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Tufts U Sciences Knowledgebase Goes Open Source

Tufts University is taking its enterprise content, course, learning, knowledge, and curriculum management system for health sciences, known as Tufts University Sciences Knowledgebase (TUSK), open source. Medical schools around the world now have the opportunity to install TUSK at their own institution, customize it to suit their own needs, and optionally contribute their customizations back to the TUSK source code.

TUSK's many features include the ability to create online virtual patients for learning purposes and store repositories of information and course content for reference and study purposes. It also enables mobile access, so students can study on their smart phones as they ride the subway or look up information while working through their rotations at hospitals and clinics. While the TUSK software will be open source, each school is responsible for developing its own content, although sharing is possible through the software's export and import functions.

Tufts has had the goal of taking TUSK open source for years.

"One of Tufts' primary missions as a university is what we call active citizenship, said Susan Albright, director of technology for learning in the Health Sciences at Tufts. "It's an ethic of civic and social responsibility, and it has manifested itself in lots of ways, including a global mission," said Albright. "Tufts has fit itself into the global health mission and to the mission of health sciences education by providing TUSK as open source software."

Although the vision of open source TUSK has been around for years, the decision to make it happen didn't take place until recently. "Last summer we made the commitment to stop doing what we're doing, which is constantly building the application, and focus our attention on getting everything ready to go open source," said Albright.

The process of taking the program open source required many changes to the highly customized legacy code. "The code was written to serve our own needs," said Albright. "We had to make the system more generic so it would be easy for other institutions to install and customize." They also had to update it to work with the latest versions of the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, Perl) framework components, clean up the database schema, jettison unused tables and code, close any security loopholes, and make many other changes.

After all of that work, TUSK is finally available through the OpenTUSK site, which includes a link to GitHub where the TUSK code repository is stored. Health sciences institutions can download the TUSK source code from GitHub, install it, and customize it as needed. The only requirement is that they have the LAMP framework in place. TUSK is licensed under the Educational Community License, version 2.0.

For medical schools trying to decide whether TUSK is right for them, Albright identified several advantages of the system. "One of the things we have in the health sciences that isn't there for many other areas of education is published national competencies that govern education at the schools," said Albright. "TUSK will provide schools with the tools to actually publish their competencies and match them to their curriculum. That's very useful in the health sciences."

Albright points to the content repository as another benefit. "Health sciences is one body of knowledge that we have to artificially divide into courses," said Albright. "But our content repository allows you to put all that content back together again and search it as a body of knowledge."

Albright describes health sciences education as a hub and spoke, where the spokes are the multiple teaching sites and multiple hospitals and clinics where students do their rotations, and TUSK is the hub. "TUSK enables all of those sites to deliver competency-based education the same way," said Albright. "TUSK makes it possible to manage a large network of sites and still deliver the same competency-based education."

Now that the TUSK open source project has become a reality, the team is setting its sights on a new goal. The office of Technology for Learning in the Health Sciences at Tufts University plans to develop a software as a service (SaaS) version of TUSK and is looking for partners to help them with that endeavor. Many medical schools in the developing world are using TUSK, but they don't always have the technological expertise to implement it themselves. By providing TUSK as a service, medical schools would be able to set up their own TUSK system without needing to install and maintain it themselves.

About the Author

Leila Meyer is a technology writer based in British Columbia. She can be reached at leilameyer@gmail.com.

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