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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Open Source Applications: Limited Adoption Within Academics

The study by Alliance for Higher Education Competitiveness, finds open source products, which enable programmers to modify code and customize programs, have yet to reach the masses of academia. Open source is not quite ready for prime time say experts in the academic circles.Kenneth Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project, calls the mindset regarding open source “affirmative ambivalence.” As he sees it, CIO's are confident the software will be a part of the future but are still taking a wait-and-see approach. Moves like leading LMS players coming together - Blackboard acquiring WebCT, besides many mergers in the learning market that have taken place in the past twelve months : Oracle's acquisition of Peoplesoft, SumTotal's acquisition of Pathlore, Saba's acquisition of Thinq, and KnowledgePlanet's acquisition of KnowledgeImpact etc - all these create some surging interest in looking for opensource alternates. These sentiments are reactive at best – clearly not sustainable for ever. I know of a a few good proprietary LMS available within academic institutions – no body is even talking of open sourcing (to the extent I know of) – besides lack of initiative, its another matter that can of worms would come out on the way these are architected and code discipline employed therein besides using outdated technologies. But a few institutions may find that till open source came along, institutions had a “buy or build” decision, but open source has advantages of both in that a college can start off with a good base, avoid paying high fees, and then customize it. The danger of an informal collaboration like open source centers on longevity of the solution and banks on an invisible momentum to support and extend the application - a situation that projects like sakai are trying to avoid. I know from direct experience, what it means in terms of resources and pressures to switch from one e-learning platform to another – simply put -it ain’t easy. While we have to see how this pans out, I liked one observation quoted therein - A mediocre instructor can go on being mediocre in Sakai. Learned people can see where to focus on. I have seen few opensource projects getting stopped and switches happen to using commercial applications in areas of e-learning and portal – not to forget the fact that this can happen with commercial software as well. The point is life is mostly the same even while embracing open source. It’s to be noted that the survey reports that less than one-thirds of acads in the survey find the leading opens source products as being viable. It is generally seen that the advantage of an open source approach is for the professor who wants to be creative with technology — and for colleges that encourage faculty members to be creative in that way. I think well only upto a point – in my experience, I find that too often acads do not ask for big extensions and when they ask for it would normally be impossible to do with resources that are available between doing term projects. Mostly I see academics looking at opensource when budget becomes an issue – but in reality, too often what we see is that costs shift away from acquiring the software and toward hiring more IT staff. Guys do a good selection of the commercial - commit your support to grow along with the project and focus on improving quality of educations - new training methods, leverage lot more collaborative technologies, strive to make education more affordable and enjoyable to the student community at large - and in the process if you want good IT -Pay for IT and get reasonable support - work towards improving overall IT effectiveness - I do not see any great role for opensource applications (besides at the infrastructure stack )in this simple and neat vision of academic learning.

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