Open-source advocates: Academia, industry must play nice

Open-source software allows even students to contribute code.

Compromise between the Ivory Tower and industry, IT experts say, is the future of open-source technologies in higher education.

Mainstreaming open, collaborative technologies in colleges and universities will require a delicate balance of vendor involvement and experimentation among campus technology decision makers who are willing to stray from the technological old school.

Combining academic ideals with the prowess and resources of industry has become a reality already, as campus IT leaders move freely from one sector to the other—blending the best of academia and business to create software that is open for tinkering and supported with corporate capital.

Advancements in ‘project-driven work’

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 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 lets campus IT officials 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].”

Despite the emergence of international open technology communities such as Sakai and Kuali—which began with six universities in 2004—Thirsk said the heads of campus IT departments often avoid open-source options, sticking with closed systems that have dominated business and education for decades.

“Other CIOs see risk, or simply don’t understand how serious the developers and governing bodies that oversee communities are about quality,” he said. “While we don’t adopt all open projects, we do believe they will be the mainstay of software development of the future.”

Another open-source development that has drawn praise from educators: Echo360, maker of a popular lecture-capture system, announced Sept. 6 that professors using the company’s video and multimedia tools could make their class material available for any educator using the open-source learning management system Moodle.

Echo360 officials said the growing appeal of open technologies in higher education motivated the company’s developers to incorporate open web sharing into their college platform.

“Many institutions choose Moodle because of its flexibility for instructors. [Our] Moodle integration embraces this approach,” said Fred Singer, CEO of Echo360, which partnered with educational technology group NetSpot to develop the open-source resource for professors and students.

NetSpot, based in New Zealand, hosts eLearning platforms for 600,000 users worldwide, according to the organization’s website.

Another lecture-capture software that lets viewers watching professors’ online videos to zoom and pan around recorded images will make the software’s program code available as open source and encourage campus IT officials and students to contribute.

Developers of ClassX software, the lecture-capture program created by an engineer at Stanford University, hope to make text-to-speech options—among other features—available through advancements made in the open-source community.

From higher ed to business, and back

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.”

Because open technologies have inherent “licensing concepts, language, and idioms that confuse technologists and lawyers alike,” Hellekson said open-source advocates would have to champion the cause on college campuses to show just how efficient and cost-saving the technology can be.

“Too often, open technology is dismissed out of hand,” said Hellekson, co-chair of Open Source for America, a national group that lobbies federal government decision makers to use more free and open-source software. “To the extent that we can create a level playing field, I believe organizations will naturally increase their adoption of open technologies.”

Whereas campuses—especially small schools with limited resources—once had a few IT pros developing programs that could better track student enrollment and tuition deadlines, for instance, institutions that have joined expansive open-source communities have marveled at the speed of software development as technologists worldwide submit code to a project.

“I believe it has exponentially sped up the product development cycle,” said Thirsk from Marist College. He added that joining SunGard Higher Education’s shared repository has been a boon for computer science students looking for workplace experiences during their college careers.

“It has been a huge learning opportunity for everyone involved,” Thirsk said. “We have a number of students who write code for both our instructional and administrative … systems and, under staff supervision, submit them for consideration of the community.”

Open course material: The open-source stalwart

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), perhaps like no other American institution, has led the movement for openly available educational web resources.

That’s why professors and campus IT chiefs took note this year when Cecilia d’Oliveira, executive director of MIT’s OpenCouseWare initiative, said MIT would aim to boost the reach of its OCW project from 100 million students today to 1 billion in 2021.

MIT officials last month announced the goal to boost open content usage tenfold. April marked the 10th anniversary of the ambitious project to publish free material used in MIT classes on the internet.

“We want to get content to people wherever they are. There’s still a huge number of people who have never heard of OCW,” said d’Oliveira, who was recognized in 2010 by the Qatar Foundation’s World Innovation Summit for Education for her work in global educational innovation.

Campus IT officials and educational technology enthusiasts have convinced administrators that open courseware “is here to stay and that it’s a basic fundamental principle,” d’Oliveria said.

Funding for a new international partnership among open courseware advocates from across the globe was unveiled Sept. 3, when the OpenCourseWare Consortium, along with institutions including the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and Universidad Politécnica Madrid in Spain, received financial support from the European Union’s Lifelong Learning program.

Officials from the OCW Consortium, a group of more than 250 universities and associations, said the grant money would be used to share open courseware best practices and educational sources and materials that bolster open online courses.

Mary Lou Forward, executive director of the OCW Consortium, said linking the resources of organizations and universities that strive to make content freely available on the web could raise open courseware’s profile, even outside of higher-education circles.

“The European OCW network has the potential to raise the importance of OCW in higher education very quickly,” she said.

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