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A Taste of Open Source

This CIO says to drink the Kool-Aid, but as part of a balanced diet.
University Business, Dec 2005

Open source is like solar energy. I'm absolutely, 100 percent in favor of it where and when it's viable. You should be, too. In cases where it isn't a good bet, I swallow my pride, compromise my values, and keep paying my electric bills.

Hear me out. Open source, which refers to free software that can be modified and redistributed at will for the benefit of all users, is virtually irresistible when compared with investing in expensive licenses for proprietary vendor software. Open source has been enormously successful in several areas, including operating systems (Linux) and web servers (Apache). Academia is hotly debating open source for its own community, and several well-documented initiatives are in full swing.

I have drunk the open-source Kool-Aid. That's to say, I have tasted it, and it is most refreshing. I am convinced that academia is in a strong position to build open-source tools ... especially in the areas most closely tied to faculty innovation, such as pedagogy, evaluation, research, collaboration, and the dissemination of ideas, just to name a few.

Certain learning management tools are an obvious example. They are the "crown jewels" for academic institutions, key to competitiveness, ripe for cost containment, and an area where substantial grassroots expertise and innovation are likely.

Also, learning management innovations tend to attract federal and foundation research investment, which increases the likelihood of inter-institutional cooperation--at least, over the short to medium term.

Although open source is promising, I would warn against too much of a good thing. I suggest a balanced diet, in this case consisting of healthful doses of open-source and vendor-sourced software. The question isn't open source vs. vendor source. We need both. I suggest a "hybrid source" model.

Open source alone falls short when academia fails, as it does in many cases, to make the sustained long-term investment required to build stable, scalable, robust tools evenly across the entire swath of the academic enterprise.

Academia is unlikely, for example, to lead the charge in integrating academic tools with administrative tools. Although robust databases, effective editors, and strong replication, backup, and other tools are often conceived in the academic world, they are brought to maturity in the private sector.

The question
isn't open source
vs. vendor source. We need both.
I suggest a "hybrid source" model.

Unfortunately, open-source initiatives often break down when members of collaborating consortia pull out of an initiative, leaving a smaller number of institutions to carry a bigger slice of the funding pie. And though leading research universities are likely to invest in open-source innovation, they are just as unlikely to sustain those investments as tools stabilize.

So, am I saying academia should retreat and minimize its role in developing the software that drives it every day? No!

On the contrary, academia is and should continue driving innovation across the academic technology spectrum. After all, it is our faculty and students who identify the requirements and innovations needed--and academic technology must be responsive to them. I am suggesting that industry players like WebCT have a crucial role to play with us in defining and implementing innovative responses to academic needs.

Just as the electric company is best positioned to power my coffee maker, industry is often best positioned to "harden" and scale academic technology service components. Industry is, frankly, more proficient than academia is at integrating services, and defining--with academia's input--robust interfaces, toolkits, and standards that make up an extensible, open-standards-based academic technology environment. This environment will make fertile ground for innovation.

Software companies will always want some source code to be proprietary. It's hard to fault their reasoning, especially in higher education, where faculty often convincingly argue for the intellectual property rights of the material they present in class. To be successful, proprietary software products must be packaged in open-standard interfaces and serve as true building blocks for faculty and student innovation. If they are, everyone will benefit.

Amplifying the value of their innovations over the longer term, vendors can "amortize" their investments over a far broader community, including thousands of community colleges, small liberal arts colleges, research universities, professional schools, and even K-12--not just the active participants in the consortium at hand. Having industrial partners who are likely to commercialize the tools academia conceives is a win-win situation.

By the same token, for-profits are compelled to honor open-source principles and activities. They're just too big to ignore. In 2004, WebCT Chief Technology Officer Chris Vento called for "a more synergistic and holistic" approach to open-source and commercial innovation. The strongest cooperative ventures seem to follow the "early and often" mantra by sharing in the vision and strategies from the start, and continually synchronizing collaborative efforts.

Vendor success hinges on partnering with academia to build a balance between hybrid-source tools (layers of innovation provided by both communities), standard interfaces (provided through a partnership), and highly reliable and scalable administrative service layers (often, but not exclusively, provided by the vendor community).

So what do we need from the vendor community for this progressive hybrid-source model to be successful? Vendors must have:

A strong understanding that innovation will come from both the academic world and the private sector;

A universal appreciation of open standards for interoperability of all academic technology; and

An appreciation for good ideas, wherever they come from.

The development of solid community partnerships is a smart investment for everyone to make. And though it's not always easy to swallow, vendors are a big part of our community.

Peter M. Siegel is chief information officer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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