This week Sun Microsystems announced the purchase of the Swedish firm MySQL for the paltry sum of $1 billion, bringing together one of America’s biggest open source software companies with the firm that makes the software that drives so much of what happens online (including WordPress, the software running this blog). Why should people in higher education care, you might reasonably ask?
There are some fairly obvious benefits to this merger that techies will be happy about, but I’m not really interested in those. As and end user of open source software, all I care about is that it stays open source and therefore available.
But the conversation that has gone on around this merger in the European business pages has, I think, some very interesting resonance for higher education, because without realizing it, those having this conversation have raised some fundamental issues about our industry as well.
In a story in the International Herald Tribune yesterday, an analyst critical of the open source business is quoted as saying: “The problem with open-source software is you have lots of people using your software who don’t feel the need to buy the support from you.” Sun’s CEO Jonathan Schwartz counters this complaint by arguing that the open-source business model is growing in importance because corporations want diversity in software platforms. In short, they like not being locked into one vendor or suite of software.
I think higher education will ignore this trend at its peril.
In the past few months there has been a lot of buzz online and in the traditional media about top ranked American universities like Yale, UC Berkeley, and MIT making increasing amounts of coursework available–for free–online. Of course, one cannot obtain a Yale or MIT degree by using these resources to learn something, so these universities are like Sun or MySQL–they offer open source information for free, but if you want the premium product (called a degree), you have to pay.
I’ve already written about what I think the future holds for the academic course as the primary delivery system for knowledge and this new trend of making higher education more like open source software seems to me to be further confirmation of my belief that information technology is undermining the very basis of the business model in higher education.
Because this post has gone on long enough, I’ll stop here. Tomorrow I’ll speculate on just what I think will come next.
5 thoughts on “Can Higher Education Be Open Source?”
I just posted something along similar lines on my blog a few minutes ago! I am pondering the use of blogs, wikis, feed aggregators and free media production tools like audacity to create a more robust and engaging learning experience and learning communities for students. These are open source and free and based on the huge license and support costs for institutions for turn-key platforms, a modest support cost for such apps should not be an issue. It seems to be a no-brainer, but takes a bit of creative planning and strategizing up top.
The new generation of Web 2.0 products have cleaner code, run more simply, are cheap and easy to maintain, and can be totally open source to the degree that an undergrad student can make code modifications as needed. But shelling out cheap support fees for such applications on institution wide implementations would still be cheaper than yearly fees in excess of 20K just for the software as it is!
Thanks for the comment. It’s really beyond me why universities (like mine) are spending many tens of thousands of dollars each year on enterprise software to run campus email, especially when platforms like gmail and Yahoo! mail work just fine (if not better) and are free.
Of course, universities would have to employ a couple of staff people to do initial training and help out the clueless when they can’t figure out where all their emails went, but that cost would be substantially below what they are spending right now.
My own institution still does not support open source blogging platforms like WordPress. Instead, we went through a third party vendor for a “custom” WordPress installation. Paying someone else to install free software…go figure.
True. And what also bugs me is that ePortfoliuo products have such poor convergence with blogging platforms when I think that they should be one and the same to be truly effective.
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