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Why you shouldn’t be afraid of open source software  

And what you should worry about anyway
University Business, May 2018

In 2006, a group of small colleges was at a crossroads.  The grant that the schools had received to pay for the license for its commercial Learning Management System (LMS) had come to an end, and the schools couldn’t afford to continue paying for it.  One attractive alternative was an open source LMS. Even though the hosting and support would require financial resources, the software license for open source is affordable: it’s free.

But is open source software really viable?  As more than one person has said, “With open source, there is no one to hold accountable.”  On the surface, that makes sense. But how does that accountability work? The only real lever we have is the one that withholds payment, or that threatens to switch to another vendor.  I remember the EDUCAUSE meeting in which the CEO of Blackboard and the CEO of WebCT, which had just been acquired by Blackboard, held a meeting. The ostensible purpose was to allay fears about the “merger.”  As one young woman in the audience put it, “When Blackboard raises its prices, I threaten to switch to WebCT. I’m afraid I won’t have that leverage anymore.” The leverage we have with commercial software is ephemeral, and the accountability we think we possess is illusory.  Blackboard later dismantled WebCT and forced all WebCT customers onto the Blackboard platform.

Consider an alternative world, one in which the people who develop the software are also the people who use the software.  In a good quality open source community, there is a buy-in, a sense of ownership, that you simply can’t achieve with commercial alternatives.

A few years ago I was teaching an LMS workshop to a group of faculty when my cell phone rang.  After chastising myself for failing to silence my phone, I realized it was the CEO of the company that was hosting our open source LMS.  I answered. “Martin, are you having any problems today?” asked the CEO.

“Not that I know of,” I replied.  But at that moment a professor in the back of the room said his browser appears to be locked up.  So did another one. And then another. “Actually, perhaps we do have a problem,” I told the CEO.  

“We were afraid you might,” said the CEO.  “The open source community has discovered a scaling problem with one of the modules.  If everyone is doing the same thing at the same time, it could become cause the system to lock up.”

“That sounds like what we’re experiencing,” I replied.

“We have a fix for you,” said the CEO.  “Could you take a short break? We’ll get the patch installed and you can keep on going.”

Now I ask you, when is the last time your commercial software vendor called you ahead of time, told you that there might be a problem, and had a fix ready to deploy?  In the open source world, this is a common scenario. The reason is simple: open source developers around the world care deeply about their creation and are constantly striving to make it better.  Their users are their peers at institutions all over the planet; they even use the software themselves.

Lest you think that I believe all open source software is equally good, let me offer a caution.  Just because software is open source by definition (i.e. the source code is freely available) doesn’t make it good.  The real issue is the strength of the community behind the software. One LMS company has declared its software to be open source — you can download the core modules and try to run them yourself for free.  That may meet the legal definition of “open source”, but it doesn’t mean open source in the larger sense: you must still use some of their proprietary software to make the LMS work well, and the developer community is all on the payroll of the company.

That group of colleges in 2006 ended up using an open source LMS called Sakai.  We’re still going strong. Our financial model means that our members pay annual dues that cover the cost of hosting and support.  But we don’t pay a license fee for the software. And we’re part of a worldwide community of faculty, instructional technologists and developers that includes such institutions as Oxford, New York University, Duke, Notre Dame, Columbia, and many more.

We’re not afraid of open source software.  In fact, we embrace it. But we’re also fortunate to be a part of a robust community that is behind the software.  And that’s what makes the difference.

Martin Ramsay is the managing director of the LAMP Consortium (lampschools.org), a community of colleges and universities that share a single instance of Sakai, the open source LMS. He has been working with open source developers around the world since 2006 and has learned a thing or two about what makes a vibrant open source community, and what to watch out for.