A Milestone in the Higher Ed Software Market?

By Scott Siddall, Denison University (OH)

We are at an important milestone for technology in higher education. I urge you to take stock of your campus’ position on the cost of licensing software and ask if we all couldn’t do better for our students – more choices, better outcomes, and lower cost.

In the past month, several major software vendors have taken steps to increase their “footprint” on our campuses. Wrapped in positive verbiage, these strategies seek to capture more of our budgets in exchange for the perception of comfort and safety of commercial software from large firms. For instance, on July 26, Blackboard announced their patent on many of the methods used in course management systems that we recognize today as crucial tools for online services. At the same time, Blackboard filed suit against Desire2Learn, a progressive competitor, asking for an injunction only a month or two before classes resume. Good business strategies? Yes, certainly, but many of us hoped for a more defensive patent strategy that recognizes the high value higher education puts on collegiality and collaboration.

Scott Siddall

Scott Siddall, Denison University (OH)

At the same time, Oracle has announced new alliances to develop tools and systems that improve campus information services, based (of course) on the Oracle database. This serves to maintain their position, if not capture more of the market.

Many commercial applications are innovative and effective, and even cost effective. We wouldn’t be where we are today as institutions or even as individuals without corporate investment in technology, and for that that we must be grateful.

So what has changed? What brings us to this milestone in higher ed technology?

  1. Large and important software firms appear to want a greater slice of the higher education market.
  2. Many in higher education have realized that it is a core competency for us to design and implement innovative software, and share it freely.

I’m not sure which of these two is cause and which is effect, and frankly, it may not matter as long as we keep firmly fixed in our sights the learning outcomes and value that we can bring to our students through technology.

Many of our institutional technology leaders have begun to openly express their concern about software monopolies and dependence on proprietary solutions that span our campuses and lock us into costly and inflexible solutions. The blogosphere ech'es with commentary about the topic, and formal studies reveal even more.

According to a recent report by the Alliance for Higher Education Competitiveness, 57 percent of responding campuses have implemented open source software (non-proprietary, freely licensed, and modifiable) to support the campus infrastructure. Thirty-five percent are considering replacing their commercial course management systems with open source alternatives. Fifty-six percent of the CIOs polled see a cost advantage in open source software.

Should we allocate more of our revenue to new marketing strategies that reduce our choices? Should we not do as we in academia have always done and critically review these new trends with an open mind?

Many in the higher education community have been hard at work creating alternatives to proprietary software that is more capable, more flexible, more adoptable ­­– and with no licensing fees, far less expensive. This includes projects such as Sakai (collaboration and learning environment), uPortal (campus integration), OSP (e-portfolios), and Kuali (financial and administrative systems).

Let me illustrate by example. The Appalachian College Association deserves our attention for their “Learning Asset Management Program” or LAMP. Fourteen of the 35 member institutions are meeting the curricular needs of their students with technologies developed by higher education, for higher education, in place of commercial software. I want to draw your attention to this courageous leap of faith into the community of open source software because these schools are meeting needs, saving money, gaining control over a mission-critical activity, and discovering a broad range of benefits from collaboration across a consortium.

LAMP participants are providing their faculty and students with the same popular tools found in commercial course management systems. At the same time, these schools are saving substantial sums by avoiding the costs of licensing fees for commercial software. The LAMP schools are sharing a single instance of Sakai, an approach that is not often allowed with commercial software. While this is an efficient approach, the sharing of a course management system has led to a wide range of critical successes such as shared courses, inter-campus forums, and several disciplinary content repositories.

These institutions, like most small colleges, do not have the resources to develop software. The ACA colleges are consumers of “community source software” – programs developed by universities and made available freely under a license that encourages use, feedback, and improvements. Sakai is supported for the ACA by a commercial firm that specializes in supporting Sakai, allowing LAMP coordinators (one on each campus) to focus on the pedagogical applications, training faculty, encouraging use of Sakai, and providing feedback. Annual cost savings over commercial software has been estimated at $160,000.

What’s the bottom line? We all must examine critically and thoroughly the software licensing opportunities before us. We must do this with an open mind, understanding our personal and institutional biases and traditions as well as our capabilities and needs. We must maintain our focus on our constituencies, who expect us to manage resources effectively. But we’re not alone in this. We are fortunate to be members of the enlightened and powerful community of higher education where we can turn to our colleagues for discussion and advice. And in some cases, even software.

Scott Siddall is assistant provost and director of instructional technology at Denison University.

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