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In Gear for Open Source?

Higher education hasn’t yet made a big shift toward open source applications.


Open source infrastructure software, such as operating
systems, authentication systems, and web servers—software
likely to be used directly by the IT department—shows 57
percent adoption in the higher ed institutions represented in
A-HEC’s study, versus the 34 percent adoption of open
source software applications for more general use, such as
course management systems, portals, and a range of desktop
Source: A-HEC Higher Education Open Source Study 2006.

IN CLASSIC MODELS of open source adoption— such as Linux and Apache —a grassroots, lower-end market rallied around a variety of well-known and widely shared causes among software developers: innovation, customization, cost control, and security. None of these values are foreign to higher education. Still, though IT leaders in higher ed have expressed a lot of interest, it looks like open source adoption in higher education application areas may still be in somewhat of a low gear.

The first study in a series from the Alliance for Higher Education Competitiveness and IMS, Best Practices in Open Source in Higher Education Study: The State of Open Source Software (2006), by IMS CEO Rob Abel, attempts to characterize attitudes toward open source in higher ed and provide insight into adoption by surveying approximately 200 CIOs (or IT leaders in similar positions) across all Carnegie classes. A brief look at data selected from the more than 40 charts in this detailed study may offer a little perspective on the cautious adoption of open source applications within higher ed.

Infrastructure vs. Applications

A-HEC’s study reported that open source infrastructure software (implemented and used mostly by the IT department) was adopted at some level in more than half of the responding institutions. In contrast, open source application software (used more generally throughout the institution) was adopted at only about one-third of the institutions surveyed, and only about 25 percent of institutions implemented any of the short list of leading open source applications identified by the A-HEC researchers.


A-HEC’s study participants were asked to identify the
general categories of application software being considered
for replacement with open source software at their institutions.
Notably, course management systems reflected the highest
Source: A-HEC Higher Education Open Source Study 2006.

How much of the gap between open source infrastructure software and application software adoption should be attributed to the longer-standing acceptance of open source in the broader IT marketplace? How much reflects either lagging support of application users or a still immature market? Whatever the answers may be, it’s clear that adoption of open source applications in higher education has not yet reached its stride.

Replace or Rely?

In terms of the application software market in higher education, it’s tempting to ask: In which software categories might we see existing software actually replaced by open source? Which proprietary vendors would be replaced? A-HEC study participants responded to both questions in terms of what was being considered at their own institutions. But while the numbers are useful for spotting trends, researchers caution against direct comparisons, especially in the context of the data on vendors: The higher percentages for “replacement” may, at least in part, be a reflection of a larger market share.

The higher ed market remains heavily reliant on proprietary vendor solutions for software applications, especially course management systems. Recent attention given to Blackboard’s patent action against a smaller competitor illustrates the intensity of this vendor presence within the higher education market for software applications. Love-hate relationships between higher ed clients and these vendors elicit a gamut of responses, from “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” to joining consortia and foundations to develop open source applications that would dethrone the vendor-monarchs.


An estimated 25 percent of US higher education institutions
have implemented one or more of the 10 leading open source
software applications identified by the A-HEC study. Seven of
the applications (shown in gray) were implemented by more than
1 percent of institutions. Source: Derived from the chart “Estimated
Market Adoption of Select Open Source Application Software,”
A-HEC Higher Education OpenSource Study 2006.

Ideally, the market would support both open source and proprietary or open source compatible vendor applications. Among the conclusions of the A-HEC study was a pointer to the need for “pervasive adoption of learning application standards that enable crossindustry return on investment.” But it’s not a simple picture. Also noted in the conclusions: “The question is, can the diverse cultures of commercial companies, open source developers, and higher education institutions work together effectively to create an environment where commercial and open source products are compatible?”

In contrast to the mainstream open source movement, we’re just out of the gate for open source adoption of higher ed applications. And the A-HEC study captures a point in time. It d'esn’t really portray the passion of the open source community in this market; the education “grassroots” counterparts of early Linux and Apache developers. While the study d'es offer some positive predictions about increasing adoption in the next three years, it can’t forecast the long-term effects community efforts may have. Are they moving into high gear? It’s conceivable that open source adoption of higher ed applications will pick up speed, and soon—to the point where research studies like A-HEC’s will have a hard time keeping up.

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