#OSS in #HigherEd

Fad or Mainstream

Open source enjoys a twenty-plus-year history, with every industry now engaged, even if (too?) many organizations don't appreciate how much they rely on and use open source software (Image 1). Open source was initially met with optimism and promoted within education--perhaps even promising a bit too much. After twenty years, it's fair to ask, was/is open source software a passing fad, or is it now mainstream? Either view--fad or mainstream--can lead some to overlook open source's current standing in and opportunities for today's campuses, researchers, faculty, and learners. If it was/is a fad, there's no need to consider open source software options for current uses on campus; better options exist. If it is now mainstream, there's nothing more for campuses to do; open source is simply operational. Reality is somewhere in between. Open source was/is not a fad; its success is continuously affirmed, and it does not seem to be mainstream in higher education, i.e., enjoying the same level of awareness and adoption as other "mainstream" technologies in teaching and learning or infrastructure. Open source software today, it appears, while growing faster and impacting broader and more diverse communities on campuses than ever, remains underappreciated and underutilized.


Graph, Open Source Use is Commonplace in the Enterprise, via ToDo Group

Image 1. Open source software within the enterprise, via ToDo Group, Linux Foundation.


Last January, the Apereo Twitter account began sharing new open source activities (emerging projects, grants awarded, new collaborative communities, etc.) to highlight the continued work in and around open source software development and use on campuses. We wanted to:

  • Showcase the open source innovation happening in higher education by faculty, and with students.
  • Foster awareness and invite collaboration among peer open source organizations and communities of interest.
  • Introduce Apereo as a potential partner with open source projects and supporting institutions.

I've discovered three compelling news reports showcasing the diversity of fields, academic value, and institutional opportunities within higher ed for open source development and communities. These projects emphasize authentic engagement, where participation provides for and promotes the software project's success as well as those who engage and contribute.

UNLV Researchers Add Important Computational Capability to Widely-used, Open Source Software (Details)

Although this might not be the most-recognized project, a critical contribution, or the biggest news, it clearly demonstrates the open source ethos of scratching your personal itch. In such cases, users solve their unique problems and contribute solutions as a by-product of their primary work (research, teaching, etc.). Here, researchers added the Yarkovsky effect to the open source software project REBOUND. The Yarkovsky effect is a force affecting the orbits of small asteroids due to temperature gradients across their surfaces. Who better understands the issue(s) and can identify solutions than those most intimately involved? In this case, the Astrophysicists using the tools are developing the tools to their specifications. Open source licensing ensures those most interested can be most involved as creators, not simply consumers.

Too often, with the current approach to open source development, "projects" have become "products" where investors, businesses, and "founders" seek and push an "open source business model." Yes, open source is big business these days, but open source is best--designed, developed, and sustained--when users develop software as opposed to businesses developing markets.

MSU Student Letwin Pondo Represents Zimbabwe at Geospatial Conference in Italy (Details)

Open source software and projects can be an essential resource for campuses; however, students who engage with open source projects can also benefit. An excellent example is third-year undergraduate student in the Department of Surveying and Geomatics at Midlands State University (MSU), Letwin Pondo, who is broadly involved in Zimbabwe's Open Street Map community.

Importantly, contributions in open source flow both ways, benefiting both projects and participants. While projects benefit from technical contributions (code, bug fix, documentation, etc.), community members enjoy networks of peers, shared resources, and opportunities to explore and learn about areas of mutual interest.

Pondo's activities highlight this; she is president of MSU's chapter of Youth Mappers, the current administrator of the Zimbabwe Institute of Geomatics', co-founder of African Surveyors Connect, the National point-of-contact for Women in the Geospatial Space, and the co-lead for the FIG'S VCSP. She also runs #SheSpeaksSpatial, an initiative encouraging greater participation of women in the Geospatial sector. Most recently, Pondo represented open source users at the Free and open-source Software for Geospatial (FOSS4G) Conference held in Florence, Italy.

As Pondo commented, "I learnt a lot of new mapping software and applications such as Everydoor, Merginmaps directly from their developers, met other mappers affiliated to YouthMappers and several regional ambassadors." These opportunities reinforce and extend the educational goals and professional development higher education offers by participating in open source.

New $11.7 Million USC Center to Create Open-Source Implantables for the Nervous System (Details)

Researchers at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering received funding from the National Institutes of Health to create a "unique open source project allowing the entire research community to access and adapt implantable systems for therapeutic and clinical research applications." Admittedly, considering the size of the award, I'm tempted to focus on the evident funding opportunities for campuses through open source initiatives. From another angle, such an effort will tremendously benefit medicine and patient care. Yet, the most significant value of this project is the access it provides other researchers, indeed humanity, because the technology and techniques will be open source. I can't think of a more impactful outcome when using publicly funded grants and awards; "public money, public code." Consider the alternative. How might access to research and resulting findings, therapeutics, medical devices, and even knowledge be limited if funded through commercial investments with proprietary interests?

Higher Ed Has Been, Is, and Will Be There

In concept and practice, open source software development, licensing, and models arguably started within higher education. Numerous examples dating back to the movement's founding include the BSD, GPL, and MIT licenses, projects like Drupal, FreeBSD, Linux, GNU, and Apache's precursor, NCSA HTTPd. Many longstanding EdTech tools have higher education beginnings, like Moodle and Sakai.

Today, open source continues as a core resource supporting campus infrastructure, a platform for research and discovery, and even a laboratory for teaching and learning. If you'd like to follow the ever-growing use of and developments in open source software across higher education, follow "#OSS in #HigherEd" on Twitter. If you'd like to become more involved in raising awareness and adoption, contact me directly at ed(at)apereo.org.