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Community Source Springs Forth

Implementing new administrative systems software takes time, but support for community source projects is gaining ground.

By Anna Jackson

The idea is simple: Institutions pool their talent and financial resources to create mutually beneficial software, then share it with others in the community to download and customize as they see fit. In the past few years, colleges and universities have migrated to community-based initiatives in lieu of proprietary alternatives to update administrative systems software. These initiatives generally include institutions with like-minded needs and goals, commercial vendors that either help develop or support the community’s work, and frequently an agency that contributes funding to the project. While some projects have been in existence for years, others continue to enter the marketplace offering institutions practical solutions for a variety of campus applications, from course management to financial systems.

The origin of higher education community source projects can be traced to the advent of enterprise operating system software such as Linux. First referred to as “free” software, the label was inherently ambiguous and misleading because the software wasn’t always free of charge. In the late 1990s, the term open source was coined. Now several initiatives are referring to such software as community source to better reflect the collaborative nature of development and delivery, as is the case with many of the higher education software initiatives. Brad Wheeler, of Indiana University, recently received a new title reflective of the university’s commitment to this notion. Wheeler, associate vice president for community source initiatives and dean of IT, offers the following tagline to explain the preferred terminology: “Community investments for community outcomes in the open source tradition.”

On the Rise

As open source moved into the world of higher education in the past five years, one project quickly rose to prominence, attracting widespread and deep interest. This project zeroed in on a core mission relevant to all colleges and universities: teaching and learning. As such, the Sakai Project was born, a $6.8 million course management system development project founded by the University of Michigan, Indiana University, MIT, Stanford, the uPortal Consortium, and the Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI) with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Additional community source groups have emerged and continue to do so, providing colleges and universities with several viable options.

As the number of projects has increased, the rate of participation in many of the groups has grown as well. The Sakai Project, for example, now includes more than 70 institutional members. Some institutions, such as Indiana University– Bloomington, are active in multiple community source initiatives and have dedicated significant staff resources to leading software development in these projects. “We see value in being involved up front,” explains Barry Walsh, senior director of e-business services. Rather than sitting on the sidelines waiting for the finalized software, the university has pursued leadership roles in the Sakai Project, the Open Source Portfolio Initiative (OSPI), and the Kuali Project. In fact, Wheeler serves as chair or vice chair on each of the initiatives and Walsh is actively involved with Kuali as the project’s overall director.

Instead of suffering in a scenario where free-rider behavior thrives, community source initiatives prosper from a truly collaborative environment. In his book, The Success of Open Source, Stephen Weber notes that all members add value because even those who simply use the software contribute to the cause as testers. Walsh says that people from other institutions sometimes question the value of participating in these community groups when the software will eventually be made available to all. For Walsh, the answer is simple: the knowledge gained through experience. “On the one hand, they won’t have gone through the pain and suffering of developing the software,” Walsh explains. “But on the other hand, they won’t know the software as intimately as we do.”

Slowly but Surely

Institutions that sign on to community source initiatives should not expect immediate solutions. Aside from being tasked with developing the software itself, these groups are designed to test versions with participants supplying feedback to improve future versions of the software. It is an exhaustive project but one that teaches valuable lessons along the way. Even after all of this hard work, however, the battle is not over for some IT professionals. These staff must often get other campus administrators on board for community source before the software can be fully implemented.

Depending on the stage of development, the associated workload for project members may ebb and flow. This is true for Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, which has been involved for the past three years with the uPortal initiative—a “pocket-sized” version of the campus Web presence with customization and community options. The university is also an active participant in the Sakai Project and currently has seven courses running on the software in pilot mode. Philip Long, director of information technology services and CIO, hopes to have more courses using the course management system in full production next fall. In the meantime, the university will work with the Sakai development team this summer on a demonstration tool that will complete interoperability between Sakai and uPortal. Like workload demands, Long recognizes that the university’s contributions to community source initiatives will come and go over time; he therefore welcomes a broad participant pool.

The University of Montana, Missoula, has been involved in the CampusEAI Consortium since fall 2003, but software integration is progressing more slowly. This consortium provides a depository for member institutions to upload, download, use, and exchange portlets and digital content developed by community members. Gordy Pace, director of application and media development and enterprise portal project manager, says the sheer volume of participants—now more than 70—has created some logistical challenges related to communication mechanisms for members. The university is currently testing an alpha release of the portal, but Pace hopes to have pilot users soon. A production release of the portal is expected in January 2006. Pace says it’s been slow getting all the pieces in place for software integration, “but I’m optimistic that we’re going to see some rapid developments soon.”

Cochise College, a small community college founded in Douglas, Arizona, is awaiting similar approval from administrators. Along with Indiana University and others, Cochise is participating in OSPI, which is developing software that provides a secure repository for students to create and store work during their college career. George Self, director of the online campus, says students that piloted the software really liked it and faculty members were generally supportive. Until a final decision is reached, campus users will continue to pilot and tweak the software. “My hope is that by August, OSPI will be up and running on campus,” Self says.

Beyond the Pocketbook

Community source participants are quick to note that, despite its growing popularity, open/community source is not synonymous with free software. The University of Montana pays $30,000 annually to be part of the CampusEAI Consortium, not to mention the investment of staff time and resources. According to Pace, this investment is still considerably less than purchasing vendor software, and the university has enjoyed other benefits through the collaboration. When Pace took members of his staff to Pullman, Washington, to work on the CampusEAI portal with Washington State University employees, they discovered another tool of interest. Washington State’s in-house tool seemed to fill a need back in Missoula: a reliable cross-campus communication channel that will save the university money by reducing printing and postage costs. The University of Montana is now working with the consortium to move code from Washington State to make it generic for use by other campuses, including its own.

Big Bump for Kuali
In late March, the Kuali Project received a huge boost—a $2.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the addition of four institutional partners. Cornell University, Ithaca, New York; San Joaquin Delta College, Stockton, California; Michigan State University, East Lansing; and the University of Arizona, Tucson, have joined the project as core investors. Brad Wheeler, chairman of the board for the project, believes the new partners and particularly San Joaquin Delta College will bolster the project’s efforts. “The addition of a community college is enormous; it is very important to bring that perspective to Kuali.” In terms of future plans, software development is under way and project managers hope to have a baseline model available next March. “We’re optimists,” Wheeler says. “The grant and new partners confirm our original plans for the project.”

Montana’s experience is a prime example of the merits of collaboration, a model that Walsh believes will be significant for the future of community source. Participation in burgeoning projects affords many nonfinancial advantages, according to Walsh, namely increasing opportunities for institutional leadership, learning to collaborate effectively with others, and gaining knowledge for future work. “By participating in the Sakai Project, we were able to parlay that expertise into shaping the Kuali Project,” he says of Indiana’s experiences.

For smaller institutions, participating in just one such project can stretch the resources of a small IT staff. At Cochise College, Self does not benefit from a luxury that larger institutions enjoy: a computer science department with willing students. Self describes this lack of additional resources as the college’s “single greatest challenge,” especially when he and his staff run into difficulties. While the staff have navigated the challenges of the new technology effectively, they did hire the r•smart group to help set up the portfolio software. Even with these additional costs, Self says it has been very reasonable for his campus to use community source, especially compared with the prospect of purchasing proprietary software outright.

At Yale, campus personnel carefully analyzed these tradeoffs between community source and vendor software before engaging in the uPortal and Sakai projects. “Community source has a higher risk than vendor software, but we think it has a higher payoff,” Long says of their decision. He notes that initiatives provide campuses with greater control over the cost or customization of the software, while allowing institutions like Yale to exert influence on future projects of particular relevance. With his eye to the future, Long is “quite excited about the prospects for community source” because he believes such projects have demonstrated a reasonable history of success.

Wheeler believes the advent of community source projects will be a significant milestone for higher education IT. “These projects are really solidifying a new model at an opportune time,” he says. “Not only are they economically attractive, but the software really works.” Wheeler says such projects will save the higher education community millions of dollars over the next several years. At the same time, the financial investments are significant—the Kuali, Sakai, and OSPI efforts represent approximately $16 million collectively.

Forward Thinking

Building on the early achievements of community source initiatives, colleges and universities are pushing the emerging software to its full potential. According to Self, Cochise’s goals for electronic portfolios extend beyond the advantages that such software provides to students. Instead, the college is hoping to use e-portfolios as an institutional assessment tool. Meanwhile, Yale has authored a central authentication system that it has extended to support both uPortal and Sakai so users can access all applications through a single sign-on. And at Montana, Pace and his staff hope to use the CampusEAI software to enhance recruitment and enrollment efforts. The university would eventually like to engage prospective students in the community via the portal in an effort to improve its yield rate.

Hands On: Community Source in Baltimore

Want more information? Attend a preconference program devoted to community source issues at the 2005 NACUBO Annual Meeting in Baltimore. The workshop will feature demonstrations of the Kuali financial systems software—a community source initiative led by Indiana University, the University of Hawaii, Cornell University, the University of Arizona, Michigan State University, San Joaquin Delta College, the r•smart group, and NACUBO. The Kuali Project seeks to create a suite of fiscal prudence tools to serve the needs of all Carnegie Class institutions. In addition, the event will include sessions highlighting best practices in fiscal policies and internal controls, materials for fiscal officer development, and community source participation options.

“Community Source: A Possible Alternative to Buy or Build for Financial Systems” will be held Saturday, July 9, 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. To register online, visit www.nacuboannualmeeting.org, or for more information, contact Craig Dellorso, NACUBO’s chief information officer, 202.861.2590, craig.dellorso@nacubo.org.

It’s not surprising that institutions have developed additional uses for community source software, Wheeler notes. Another expected development will be a marketplace that emerges to provide support for the community source sector. What’s more significant, in Wheeler’s opinion, is the fact that users are taking a core system and innovating around the edges. “This phenomenon is very gratifying,” he says. “It’s exactly what we’d hoped would happen.”

Despite these positive indicators, obstacles will inevitably emerge as colleges and universities maneuver the intricacies of developing and implementing complex administrative systems software. However, with a model built on collaboration, community source initiatives ensure that no participant is stranded on the side of the road. Instead, through continued partnerships, institutions come together to share much more than code, acting as both teachers and students in an environment where everyone is learning. If all of the indicators are to be believed, institutions currently on the sidelines may well benefit from joining the community.

Author Bio Anna Jackson, Chicago, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.
E-mail jackson.anna@gmail.com