Special Report: Open Source Vision

Increasingly, colleges and universities are turning to open source as a way to meet their technology infrastructure and application needs. It’s time to weigh the benefits—and the challenges.

Christian Boniforti

'Open source gave us a flexible, single sign-on
portal solution at about one-half the cost of
purchasing the technology from a vendor.'
-Christian Boniforti, Lynn University

Open source has changed everything about student computing at Lynn University in Boca Raton, FL. Over the last few years, when students wanted to utilize mission-critical systems, they had to log in to separate systems to access basic functions such as e-mail, course registration, and financial aid. Students couldn’t toggle from one application to another; to switch, they had to log out of one and log in to the next. The progress was both tedious and time-consuming. By 2005, technology officials knew they had put up with the situation for far too long. The time had come to find a solution.

The hunt for that solution began that year. Fed up with inefficiencies in the way the disparate portal sites were linked, CIO Christian Boniforti set out to centralize all student-oriented systems within a unique portal, and establish a single sign-on feature that would enable students to log in once and have access to everything they needed. Boniforti investigated portal applications from a number of different vendors, including Blackboard and Jenzabar. In the end, however, he opted for uPortal, an open source application built and designed centrally by JA-SIG, a federation of higher education institutions interested in open source (see “Advocating Glasnost”), but maintained locally by Lynn’s IT department. “When we started looking at offthe- shelf applications, the cost raised red flags,” he says, noting that the small liberal arts school could not afford six-figure solutions to solve its portal w'es. “That’s when we discovered open source.”

Taking full advantage of the customizable nature of the open source uPortal application, technologists at Lynn took a couple of months and created the school’s new Intranet site MyLynn, combining all student functions within one easy-to-access portal. Looking back, Boniforti estimates that by utilizing an open source solution, the university probably saved up to one-half of what it would have spent on the technology had it been purchased from a vendor. What’s more, he notes that the system is so flexible, his teams have been able to add new functions and features every couple of weeks, always introducing something new.

Denison University (OH) is another institution that has embraced uPortal, and Scott Siddall, the assistant provost and director of instructional technology there, says the decision was easy, considering that the previous method of piecing together different solutions from different vendors was inefficient and time-consuming, not to mention expensive. “Lots of schools looked at us when we started with uPortal and said, ‘How are you doing that?’ But we demonstrated that you didn’t need to have deep skills in a tech area in order to use the application,” says Siddall. “We still are ducking the issue of having to have exotic Java programming skills to develop portlets for our portal. So far, so good.”

It’s no secret that in the open environment of academia, open source applications can have a dramatic impact, streamlining and unifying a network infrastructure. And while most open source technologies are not “perfected” (and which technologies are?), they can offer lower-cost alternatives to pricier vendor offerings, while improving the ability for technologists to control their networks. Importantly, they also can bolster security as systems become more unified (less disparate) and entry points are reduced. As open source technology becomes more and more prevalent and sophisticated, colleges and universities increasingly are turning to such solutions to meet their needs. Still, if you’re considering or evaluating such a move for your own institution, you’ll need plenty of background information to weigh the pros and cons.

The Apps

Currently, there exist two flavors of open source solutions prevalent in the world of higher ed: infrastructure software and software applications. The infrastructure solutions are developed in Linux, Unix, and Java; nitty-gritty programming codes that few individuals (outside of IT managers and programmers) ever see. Corporate- world examples of the use of these solutions are Apache web servers, Sendmail mail servers, and JBoss application servers. A recent study by the FL-based IMS Global Learning Consortium, a nonprofit organization of more than 50 contributing members and affiliates from every sector of the global eLearning community, indicates that as of spring of this year, 57 percent of the approximately 4,000 institutions of higher education are using open source within their IT infrastructures.

John Barry Walsh

'Upgrading is the most costly and disruptive
aspect of vended systems. It still costs to
implement and maintain Kuali, but in our
case, the costs are dramatically lower.'
-John Barry Walsh, Indiana University

Open source use within the IT infrastructure, however, is nothing new; newer uses of open source are cropping up on the application side, as well. Rob Abel, CEO of the IMS Global Learning Consortium and president of the Alliance for Higher Education Competitiveness, says that the most exciting iterations of open source in higher ed today are applications that institutions are using to replace software they once purchased from vendors. “There’s a real interest in this and real potential for this stuff to come in and help schools better manage the technology they’re using,” he says. “To call open source the wave of the future would be an understatement.”

Course management apps. Currently, there are two prominent types of open source applications being adopted in higher ed: The first is course management systems that are open source alternatives to products from vendors such as Blackboard, SunGard Higher Education, and Campus Management. One of the alternatives gaining worldwide attention is an application called Moodle. Then there is the Sakai collaboration and learning environment, which originated as a community source project among a handful of institutions, and has skyrocketed on the scene.

Of all the open source applications on the market today, Moodle is perhaps the most sophisticated. The application has a large and diverse user community with more than 100,000 registered users speaking more than 700 languages, spread across 150 countries. Here in the US, a big Moodle adopter is Humboldt State University (CA), where Michael Penney, learning management systems project manager, says the school has built a brand-new course management system around it. Another big user: the University of Portland (OR), where a Moodle application dubbed Learning@UP is enabling professors to teach in new and exciting ways, including holding additional discussion sections online.

“Moodle facilitates my ability to interact with students outside of class,” says Nick McRee, a professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Portland. “On Moodle, I can run chat rooms that supplement discussion sections and I’m able to target some discussions in a way that I wouldn’t be able to do in person.”

The idea behind Sakai is much more complicated. This project, launched in 2004, is a community source software development effort to design, build, and deploy a new Collaboration and Learning Environment (CLE) for higher education. To date, the Sakai Project has put out three major software releases (1.0, 1.5, and 2.0), and developed the Educational Partner’s Program to test the software as it is released. The software works with uPortal, and schools including Denison, Arizona State University, the University of Missouri, and Georgetown University (DC) currently are piloting some form of this technology, and all are planning to roll it out across their campuses by September.

Financial apps. Kuali, an open source take on software that handles financials, is earning its stripes in pilot mode at Indiana University, where John Barry Walsh, director of university information systems, has grown the program virtually from scratch. The program handles all aspects of financial management, including general ledger, general accounting, accounts receivable, capital asset management, purchasing, accounts payable, cash receipting, travel requisition, auxiliary accounting, web-based eCommerce, budget construction, and pre- and post-award administration. A critical element of the system is the XML-based OneStart Workflow for routing and approval of financial transactions.


'OPEN SOURCE,' as it’s bandied about today, refers to software that is created by an entire development community rather than a single vendor. The software typically is programmed by volunteers from many organizations, and the source code is free and available to anyone who wants to use it or modify it as they see fit.

This setup allows any member organization to add a feature, rather than hope that the vendor of a proprietary product will implement its suggestion in a subsequent release. It also allows enterprising developers the opportunity to build new tools or improve ones that already exist.

A distinct advantage of open source software is that as long as there are a few devoted contributors, the program will continue to be supported for many years. In the commercial world, useful software may be abandoned if it d'es not generate sufficient profit compared to other products.

Then too, an important element of the Kuali Project software is its modular architecture; Walsh says that institutions can implement only those functional elements that meet their needs. While Indiana’s implementation of Kuali is not fully developed, Walsh’s team has been implementing it in pieces to test functionality and operation speed. So far, Walsh says, he likes what he sees. He adds that when the first phase of the software comes out later this summer, Indiana will reevaluate to see if the program is worth keeping.

Other apps. Of course, open source is the foundation for other types of applications, too. The Open Source Portfolio Initiative focuses on student portfolios, while the Lion- Share project at Pennsylvania State University is an open source, legal, peer-to-peer file sharing initiative.

Benefits: Cost, Control, Security

Lower cost. The general perception of open source is that it costs less to operate than traditional closed-source products; many schools would agree. At Bryant College (RI), Art Gloster, VP of information services, recently conducted an in-house study and found that the total cost of ownership (TCO) for his open source solutions was roughly 20 percent lower than the TCO for his more traditional technologies. For Bryant, the big savings came in the form of maintenance. Other schools experience equally large savings in the area of licensing fees: Because open source is available for anyone to use, colleges and universities that embrace it no longer have to purchase per-user licenses each year.

Reduced licensing fee outlay means fewer dollars heading to vendors such as Microsoft, IBM, Blackboard, and Sun- Gard Higher Education. In addition to saving money here, colleges and universities embracing open source software also can save the money they would pay for expensive upgrades to software packages purchased from traditional vendors. Indiana’s Walsh calls this vicious payout cycle the “upgrade carousel,” and notes that with open source, his school has been able to save big bucks by avoiding it altogether. “Upgrading is the most costly and disruptive aspect of vended systems,” he says. “It still costs to implement and maintain Kuali, but in our case, the costs are dramatically lower.”

Control. Money issues aside, there are other reasons why open source has so many fans. For one thing, many campus technologists and administrators see open source as a way to have better control over their own software application destiny. Furthermore, open source developers claim that a broad group of programmers produces a more useful and more bugfree product; through an informal peer-review process, a greater number of individuals (directly connected to the application users) are constantly reviewing the code. This process is an important safeguard against poorly written code, and a virtual guarantee that all bugs or glitches will be ironed out quickly.

John Bucher

'Open source has been hyped to the point
that some people are moving in that direction
without respect for the factors that might make
an institution stay with commercial software.'
John Bucher, Oberlin College

Security. Another benefit of peer review is more secure software. Because open source applications are refined by hundreds of programmers every month, the likelihood of a security vulnerability going undetected is slim to none. Abel at IMS says that on the infrastructure side, one of the big drivers for Linuxbased solutions from vendors such as Novell and Sun Microsystems is that they are viewed as more secure than some of the commercial alternatives. Abel says this perception has carried over to the open source application realm, too.

“It seems counterintuitive: You’d think that if something is open source, it must be easier to exploit,” he says. “That’s not the case, though. Open source solutions have proven to be some of the safest out there today, and this has become a huge selling point that has convinced higher education to embrace them.”

Challenges: Cost, Skills, Sustainability, Interfaces

Cost perception, skills. Open source may boast myriad benefits, but that d'esn’t mean there is no downside. Perhaps the biggest challenge to open source apps in higher education is the misconception that the technology is free. Yes, the price is zero. Yes, licensing fees are zero. But the cost of the project is far from zero. In some cases, it takes special skills to be able to get into open source code and tinker around, and these skills are quite different from those that most programmers possess when they move into a basic programming job. Most schools embracing open source find that they must spend money to hire specialists to build and maintain open source offerings, or at least pay to send current programmers to special training programs.

Last year, John Norman, director of the University of Cambridge Centre for Applied Research in Educational Technologies (UK), conducted an informal study of US institutions to determine how many full-time programmers were required in a standard higher ed IT department to complete day-to-day programming tasks. He found that each school needs at least two technical support people for every 20,000 users. According to the IMS study, however, out of approximately 4,000 leading institutions in the US, only the top 300 have the human resources necessary to implement software; the other 3,700 need help.

“Open source is less expensive than closed source, but it’s not nearly as inexpensive as people think it can be,” says Siddall, the technologist at Denison. “The bottom line is: No matter how you look at it, open source has a cost.”

‘New model’ anxiety; sustainability. Another potential problem for open source is that it is a new model. While some schools have embraced the technology enthusiastically, others have been apprehensive. The laggards express some fear and anxiety about where open source fits into their IT environments: Because the technology is still fairly new, skeptics quite legitimately wonder if open source is a sustainable model for the long haul.

John Bucher, CTO at Oberlin College (OH), is one of the skeptics. While Bucher has embraced open source on the infrastructure level, he says there’s too much at stake for his school to rely on unproven open source applications that could falter at any moment. The school has been using a learning management system from Blackboard since 2000, and just re-upped its long-standing contract. In describing his reliance on Blackboard, Bucher swears by the cliché, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” He explains, “Since we have a six-year history with Blackboard, I put some value on the lack of a need to migrate to a different product,” he says. “I’m not a critic of open source, but it seems to me that it’s been hyped to the point that some people are moving in that direction perhaps without total respect for the factors that might make an institution stay with commercial software.”

Advocating Glasnost

FOR COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIESinterested in learning more about open source, fear not: There is an organization to help. It is JA-SIG, an international consortium of higher education institutions focused on promoting and sponsoring open source projects that serve colleges and universities. Its four-fold mission:

  1. To provide education and research in the applied use of open technology architectures and systems in higher education.
  2. To develop a global academic community of interest among practitioners and institutions, and to inform that community of international activities, projects, and opportunities in the field of open technology architectures and systems in higher education.
  3. To educate by coaching, collaborating, and sharing good practices, and disseminating the results of innovative approaches in this field.
  4. To create, through its various activities — including conferences, projects, and outreach— an atmosphere of trust, goodwill, and mutual respect among all participants.

On top of these activist goals, the group also is credited with launching the uPortal initiative earlier this decade; it also now oversees open source applications, including HyperContent and the Central Authentication Service, or CAS. The organization’s annual summer conference was held June 4-6 in Vancouver.

Poor interfaces. Finally, some academic technologists assail open source for shoddy interfaces—a flaw that could scare off technology coordinators at smaller schools who are familiar with the comfy click-and-go functionality of Microsoft Windows and Apple applications. Bucher, in particular, insists that the applications are not even close to equal, and that until open source interfaces are as easy to navigate as the interfaces on market software, he d'esn’t see the technology achieving mainstream adoption in higher education at all.

The Future

New strides. Improvements to shortcomings in the area of open source application interfaces already are underway. Drupal, a new and improved spin on the UPortal content management platform, is revolutionizing the way schools aggregate and access content, offering a more intuitive graphical user interface than any of the open source applications before it. OpenOffice, an open source project through which Sun Microsystems is releasing and coordinating the technology for the popular StarOffice suite, has made great strides in improving its interface in recent months. Even Chandler, the Open Source Applications Foundation’s new application for managing personal information, has emphasized the graphical user interface (GUI) as a priority.

Another open source technology that appears to be gaining traction in the higher ed space is the wiki. Made famous by Wikipedia, a wiki is a website that, with simple formatting rules, can be quickly edited by its visitors. The technology was developed by computer programmer Ward Cunningham in the mid-1990s to provide collaborative discussions, and today there are several tools on the market for creating such sites, including TWiki and FlexWiki. Among colleges and universities, wikis are just now being used to facilitate discussions and communities online.

“We’re always trying new things with open source,” says Michael Johnson, systems administrator for the web group at Wagner College (NY), which has vowed to incorporate wikis on campus sometime soon. “There’s so much out there, the biggest challenge is keeping up.”

Interoperability. Of course, in the real world, none of these open source developments will mean much unless technologists figure out a way to get them to work with traditional, closed-source apps. The name of this game is interoperability, and it’s a top priority for open source programmers and adopters alike. At Lynn University (where uPortal is utilized to deliver MyLynn), technologists had to write up a number of “translation” programs to ensure that their application would interact with Blackboard, the learning management system still in place. Other schools have had to resort to similar measures.

The challenge Lynn met is one that all schools embracing open source will tackle sooner or later. Jonathan Markow, board chair of JA-SIG, says open source will make the much-needed open standards a reality and force schools to become more plug-and-play with applications of all kinds. Markow predicts that higher education institutions will devise new strategies to make sure old systems work with new open source applications and that the functionality available to students d'esn’t suffer at all.

“Open source and open standards can go hand-in-hand,” he says. “With open source, you won’t be tied to one vendor’s proprietary technology anymore. The whole world will be wide open.”

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