The Value of Open Source Software for Education

The Value of Open Source Software for Education

By the Apereo Foundation Board
February 23rd 2019

Apereo was founded around a mission to support educational institutions “…collaborate to foster, develop, and sustain open technologies and innovation to support learning, teaching, and research". Open source software is at the heart of what Apereo is and does. Why do we believe open source is so important for education?

Cost and Capacity. Many institutions are drawn to open source software because it is free from licensing costs. In times of spiralling student debt, that’s an understandable reaction. Open source software isn’t free from cost, of course. But costs incurred – either in-house or hired implementation specialists – develop and enhance institutional capacity and capability. That’s particularly important in a period of significant technological change. Institutions that invest in open source software as part of an institutional mixed software economy that includes open source retain the flexibility to adapt to changed circumstances and challenges. Institutions that rely solely on commercial-proprietary vendors – whether on-premises or cloud-based - effectively outsource their IT strategy and reduce their capability to deal with change with agility.

Institutional Flexibility. Open source software is flexible and adaptable at an institutional level. An open source community is a place to share innovation. Sharing, encouraging adoption and further contribution helps to ensure that an institution doesn’t carry the future cost of supporting innovation alone.

When considering systems facing a large number of diverse constituents, open source flexibility is a big advantage in ensuring user satisfaction. The NYU Experience, as it has evolved with Sakai, is a good example of an institution using open source software to innovate, improve, and meet user needs. NYU’s improvement cycle has five stages -

  • Consulting users through detailed surveys
  • Assessing the priority of requests
  • Building adaptations and solutions
  • Integrating these with broader Sakai community developments outside NYU
  • Deploying a solution that more closely meets user needs

The way NYU manages this process, and integrates with broader Sakai community development, translates into minimum future maintenance overhead. NYU’s LMS Faculty satisfaction figures speak for themselves. Not only has user dissatisfaction shrunk significantly, but positive satisfaction has risen well past the EDUCAUSE recorded US average. NYU can only do this because open source code underpins the realisation of a vision of continuous improvement.

Overall Faculty Satisfaction with LMS


NYU 2018 LMS Survey

Money and mission. The investment NYU makes - together with other members of the Sakai community - goes to directly benefit the development of user satisfaction and product enhancement. In contrast, a recent .edu IPO revealed a major commercial entity spent just 23.5% of revenue on product improvement, with 24.89% on admin and 51.61% on marketing. What’s a better use of higher ed resources?

Support. Open source software offers further flexibility. It can be supported in-house, with the additional resource of an active community of problem solvers. It can be supported by commercial integration specialists, or by hosting providers. Institutions are free to move between the three models – or mix them – to meet their needs, budget and context. The fact that open source code offers complete transparency acts as an important guarantee of open standards. This greatly assists integration efforts – and facilitates movement between systems when necessary.

Dimensions of Adaptability. As we move beyond the “one size fits all LMS” and explore more flexible environments that meet the needs of different disciplines, teaching styles and learners, open source systems are emerging as critical elements underpinning innovation. Tools, environments and frameworks under the Apereo umbrella include -

Xerte, which originated at the University of Nottingham, enables authoring rich interactive and accessible content that will play in any learning environment.

Sakai a mature and robust environment with second to none support for IMS global LTI.

Tsugi - in Apereo incubation - is a framework for tool development and pluggability. The University of Dayton have used Tsugi in conjunction with Sakai to plug dozens of niche tools into their learning environment.

OpenEQUELLA, a digital repository, is widely used to store, curate and retrieve learning materials. Some schools, including Canberra Institute of Technology, use OpenEQUELLA as a replacement filestore for their learning management system/virtual learning environment.

Opencast, a lecture capture, media management and distribution platform is used at very significant scale by the University of Manchester. The Opencast community is equipping it’s player technology with support for learning analytics data streams.

Karuta, a next-generation portfolio solution, originated in work by HEC Montreal, Kyoto University and the University of Grenoble Engineering. Karuta is currently attracting significant interest in the Francophone world.

That’s a small subset of Apereo software communities. There are more details over at -

The ability to innovate is clearly dependent on the vision and capacity of the innovators, but by allowing access to open source code around which to build, OSS provides a starting base point for innovation. Open source communities act to stimulate and pool innovation and the exchange of best practice. Open source software helps to close the “innovation gap” between the emerging needs of practitioners and institutions and distant and opaque commercial proprietary software development. The innovation gap is particularly important in mission related areas. Those who are closest to the needs of learning, teaching and research - including students - should be closely involved in developing the solutions they use.

Curriculum connections. Use of open source software in several major industries - including the social media giants - is widespread to the point of ubiquity. A survey of Fortune 2000 companies in 2018 found -

  • 93% of companies use open source for non-commercial or internal reasons
  • 79% use open source for commercial reasons
  • 69% contribute code upstream
  • 60% have created their own open source projects

Establishing curricular connections between in house open source expertise and the generation about to enter the 21st century workplace is a ‘win’ for all concerned. As data handling, computational skills and algorithmic literacy become integrated with an increasing number of subject areas, open source software offers the possibility of developing deep and significant understanding. Such engagement also offers the potential for students to become co-creators of their own learning.

The future. Existing software categories, such as the LMS, are neither immutable nor the apogee of technology enhanced learning. Three years ago, EDUCAUSE consulted broadly around what they term the “Next Generation Digital Learning Environment”. The EDUCAUSE conception of the NGDLE demonstrates an emerging consensus about the direction of software to support teaching and learning. The NGDLE contains significant challenges in terms of realization, but we are also entitled to ask – in three years, why aren’t we closer? Could the closed nature of commercial proprietary software and its failure to innovate towards identified community needs be bound up in this failure?

Affinity. Open source software and higher education both support the “common good”. There is a natural affinity and close correlation between the philosophy underpinning higher education and open source software. More practically, open source software offers a future where that vision of more flexible and responsive systems supporting the academic mission can be collaboratively realised. Join us to help realise them.