Open source: The new normal in higher education?

About half of colleges now use some form of Blackboard LMS.

M.L. Bettino is a sort of open-source technology hipster. He was into open source way before it was mainstream.

Higher education’s slow but steady shift toward open-source learning management system (LMS) software, administrative systems, and campus content repositories hasn’t come as a surprise to Bettino, former dean of academic affairs at Cerritos College, a community college in Los Angeles County.

The online community of open-source specialists and programmers would grow, Bettino knew. And when there was enough support out there, somewhere on the internet, campus IT decision makers would take the plunge.

Nine years after Bettino ushered in open-source features at Cerritos, the country’s most prestigious universities are adopting some forms of the technology—in some cases, saving several million dollars along the way. Today, thanks to open-source adoption in higher education, students can download mobile videos into a shared online resource center and schools can offer free textbooks to students who wouldn’t otherwise buy them, while creating an industry of open source-friendly companies that offer a helping hand when needed.

“They didn’t cater to education in terms of when they’d do upgrades,” Bettino said of the makers of proprietary LMS software once dominant in higher education. “We wanted to be able to look under the hood to modify, to be more in tune with our culture here. There weren’t that many schools doing it at the time, but there was a community out there willing to help. In the end, it’s been a much healthier way to go.”

A tangible example of how open source has made a lasting impact on Cerritos students: College faculty have created freely available open textbooks that students can access weeks before a semester starts.

“It’s really important to get books to students immediately, because at community colleges, a lot of students are waiting for their paycheck before they get books,” said Bettino, an open-source consultant for colleges across the country. “We’ve seen students go the first two weeks without a required book, and at that point it’s too late. They’re lost.”

Cerritos staffers worked with rSmart, a company that helps schools manage Sakai, an open-source LMS, and Kuali, an open-source financial and administrative system, through cloud computing.

More campus-based open-source success stories include Colorado State University’s savings of about $5 million in switching to an open-source financial management system instead of going the traditional route with an Oracle-based system. The University of Connecticut made a similar change and reportedly saved millions by committing to an open-source option.

Chris Coppola, president and CEO of rSmart, said besides the customization potential in open-source systems, cost savings has been a key draw as colleges have watched budgets dwindle since the economic downturn of 2008.

“Open-source [software] isn’t subject to being sold to another company and being discontinued forever,” Coppola said. “And I think there’s an affinity toward community development in colleges and universities. … [Sakai and Kuali] were developed by and for education, and I think people are really recognizing that.”

The impact of open-source LMS options was seen in the latest Campus Computing Project survey, a nationwide survey of campus technology trends.

About half of colleges now use some form of Blackboard LMS, down 7 percent from 2010 and more than 20 percent from 2006. Twenty-six percent of campuses said they used Sakai or Moodle, another open-source LMS option.

Letting students create a campus YouTube

Seven of eight Ivy League universities are using an open-source online video platform created and maintained by Kaltura, an open-source company that works with schools and businesses.

Kaltura’s Cross Campus Media Suite video platform, released in July, offers a web-based repository where students can upload lecture videos and other educational content that can be searched by their professors and peers.

Michal Tsur, co-founder of Kaltura, said large universities have gravitated to open source in part because their IT resources can support and maintain the various open systems.

“Universities have a great abundance of technological resources, so they can support and maintain the systems on their own,” she said. “They’re also interested in enhancing the software, and that’s something that’s impossible with closed systems. … Schools don’t want to be locked into a particular vendor. The openness is really great.”

Students at Stanford, Harvard, New York University, the University of Virginia, Houston Community College, and the University of Southern California are among those who use the open-source online repository.

Jama Coartney, head of the digital media lab at the University of Virginia, said the video solution—described by Tsur as a “campus-wide YouTube”—had stored more than 8,500 educational audio and video clips over the past year.

“Kaltura’s video solutions for [colleges] have spread like wildfire, helping today’s educators provide students, faculty, and their own system administrators with the tools they need to drive learning results in today’s digital age,” said Ron Yekutiel, Kaltura’s chairman and CEO.

Industrial embrace of open source

Combining academic ideals with the prowess and resources of industry has become a reality, as campus IT leaders are blending the best of academia and business to create software that is open for tinkering and supported with corporate capital.

Advocates of the academic-industrial approach to open technologies have touted SunGard Higher Education’s unveiling of a shared code repository for colleges nationwide, removing redundant expenditures for campuses hoping to develop their own attendance-tracking software, for example, with no outside help.

SunGard’s shared repository—made secure from unauthorized users—supports multiple code variants, features requests, and assignment tracking, and it allows campus IT officials to contribute to programs, applications, and platforms that colleagues from other institutions launched in the repository.

Bill Thirsk, vice president of IT and chief information officer of Marist College in New York, said SunGard’s campus-based collaboration, since being introduced last spring, has created a larger team of college contributors than he’s ever seen.

“Already, there are more institutions involved in this repository than I have ever experienced in my 25 years of involvement on local and project-driven work,” Thirsk said. “I think open technologies are more tilted to higher ed, but I am still a little surprised at some CIOs’ skeptical view of [them].”

Open technology experts said it’s no mistake that collaboration between colleges and IT vendors has seen an uptick in recent years.

“As open technologies grow more popular in the commercial world—in part, because students and professors brought their experiences from academia with them to industry—that further reinforces the natural bias,” said Gunnar Hellekson, chief technology strategist for Red Hat, a leading open-source solutions provider. “Open technologies allow academia and industry to more easily collaborate in an ad-hoc way.”

Campus technologists were bowled over by the news last March that Blackboard was buying Moodlerooms, which hosts and supports a version of the open-source Moodle LMS, a longtime favorite of open-source evangelists. Blackboard also purchased an Australia-based supporter of Moodle called NetSpot and announced the creation of an Open Source Services Group that will include Charles Severance, a leading advocate for the open-source movement in higher education and a founding member of the Sakai Foundation, an organization that pushes for open-source educational software adoption.

Seven months later, open-source advocates remain skeptical of Blackboard’s commitment to true open-source teaching and learning tools.

Bettino, when asked about Blackboard’s headfirst dive into open-source technologies, didn’t mince words.

“They’re the devil,” he said with a laugh. “They’re going to do anything they can to wiggle into the middle of these things.”

Getting into the open-source game, Coppola said, made good business sense for the LMS behemoth. What Blackboard would do for open technologies still is unclear.

“Shifting their model toward open source seemed like a logical move,” he said. “But open source is much more than a statement of support. Open source should be a part of your DNA.”

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