Higher Education is Embracing the Open Source Movement


In a recent interview, Malcolm Brown, director of the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, was asked what higher education should do to support technological transformation. He had a three-word answer: “adopt open standards.” According to Mr. Brown, higher education should focus first on what a next-generation digital learning environment must be able to do. Then determine what kind of technology is required to make that happen.

Mr. Brown suggests a “Legos approach” in which you build infrastructure to do what you need it to do without having to customize the design or write code to make various parts work together. If all technology components adhere to open standards, they simply lock in place.

Open standards are standards that are available to all and not controlled by or limited to a single company or vendor. Instead, any vendor can create products that adheres to an open standard. Open standards are also used to create open source software with source code that is available to anyone as long as licensing terms are followed. This allows organizations and individuals to collaborate, share best practices, improve upon existing solutions, and develop new, innovative solutions.

The open source movement is seeing a lot of traction in higher education, and not just in IT. There are open initiatives and projects involving learning management systems, degree programs, assessments, textbooks, content, research and more. These initiatives lead to the creation of open communities that can facilitate transformation, better support educational goals and optimize operations.

Specific examples of open source projects in higher education include:

  • Standardized identity protocols that allow users to use the same profile and credentials across multiple systems.
  • Authentication protocols that allow secure access to online resources and exchange of data using open tools and services.
  • Standardized data analytics processing and formatting to enable consistent measurement and evaluation of student data across multiple systems.

Why is open source picking up steam in higher education? In many cases, proprietary software fails to meet institutional requirements, while open source better fits current needs while providing significant cost savings. Open source also allows users to think beyond what is currently available and contribute to project enhancements that will support future initiatives.

The open source concept also supports the core educational value of making information accessible to all so collaborative solutions can be developed. In fact, the origins of the open source movement can be traced back to MIT in the late 1970s. A group of programmers worked together in a shared system to improve a printer driver when the vendor refused to share the source code.

Successful development and implementation of open source initiatives does not happen overnight and requires a strategy. This begins with strong leadership and expertise in IT to define goals and requirements, and a financial commitment to ensure the strategy is properly executed. Buy-in and training of students, faculty and staff are critical to building support and ensuring a seamless transition to an open source model. Institutions may have to shift from traditional, top-down management to a more open approach that supports distributed resources and decision-making.

Open standards and open source software are key to technological transformation in higher education. Colleges and universities should be exploring how the open source model can drive improvements in all areas of learning and operations.