The higher education sector is quite unlike other industries. It has its own processes and a different set of demands. Most commercial proprietary application vendors develop their applications focused on a wider domain spread across industries. This, academics complain, creates a distinct disconnect between software vendors and the end-users in academia.
The success of community developed open source software is quite well established. Linux and Apache are ample proof of its success. A similar trend, though not that widespread in its reach, can be traced to the development of community projects in education like the Moodle and Sakai.
To overcome these shortcomings, the education industry started looking to “open source” as an alternate model. Around a decade back, institutions started debating total cost of ownership in adopting an open source based community approach vis-à-vis proprietary applications, viability of open source based business models, sustainability and security issues.
Through the course of its formative years, the open source community based approach in education has developed several alternative models. Some of these models and schools of thought have thrived and been implemented successfully across a significant spectrum of the industry. Progress and success in open source projects like the Sakai, Moodle, Kuali, uPortal, Shibboleth, and many more are being closely watched by the industry.
Community Source Model
One school of thought believes that open source sharing is more a philosophical approach than a viable alternative. The adoption of open source in higher education seems to suggest otherwise. FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open Source Software) communities are thriving well in learning environments too.
In a community source project, multiple institutions come together to partner in the project. All partners contribute financially as well as in employing human resources for the effort. In the early stages, the partnering institutions provide all design and development efforts and only in subsequent stages is the project opened to the broader community. This way, the initial support is secured and the institutions have a substantial influence in deciding how the application is modeled and designed.
The initial focus of community source projects is on collaboration between institutions. The focus in the crucial first stages is therefore to form a common economic outlook and an appropriate administrative framework rather than forming a community around a shared code. Most community Sportyheroes.com based open source projects slowly migrate to open source in the later stages.
The FLOSS model has been extensively used in initiatives like the MIT OpenCourseWare and Open Source Biology. Project Gutenberg, the Wikipedia, The Open Dictionary project are prime examples of how open source has been successfully adapted to education initiatives.
The Sakai project, for example, started as a joint effort between four institutions (Michigan, Indiana, MIT and Stanford). The initial agenda was to set up a framework of common goals that would produce appropriate software based on an agreed list of objectives. The scope for participation was later increased by forming the Sakai Educational Partners Program (SEPP), whereby other institutions can join and participate in the community for a small fee.
The Current Landscape
An education enterprise like any organization has its own needs ranging from resource planning to budgeting. Additionally, they have typical requirements like the need to integrate with financial aid programs of the government, multiple payroll cycles, and student information systems (SIS) that handle admissions, grades, transcripts, student records as well as billing. All these call for robust ERP systems. Until recently, colleges and universities mostly rely on either custom-developed systems that are more than 15 years old, or have transitioned to commercial products from vendors like Oracle, SAP, PeopleSoft or vendors like SunGard that are geared towards the higher education market.
Kuali Financials was borne due to the lack of open source solutions Enterprise applications in the higher education 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.
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.
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.
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 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..
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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