Education IT chiefs debate open source

When does it make sense? When is it plain dumb?

The concept of open source software seems so firmly entrenched in higher education that it comes as almost a shock to realize there's actually a debate over it. But debate there was, civilized and trenchant, this week during the annual Educause conference on high technology in higher education in the US.

"It's really tough to take [commercial software] systems built for a corporate world and stick them into an education world," said Bradley Wheeler, vice president for IT and CIO at Indiana University, adding that one recent book estimated education globally would spent US$5.5 billion installing ERP, much of it in modifying commercial software to meet institutional needs. "We spend so much money trying to hard fit those things in."

"I don't think there's any reason to believe that we will substantially match our business [with a community-source project] any better than a commercial system," countered Adrian Sannier, university technology officer and professor of computing studies at Arizona State University. "The CIOs of oil companies don't say 'our business is so different from everyone else's, [that] we have to write our own financial applications.' They're doing everything they can to get out of that business."

Colleges and universities have launched several high-profile "community source" projects to develop large-scale education applications. These include the Sakai learning-management system, and more recently, the Kuali project, which is creating such education-focused enterprise applications as financial accounting, and expanding to develop student information systems and even middleware to tie them all together.

Community-source uses the same basic licensing mechanism, rooted in the Apache project, as many other open source efforts. It adds a critical licensing change, however, to protect certain kinds of patents that might be held by software donors, and organizes code development along traditional, scheduled release dates.

Higher education takes open source very seriously. Two years ago, BlackBoard, a leading commercial learning-management system, announced it had been awarded a patent for some elements of its learning-management system and intended to enforce it. The news ignited a blaze of criticism, with institutions and organizations like Educause criticizing the vendor for claiming technology and ideas that had been developed through the work of the community.

Wheeler and Sannier had begun their debate a year earlier, when they met at a dinner hosted by Campus Technology, a publication and online news site. This week, even their styles of dress seemed designed to highlight their different viewpoints. Sannier sported a brimmed cap and a pullover, while Wheeler was almost formal in tie and jacket. "I'm Mac, he's PC," Sannier joked at one point. "I've got three Macs at home, baby -- three Macs," Wheeler countered.

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