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The Changing Cost of Open Source

At one time higher ed wanted community-built software because of the $0 price tag; now many universities are paying somebody else to keep open source projects moving forward.

The Changing Cost of Open Source

Last year, when the Kuali Foundation announced that it was going to add a "professional open source company" to the Kuali ecosystem, it was acknowledging a truism about the use of community-built software in higher education: Sometimes throwing money at a problem really is the best way to get things done.

As a document that outlines the arrangement explains, Kuali needed faster delivery of outcomes; completion of products; an improved user experience; and a way to distribute development costs across more institutions. Instead of waiting around for the community to address the gaps, this most distinguished of institutional open source initiatives spun out a C corp. KualiCo, as it was named, would generate revenue by hosting open source software for schools and through development projects. Its initial funding would come from the foundation. Although the Kuali functionality would continue to be open source, the infrastructure to allow cloud hosting would be privately owned.

Around the same time, Oracle revealed plans to work with several higher ed institutions, among them Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and the University of Texas System, to guide its development of a cloud-based student information system. Customer feedback is nothing new. What is new, however, is that Oracle also joined Internet2 in order to be able to offer its higher ed cloud services through that organization's NET+ service program. In other words, the company decided to tap into the community's wisdom for vetting its roadmap.

Both of these represent an infusion of proprietary interests into the community model to ensure that the work moves forward. And institutions are discovering that a certain level of corporate involvement just might help turn around the thinking of institutional leaders who aren't persuaded that open source is right for their campuses.

Making the Case for Community Development

George Washington University had already outgrown its commercial content management system by the time Mark Albert, director of university Web services, joined the Washington, DC, school in 2010. New Web sites would take a couple of weeks to roll out, and that just wasn't "agile" enough, said Albert. By the following year the search for a replacement was underway.

An initial assessment included only commercial products. Although Albert had worked with community projects previously at other institutions, this time around "the climate of open source was not well received on the administrative level," he said.

Feeling dissatisfied with the options, IT pulled some open source options into the mix and eventually brought what it considered the best from both categories — commercial and open source — to GW's senior leadership. "They sort of helped make a decision about which direction to go," he recalled. That turned out to be Drupal, an open source CMS.

Just how did a resistant administration come to be comfortable with open source? Albert pointed to two key motivators:

The university has since launched somewhere between 350 and 400 Web sites, all built on Drupal 7. Albert and his colleagues created what they call the "GW Drupal Cookie Factory," which he said allows for the quick deployment of a site — allowing users to add content within hours versus the previous system that took weeks. While the CMS is centrally managed to keep the system updated, it grants individual colleges, programs and departments the flexibility to put up their own images, update text as they want, add and move site objects (themes, content types and Drupal "modules") and "essentially have a custom look with a managed system," Albert explained.

The university uses a shared file structure so that everybody is operating from the same set of components even as their images and content are stored separately for each site. That approach, said Albert, "enables us to provision a site quickly. It also enables us to roll out new features to not only new sites but also existing sites."

Now the university is awaiting the arrival of Drupal 8, the next major release of the CMS, which is currently in beta testing. But Albert doesn't anticipate jumping on it immediately. "We'll wait until 8 is more stable, just so that somebody else has the opportunity to work out the bugs," he said.

A Hybrid Strategy

Come this June, a year will have passed since the introduction of Unizin, a university-driven effort focused on managing all aspects of digital teaching and learning. But don't call it "open source."

Unizin is not a community-sourced development project, according to CEO Amin Qazi: "We are not soliciting donated resource times from our members." Like Internet2, which is the organization under which Unizin is housed, a consortium of advisory committees will determine the project's evolution. But they won't be doing the coding themselves — that will be handled by an office set up in Austin, where employees will do the development work to integrate the various components that make up the offering.

The approach resembles that pragmatic makeover of open source undertaken by Kuali. Rather than committing hours of staff time to develop software, Unizin's founding member schools (including Indiana University and Colorado State) are committing dollars — $1.05 million each over the course of three years. If it sounds hefty, remember: That's still a pittance compared to the cost of equivalent digital content services on the commercial market.

Unizin is also partnering with commercial entities — "companies that support open standards and open access to content and to data," said Qazi. That doesn't necessarily equate to open source, he pointed out.
For example, Unizin has locked into the use of Instructure Canvas, a learning management system available to the consortium members under a discount arrangement. This arrangement isn't just technology-driven; the two entities appear to be kindred spirits. While Instructure is a commercial venture, it offers an open source version of its software under the Affero General Public License, which allows a customer to freely download, host and modify its code. Instructure retains copyright over Canvas and includes some functionality in its cloud-based hosted version that isn't in the open source edition.

Qazi described the Unizin philosophy of partnering this way: "When we talk to providers and we sign agreements, we look for opportunities to make sure our data is equally accessible; that if it is in one system — for example, Canvas — our content can be easily retrieved by our members. It's never locked into a propriety format that we can't read without that software. We're looking for vendors that do that; that type of openness isn't exclusive to open source."

He believes that open source is "evolving to a primary role for risk mitigation in this cloud era rather than just as a means of production and development," adding, "I don't think the two are in conflict."

More Open-Private Projects

  • Initially, Marist College's (NY) Open Academic Analytics Initiative was going to include an API that would capture user activity data and allow it be used by whatever early alert analytics-based tools were in place at a given institution. Eventually, that part of the grant-funded work was deemed "a tedious feat"; so the organizers turned to Pentaho (soon to be owned by Hitachi) for its data mining capabilities.
  • Student Success Plan is a case management application that delivers coaching and counseling to students as they show signs of risk. Sinclair Community College (OH), where it was launched, hired open source services provider Unicon to handle the integration between SSP and the school's uPortal portal software to give users seamless access to SSP data.
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