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.

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