An Open Source website is the best decision higher ed tech leaders can make when it comes to their university or college platform. I and so many others are convinced: there are obvious practical reasons and seriously compelling ideological reasons. Let's explore both.
Reasons to Support an Open Source Website
The ideal of an open education celebrates the free and open exchange of ideas, information, and the means of gaining knowledge. The Open Access movement holds that academic work should be available to everyone, free of charge, whenever possible. Researchers at different institutions build on one another's work. It only makes sense to do the same with software, which is why Open Source and academic environments go together so well and so often. Educational institutions are leaders both as creators and as users of Open Source. The Open Source website is an expression of this.
What is an Open Source website? An Open Source website is a site that uses Open Source Software (OSS)—software with source code that anyone can inspect, modify, and enhance. Drupal is the most popular Open Source content management system (CMS) for colleges and universities. Many schools use it for their websites, including highly regarded institutions such as Stanford, Ohio State, Yale, and the University of Maryland.
Open Source works best in active communities with few restrictions on what they can discuss. When many institutions use the same platform, they can discuss the problems they're encountering and the best ways to use the platform. Drupal camps and conferences are popular, and IT people from academic institutions contribute heavily to the attendance.
Quality Open Source Software (OSS) lends itself to extension and adaptation. Many of the best-known packages take a modular approach, encouraging institutions to enhance them by creating add-ons that meet their own needs and can fit the needs of other institutions as well. Sometimes developers will add a whole new layer to an application, improving its usability and adding new functions. Some will create new applications that use existing ones as services.
Colleges are major contributors to Open Source for good reasons. Stanford University has contributed many modules to the project. Several distributions of Drupal are designed specifically for schools, including two very popular Open Source initiatives.
- OpenScholar, developed at Harvard's IQSS, is used for a great many Harvard sites, as well as other institutions, claiming almost 7,000 websites. It stresses ease of installation, offers training sessions, and provides a community website for discussion of the software. A large number of modules are available for it, specifically designed for the way people in academia like their sites to work.
- Open Academy seeks to provide a complete resource of high-quality educational material to everyone, everywhere. They are supported by various universities including NYU, Oxford, Columbia, and Berkley.
"Open Sourced" academia is gaining momentum in academic publishing. Most of the academic work consists of publishing research results. Publishing through traditional channels puts outrageously high price tags on journals, with subscription prices reaching into the thousands of dollars.
Many scholars have turned away from this path and are using the Web as a channel for publishing freely available material. They're not the ones getting the money from journal sales; the old publishing model is just a very inefficient way to get their work out to the academic community, and it's completely useless for disseminating information to the broader public.
The number of published research papers is huge, and scholars need to find the ones that are most relevant to their own work. This provides an obvious advantage to online publication, and it creates a need for the ability to categorize and search online papers and to provide rich metadata to facilitate searches.
- DSpace is one of the leading Open Source solutions to the problem of disseminating research, with over a thousand repositories in place. It supports a variety of metadata schemes, allows customization of its appearance, and supports over twenty languages besides English.
- Fedora Commons, not to be confused with the Linux distribution called Fedora, is similar in many ways to DSpace. Duraspace offers both of them. It offers a great deal of power and customizability at the cost of being more complex to use than DSpace.
- Dataverse from Harvard is oriented toward research data more than publications. It's designed for publication of data sets, letting researchers retain old versions as they update them.
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC's) and webinars let academic institutions offer courses to members of the public who might not be near any campus. It's a little more difficult here than in other academic areas since streaming video is often tied up with patents that Open Source creators have to work around. Another issue is that video requires a lot of storage and bandwidth, so it can be difficult for smaller institutions to host. Still, open-source offerings are available, competing with commercial platforms.
- Moodle is a popular Open Source offering for running MOOC's. In addition to video delivery, it offers such features as collaborative tools, file management, notifications, and a rich set of administrative features. Institutions without the infrastructure to host their own courses can use one of Moodle's partner sites.
Open Source websites are powerful. Institutes of higher education need a powerful CMS. Academic institutions engage in a huge range of online activities, including basic information, news releases, keeping students updated, fundraising, scholarly publication, and library access. Much of the work isn't at the institutional level but is under the control of departments, student organizations, and individuals. It's more appropriate to think of a huge system of websites rather than a single "university website."
OSS is secure. Despite its "open" name, rather than pose any significant barriers to security, Open Source reinforces sound security practices by involving many people who expose bugs fast. This also offers sid -effects which provide customers and the community with concrete examples of reusable, secure, and working code.
A business corporation may be able to put all its online activity under a single, professionally managed website built on commercial web applications. For an academic institution, the sheer number of independent activities makes the prospect unmanageable. An Open Source website takes on both of these challenges.
Affordability is a significant factor as well. Academic budgets are often less than lavish. When large corporations find that the features in a commercial application aren't quite what they need, they can pay for proprietary software if they can justify the cost in future returns. Schools are better off tinkering with the code or asking if someone else has developed a module that will meet their requirements.
With so many options available free of charge and easily installed, with support communities that can answer questions, it usually makes far more sense to build a site on Open Source Software.