Higher Ed needs to step up to stay relevant as Open Source floods the IT world

By Patrick Masson, General Manager, Apereo Foundation

This post is in support of the Open Apereo Conference, on June 14 and 15.

Grant money is pouring in to support institutions of higher education that are taking a strong position in the adoption of Open Source technologies. 82% of enterprise IT leaders are choosing to work with Open Source vendors, and higher education is stepping up and following suit. In order to stay competitive, campuses must take a critical look at how they manage IT portfolios and seriously consider a larger commitment to their own Open Source strategy.

It’s not like Open Source is something new in higher ed. Institutional infrastructure, research, teaching and learning, and student projects have long been supported by Open Source software. And of course, there are even multiple examples of universities starting and successfully delivering Open Source tools. But what we’re noticing is Open Source being deployed across a broader span of departments on campuses. It used to be that when a particularly “innovative” faculty member or department discovered an Open Source solution to address their unique academic programs, research initiatives, or administrative needs, the support and maintenance responsibilities fell chiefly on them. But the broader impact of these solutions raises some questions:

– Want to offer virtual office hours to students? Ask the department’s administrative assistant to send out Jit.si links. But what happens when those Jit.si rooms require more seats?

– Need a database for the lab? Have a grad-student set up PostgreSQL. But where do researchers go when they need more computing power?

– Looking to track the dental school alumni? Rent a little space with a CiviCRM provider. But who is going to help integrate the dental school alumni with the main university alumni association?  

As noted above, Open Source is everywhere. Benefits such as TCO, the pace of development, security, higher quality, cloud-native, and standards-based/setting are enabling teaching and learning in and across academic disciplines. As an instrument in the laboratory supporting cross-institutional research, Open Source delivers substantial  value. As a forum for community engagement driving alumni involvement and fund-raising, Open Source is coming out from “under the desk” independent projects to campus-wide adoption.

With that, the creation of the “Open Source Program Office” (OSPO) is an emerging trend in higher ed. These campuses/programs are all recent initiatives, and they all received significant funding to manage systems and services. Examples include:

Johns Hopkins University (JHU)

Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT)

The University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC)

The University of Vermont (UVM)

University of Saint Louis

Leaders in higher ed are recognizing that Open Source provides technical and financial benefits, while the open source values of community, collaboration, and co-creation support the operational, cultural, and educational models being fostered on campus. The management of IT portfolios is changing; vendors vs. projects, contractors vs. collaborators, top-down vs. bottom-up decision making, and centralized vs. distributed services. This warrants a new look at how an open source initiative should be managed and implemented for the greatest impact.

In order for this shift in systems and culture to be successful, institutions need to take this initiative beyond the IT department alone and engage the entire campus community.

  • IT departments will need new processes for identifying and evaluating open source options and support providers.
  • Procurement departments will need new tools beyond traditional RFPs for software and technology acquisition.
  • IP transfer and legal departments should be knowledgeable on matters that affect license compatibility and compliance.
  • Campus leadership must adapt to decentralized and distributed decision-making.
  • Faculty, researchers, and even students will need to learn how to authentically engage with open source communities of practice.

Broader management (and management skills) are required to leverage open source software, as end-users and as contributors, in higher ed. OSPOs are the way many campuses are doing just that. There are many technology models to follow, and granting institutions are supporting the creation of campus OSPOs to the tune of millions of dollars. It’s an initiative leaders in higher education should educate themselves on in order to participate in this growing trend.

The Apereo Foundation is holding the Open Apereo Conference on June 14 and 15. Last year, we invited Sayeed Choudhury, Associate Dean for Research Data Management and Head of the Open Source Programs Office at Johns Hopkins University, to introduce the higher ed OSPO. This year we’re following up with two featured speakers, Stephen Jacobs, Director of Open@RIT, who will speak on the values “in” Open Source that extend and enhance academia, and Danese Cooper, former head of Open Source at Sun, Intel, and PayPal on the value of Open Source Program Offices in higher education.

I suspect they will offer deeper and broader opinions on why campuses are now exploring and launching OSPOs and why granting agencies are funding them. I invite you to join us (register here).