The Expanding Use of Free and Open Source Systems in Higher Education

Higher education institutions are beginning to realize the benefits of using open source learning management platforms.  In 2013, 50 percent of higher education institutions were run on open source systems like Moodle and CourseSites by Blackboard, according to The Guardian.  This can mainly be attributed to the cost effectiveness of open source compared to proprietary software schools must pay to use.

To back up, open source generally means that program developers give access to their source code, and allow for modification and free redistribution of their program (for a more detailed list of open source qualifications click here:

Open Source in Academia

Now we’ve taken open source from its use in academia with learning management systems to teaching how to create free and open source systems (FOSS).  In 2007, The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York created a center for open source development for students called Rensselaer’s Center for Open Source Software, or RCOS.

More recently, the Rochester Institute of Technology is now offering the first minor in free and open source software and free culture for fall 2014.  According to the school’s website, the program is “for students who want to develop a deep understanding of the processes, practices, technologies, and financial, legal and societal impacts of the FOSS and free culture movements.”

RIT’s new minor came out of its involvement with the program, One Laptop per Child (OLPC), which provides laptops with free and open source software to children in developing countries.  Stephen Jacobs, an associate professor at the MAGIC (Media, Arts, Graphics, Interaction, Creativity) department ushered in the open source program with his involvement in OLPC.  Jacobs bought some OLPC laptops because he wanted his students to start making educational gains from the program.

Students design educational games for students in developing countries through the open source laptop program.  They became so taken with the open source program that they requested to begin a co-op and soon they started asking for more courses in open source.

Red Hat, began to provide some support for the FOSS at MAGIC program so that they could hire a full time staffer to work with students and also send students to FOSS conferences.  “The student interest had grown so big that it wasn’t something that I could stay on top of,” said Jacobs. Red Hat, as described on their website, is “the world’s leading provider of open source solutions.”

Benefits of Open Source

Tom Callaway, in charge of university outreach at Red Hat, said the new FOSS minor at RIT is a significant milestone. “FOSS and open source play such important roles in technology today. Open source is driving many of the biggest innovations in technology today, from social and mobile to big data and cloud,” said Callaway.  ” The new program at RIT is an important step to help ensure that today’s students have exposure to open source, and that talent meets demand for skills in this area.”

Callaway said it benefits both the industry and students when FOSS is taught in school. “By familiarizing students in open source software and concepts, we are able to better prepare them for a fast moving world.  A graduate who is already familiar with the tools and environment that are commonplace in a server room is going to have a better experience, be more in demand, and earn more money,” Callaway said.  “This also benefits FOSS in general, because when they are assigned to work on projects, they’re more likely to release that work back out under a FOSS license.”

Jacobs said the students were interested in open-source because it was something that was going to help other people, and because they get feedback from people all around the world.  “As a professor once you see something like that happen, you have to find a way to keep it going,” Jacobs said.

As for seeing open source being used more widely in the US and higher ed, Jacobs says many institutions are nervous about using open source because they would like to have the security to know that there is a corporate entity with whom they have some kind of service contract that they can call when things go wrong.  “They don’t have faith that an ad hoc community will be able to support them in a crisis,” Jacobs said.

Yet, Jacobs sees the many benefits of open source.  He says that the security is actually better in an open source system because the user is aware right away when there is a security concern, whereas when using a licensed product, the program will only display a notification once the security issue is fixed.  Users are unaware for how long their system was vulnerable.

Another benefit Jacob’s notes is the adaptability of open source. “If you have specific needs, or want to have it work a specific way to support your production stream better, you basically have to wait years and hope that some day the larger corporate entity will make those changes,” Jacobs said. “With open source you can make it work exactly the way you want it to work.”

Shahron G. Williams van Rooij, an associate professor at George Mason University who has done research in open source software for teaching and learning, said it’s not all about teaching the skills of open source, but about the philosophy.

“The skillset that is required for open source is a similar skillset that is required for any complex enterprise system,” Williams van Rooij said.  “I don’t think it’s an issue of finding someone on the technical side.  Where the dedication comes is the philosophy of free exchange of code.  You have to believe in that above the means of your wallet.”

Resources to Support Open Source Systems

According to Williams van Rooij, the talent issue is one of the biggest obstacles open source faces in higher education today.  She said it is difficult for schools that do not have the resources to implement and maintain open source programs.  While the code is free, if the school does not have programmers on staff they will have to pay for maintenance services.

Programmers coming out of school will head to where the money is at private institutions.  Large public schools have the hardest time maintaining and implementing open source programs because they are competing for talent against private companies, and they have to be very careful with how they deploy resources.

There is also a security concern for schools that use open source programs.  If a school doesn’t have the resources to fully protect itself it may be wary of using open source.  “When you exchange code with others you don’t always know what happened in transmission from one site to another,” Williams van Rooij said.  “So you can get things like Trojan horses or other types of corruption which can be devastating when you’re talking about financial records or even course content.”

Open Source vs. Open Access

Open source is sometimes confused for open access, although the two did influence each other.  Students in the FOSS minor at RIT must take a course in open access.

“Open access got a lot of stimulus from the open source movement,” Williams van Rooij said.  While open source doesn’t make a whole lot of difference in terms of student learning, open access refers to access to learning materials in higher education.  “The argument is that when you’re talking about public educations the resources should not be tied to the finances of the individual student or even the finances of the instution.  All students should have access to knowledge to foster their learning,” Williams van Rooij said.  According to Peter Suber’s Open Access Overview, open access refers to literature that is “digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.”

Williams van Rooij said that part of the impetus for open access is the rise in the cost of printed textbooks, particularly in the STEM fields.  Open access is also used for scientific and scholarly literature that is produced by academics.  However, like open source there are risks associated with open access.  Predatory open access publishers have emerged and attempt to exploit authors by charging large fees without providing a legitimate scholarly platform to showcase literature (to read more about predatory publishing I recommend Jeffrey Beall’s article, Predatory publishers are corrupting open access). Williams van Rooij also points out that some texts that students get through open source are of questionable quality as they are not regulated like published works.

The higher education culture of open source and free access shows promise.  It has the welcoming attitude of MOOCs to help educate and share resources with the masses, but like MOOCs it has yet to find its place in the established systems of higher education.  It is with open source and free access that higher education may be able to start sharing more, and therefore, gain more.

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Michelle Harven

Michelle Harven

Michelle is a current graduate student at Emerson College and an intern at Boston's public radio station. She enjoys exploring the world of educational technology and writing about the ever-changing sector and its potential.