Invest Locally

A community source leader's thoughts on how to break down the barriers to open source adoption.

Over the last several years I've begun to pay a lot more attention to what my family eats, and where it came from. Recently, I've become very interested in sustainable agriculture--both for my family's health, and to make a positive contribution to the health of the planet. I've found ways to buy more locally produced food through community supported agriculture (CSA) organizations and community buying clubs. I've come to the conclusion that food produced locally using sustainable agriculture practices tastes better, is healthier, and is better for the planet. But it's also harder from a consumer perspective. The dilemma we face is that if we choose massively industrialized food because it's easier and appears cheaper, the money we spend goes elsewhere and sustains that system. If we spend locally, our dollars are invested in the local community. As more people do this, and more money flows into the local community, the services and distribution channels will develop and make the better choice an easier one. This will lead to more people making the choice, more investment, better services, and … you get the idea.

The sustainable agriculture movement is a lot like the open source software movement in higher education today--simply replace "better food" with "better software." Okay, it's not quite that simple, but there are a lot of similarities. Communities like Sakai, Kuali, uPortal, Moodle, and others are taking advantage of a better way to build software through open source communities. Interest in these communities is growing rapidly, certainly outpacing the capacity of these communities to provide all services necessary for new community members to be successful with the software. Additionally, within these communities there are key underdeveloped or entirely missing services that exist in other software communities (vended software) that help users mitigate risks, particularly in production use, and ensure long-term sustainability of the products. The tipping point that makes the better choice an easier one will occur when more of us invest 'locally' in the educational open source communities. 'Close to home,' so to speak. Spending dollars on open source ensures that these communities have the resources necessary to be sustainable over the long term. More spending also attracts more investment in the form of grant funding, venture funding, and other types of investment made by organizations that can add value and fill in the under-developed and missing services. More dollars spent and more investment means lower risks and greater benefits to the entire user community, as the ecosystem grows more diverse and more sustainable.


You might be thinking,
"I know open source software isn't free, but my options for spending on it are not clear." Although not as straightforward as buying software licenses from a proprietary vendor, there are many ways to spend your dollars locally on open source software. For instance, you might join the Sakai Foundation and/or Kuali Foundation as more than 100 institutions around the world have. This contributes directly to our community's ability to develop great software. You could also pay salaries to employees who contribute their time and energy to these open source projects, thereby becoming project experts. You could spend money to implement and support these solutions on your own campus. You could spend dollars on subscription support agreements for these products from commercial support providers that will safeguard your production use of these systems. You could hire consultants to help customize your unique environment, pay hosting providers to run your systems for you, or pay to have your staff and users trained to use these systems. As you can see, there are a variety of ways to spend locally on open source. The point is that you need to spend money. When I talk to my friends about my family's choice to spend locally on sustainable food, many ask me why I do it. My answer is simple. If I don't, who will? My answer is the same with open source software in education. I choose to invest in it, and I'm suggesting that to reach the tipping point, you must too. Spending dollars, even in small ways, gets the ball rolling.

Let's consider for a moment how one institution is
"spending locally." San Joaquin Delta College (CA) is a school that exemplifies many of the ways in which colleges and universities can invest locally in open source communities. Delta College is one of the founders of the Kuali Financial System (KFS) project and the Kuali Student (KS) project. Delta is a paying member of the Etudes Alliance, a not-for-profit organization that hosts Sakai for many of California's 109 community colleges. Delta has also back-filled a number of positions to dedicate people who contribute time and expertise to Kuali while building local capacity at Delta. Delta College also engages commercial open source firms to assist with implementation, contributions to the projects, and to provide subscription support services. This diversified approach to spending their open source dollars is a way to ensure their own success, as well as the success of the communities.

Institutions differ greatly in ways that make one form or another of
"spending locally" more or less feasible. What can you do? Do you have the people and skills to contribute talent and/or implement the software at your institution? Are you able to invest in the Sakai and/or Kuali Foundations to invest in the development of the software, ensuring these organizations have the resources to produce software you'll want to implement at some point? Are you ready to implement one or more of these systems and need help from a hired expert? Have you already implemented and want to protect your investment by engaging a commercial support provider? You have a lot of options to invest locally in a community that will make your life better. You also have the option to do nothing. Or, in other words to passively support the industry that exists, which may appear easier and cheaper, until you find the hidden costs and switching barriers. Make a choice. Invest locally in open source software. If you don't, who will?

[Editor's note: Chris Coppola will present a session on open source governance in higher education at Campus Technology 2007 in Washington, DC, July 30-August 2.]

About the Author

Christopher D. Coppola is president of the rSmart Group, a provider of open source solutions for education. He is a board member of the Sakai and Kuali foundations.

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