. The system is designed around modules that enable it to be tweaked to work with existing commercial applications. For example, at Indiana University, Kuali applications work together with PeopleSoft’s HR and student system. The Kuali Foundation is a non-profit consortium of multiple universities and some hardware and software companies. The Kuali Commercial Affiliate program operates on similar lines like its Sakai counterpart. The community has been growing and now includes the University of California, Cornell, Michigan State University, San Joaquin Delta College (Calif.), and The University of Arizona.

Significantly, according to the 2008 Campus Computing Survey, around 13.8 percent of the survey participants have already identified an Open Source LMS – either Moodle or Sakai – as the campus standard LMS.

Besides these, several other projects offer SIS functionality. For example, openSIS manages student demographics, scheduling, attendance, grades, transcripts, and health records, and its parent company makes add-on modules to support additional features like disciplinary tracking, billing, food service, and bulk email/SMS messaging for emergency contact.

Other Key intiaitives are

JaSig community developing uPortal, and CAS (Central Authentication Services) two components serving as input to Kuali Rice.

Internet2 – A consortium led by universities working in partnership with industry and government to develop and deploy advanced network applications and technologies including products such as Shibboleth and Grouper

Open Source Curricula

As with any “open source” activity, open source curricula by its very definition is one that can be freely used, distributed and modified. A model like this would seemingly be antithetic to the concept of higher education as it strikes at the credibility of the education environment. Campus education is designed to operate as a structured learning methodology. The concept of community collaboration involving academics and students on the same platform brings a lot of unpredictability into the scenario

However, FLOSS communities (Free/Libre and Open Source Software) in education have proved to be quite successful. A key principle of this learning approach is its root in adapting it to the context of ones’ experience. With its stress on learners and their preferences, this learning approach focuses more on learning by collaboration, communication and sharing.

Significant initiatives include the Connexions Project at Rice University, the OpenCourseWare project at MIT and the social learning medium of Wikipedia.

The FLOSS approach in higher education has been operating in combination with traditional teacher centered approaches. The objectives of the FLOSS approach are not to replace traditional methods but to achieve synergies in combination and offer the learner an enhanced learning environment.

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