EDUCAUSE Shares Top 10 IT Issues, 2022: How Open Source Enables The Higher Education We Deserve

EDUCAUSE Shares Top 10 IT Issues, 2022: 
How Open Source Enables The Higher Education We Deserve 

By: Patrick Masson, Interim General Manager of the Apereo Foundation
January 10, 2022

EDUCAUSE recently published its “2022 Top 10 IT Issues,” providing an “optimistic view of how technology can help make the higher education we deserve.” Fundamental for—and in—such institutions is a shared transformational vision and strategy, a focus on students' success, and a sustainable business model for redefining “the campus.” The edtech community regularly—and rightly—highlights the value new, updated, or novel technologies can play to innovate, “Technology is unlocking next-era teaching and learning,” improve access and outcomes, “Technology can support student success during COVID-19,” and initiate change, “Technology and the Remaking of Higher Education.” Neither EDUCAUSE nor the authors claim technology, in and of itself, will create “the higher education we deserve.” Many new and innovative initiatives require technology, but to sustain such programs, technology alone is not sufficient. Campuses need trained staff to manage systems and provide support. Practices and processes must be codified through policies and planning to ensure ongoing availability and continuity. And all of this requires funding. Dynamic and complex environments like campuses demand more than bits and bytes; they also require engaged and responsive communities of practice and dedicated leadership. In addition, because campus operations and academic initiatives are dependent on technology, and because external providers most often control the development and delivery of that technology, the relationship with those providers is thus also critical in helping, “make the higher education we deserve.”

For many institutions of higher education, particularly IT departments, the opportunities afforded from technology solutions are, at best, influenced by, but too often deferred to (even imposed by) those delivering the technologies in the form of development road maps, product release cycles and migrations, pricing (affordability), scope of service and support, and licensing—to name a few.

While many campus providers can deliver real value to institutions, higher education may only be one of the  industries they serve; with education, generally, not the biggest, or for commercial entities, the most lucrative.  According to HolonIQ, a global education market intelligence firm, “As a sector, education is a digital laggard with less than 4% of overall expenditure allocated to digital, presenting a serious challenge given the scale of what’s to come.” 

In addition to limited investment from institutions, many initiatives—not just corporate vendors—may be subject  to various pressures outside higher education, driving strategy, direction, mergers, even failure (a lot of  failure). Corporate relationships, interests, and direction can manifest as limitations or impositions on campuses in the form of vendor contracts, service levels, or product development and management, thus influencing a campus' vision, strategy, focus, and business model.  

Three hands holding pictures of the world, heart, and programing symbols.Deserved and Desired 

EDUCAUSE's 2022 Top 10 IT Issues warns, “No longer can institutions dictate the terms and conditions of students' educational experiences and outcomes.” Considering such advice and accepting that if institutions cannot dictate students' experiences, delegating that authority to third-party, non-educational technology providers is not the way forward either. The challenge then is, how do institutions discover, design, and deliver experiences and outcomes that are genuinely student-focused while also promoting student success? EDUCAUSE assigns campuses that responsibility; “Institutions will be optimizing their offerings” by enabling educational access, offering student-centered services, and innovating in teaching and learning. 

Fortunately, open source software design principles can help organizations optimize for students and student success. User communities (think, students using a campus’ software) are empowered to direct the design of open source software. With users defining development, practices evolved to identify and implement the features and functionality most desired by a community (again, think the campus student community). From an open source design perspective, the answer to who should dictate the terms and conditions of students' educational experiences and outcomes is, again, the institution, and even more specifically, the students. Over twenty years ago, Eric Raymond in the Cathedral and the Bazaar offered a few lessons, writing, “Release early. Release often. And listen to your [students].” “Treating your [students] as co-developers is your least-hassle route to rapid code improvement and effective debugging.” “The next best thing to having good ideas is recognizing good ideas from your [students].” “If you treat your [students] as if they're your most valuable resource, they will respond by becoming your most valuable resource.” “Every good work of software starts by scratching a [student's] personal itch.” And, most famously, “Given enough [student] eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” 

Significantly, these design principles are not limited to open source software development but are also integral in developing and managing the communities of practice that enable and support open source software. Decision-making and direction (i.e., “a shared transformational vision and strategy”), communication and collaboration (i.e., "to plan and act collaboratively"), organizing and organizations (i.e., "the digital transformation work of the institution") can all improve with these same principles and the operational best practices that align with them. Indeed, Raymond's open source design principles apply just as well to non-technology, student-focused activities and development, “Every good [five-year strategic plan] starts by scratching a [student's] personal itch.” 

Open source principles and practices for traditional development—and even as a design process and cultural model—is actually in use by many of the technology solutions providers institutions presently rely on: AWS, Comcast, GitHub, IBM, Microsoft, SAP, VMWare, and many more.

It (IT?) Needs To Be Sustainable 

Student walking on road labeled sustainability heading toward the word quality.If “the ultimate aim is an institution with a technology-enabled, sustainable business model that has redefined the campus,” assessing the current or potential technology is fundamental to “operate efficiently, and anticipate and address major new risks.” However, assessing the sustainability of the technology—as a platform or service for digital transformation—is not enough. Campuses must also evaluate the sustainability of those organizations developing, delivering, and supporting campus-critical technologies. Campuses should prefer working with organizations that also have sustainable business models. Finally, institutions must look inward to assess internal resources and capabilities, beyond technology, when assessing sustainability. The technology, technology provider, and institution running the technology all contribute to—or hinder—the overall sustainability of “the campus.” 

With sustainability critical to the higher education we deserve, it is essential to understand what sustainability means and how to assess it related to technologies, the organizations providing those technologies, and even the institutions implementing them. The 2020 annual survey defined sustainability as “the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level or the ability to exist constantly.” The same 2020 survey listed “Sustainable Funding” #3 in that year's top issues; “funding models that can maintain quality and accommodate both new needs and the growing use of IT services in an era of increasing budget constraints.” IT funding dates back to EDUCAUSE's initial Top IT Issues survey of 2000, “How can we encourage institutional leadership to develop a 'deep reserve' for funding renewal and replacement?” 

Ensuring budget for ongoing maintenance, updates, training, and support does not ensure a technology remains relevant and valuable should features and functionality drift away from the campus' requirements or use cases. Securing campus funding to pay for continued access/licensing and services from a provider does not guarantee that that provider will stay in business or not be sold. There may be dollars to support a campus technology initiative, but external factors may mean there are no students, customers, or programs, and internal factors (a new dean, CIO, or president) may shift priorities. 

Funding, although critical, is not the only consideration when assessing sustainability, i.e., the long-term value and viability of a technology, the capabilities, or capacity of the providers, and the feasibility or interest in an initiative within the institution. EDUCAUSE's Higher Education Community Vendor Assessment Toolkit (HECVAT) is a questionnaire framework specifically designed for higher education to measure vendor risk and sustainability. HECVAT includes criteria beyond internal funding, including assessment criteria such as accessibility, Business Continuity Planning, Change Management, Disaster Recovery, Standards, and other factors when considering a new system and/or service provider.

Mature open source software, open source communities of practice, and commercial affiliates supporting those open source projects would do well under such scrutiny. Applying a toolkit like HECVAT to open source options would highlight their readiness and sustainability, level the playing field as open projects do not invest in sales and marketing, and extend opportunities for commercial providers offering services (hosting, development, training, and support) for open source projects rather than actual software. Tools like HECVAT eliminate the dependency on pre-sales engineers or sales and marketing teams (investments open source projects do not make) to respond to traditional RFPs or RFIs. Institutions are thus able to undertake the same level of due diligence in assessing open source projects, and gain the confidence they need, as currently done with proprietary technology offerings. 

Several people jointly holding up the Apereo symbol.A Vision and Strategy for Vision and Strategy 

"Making the higher education we deserve begins with developing a shared transformational vision and strategy that guides the digital transformation work of the institution; departments and divisions must have a shared vision and be willing and able to plan and act collaboratively.” Open source communities of practice are, by definition,  sharing communities and provide an ideal reference model for organizations just beginning a collaborative digital transformation and will resonate with and reinforce principles and practices at institutions with transformational work already underway. Open source communities, inherently composed of independent, decentralized, and remote organizations, require transparency, collaboration, and cooperation to ensure information and knowledge are shared, decisions are understood and aligned, so that ultimately real, mission-critical, resources, i.e., enterprise software, can be delivered. As authentic, thriving open source communities survive only through  collaboration, cooperation, and co-creation, their approach to operations and governance and their underlying  principles and practices provide institutions valuable resources beyond the software they produce. Open source communities and the software they produce also offer stability and deliver sustainability—no one can ever take away access to the project--while also protecting against vendor lock-in—a campus can always leave if desired. 

Engaging with open source software projects and foundations provides institutions of higher education multiple opportunities in community, collaboration, and co-creation—not to mention a wealth of business-ready software. Such communities have a long and successful history of developing and delivering sustainable technologies and promoting communities that focus on end-users. For those organizations interested in implementing—and even contributing to—technology that will make the higher education we deserve, I invite you to consider open source software and the communities of practice that create and support it

In future posts, I'll touch on the specific IT issues raised by EDUCAUSE and again, how open source software and the communities that support it can help not only address those issues but provide new opportunities for institutions, creating the higher education we deserve.