August 2008

"Man perfected by society is the best of all animals; he is the most terrible of all when he lives without law, and without justice."


Open source software (OSS) is becoming more prominent within the education market as more educational institutions turn towards open source as a solution that meets their needs. However, open source is not appropriate for all, and institutions should be cautious about implementing OSS. When adopting open source, institutions should ensure it is a strategic decision and not just a philosophical one.

At Datamonitor, a provider of online data, analytic and forecasting platforms for key vertical sectors, we believe that the role of OSS will become increasingly important in education. The solutions available are becoming more sophisticated and stable. Currently, 56% of education institutions are using OSS and open source is clearly making headway into the education market. Furthermore, there are a number of varying factors driving institutions towards OSS and not all institutions are implementing OSS for the same reason.

OSS offers an alternative method through which an institution can implement a technological solution, along with its own variety of benefits and pitfalls. However, the increased popularity of OSS will not prevent proprietary software solutions from having an important role to play in education. Instead, OSS and proprietary solutions are going to become even more entwined together and the line between open source and proprietary solutions will blur. [Editor's note: A report detailing the forecasted spending on open source initiatives in education is available for purchase from Datamonitor.]

Suitability of OSS

It is easy to get carried away with enthusiasm for OSS and to believe that it is always of benefit. However, not all OSS applications will prove suitable or popular for education. For example, enterprise resource planning (ERP) software has yet to make significant inroads into the open source arena. It is likely to take a number of years before it does, if ever, because of the complexity of ERP applications.

Certain applications used by educational organizations are particularly suited to open source. Specifically, these are learning management systems (LMS) and operating systems. LMS fit well with OSS because these solutions have education at their heart, making it even more important that institutions have key input. From a business perspective, it makes more sense for companies offering services to concentrate on these two areas.

Open source alternatives for operating systems have become accessible and easy to use, with Linux being the most well known. Open source operating systems will prove successful in education because they provide viable, sophisticated alternatives to current proprietary solutions that dominate the market. Furthermore, the cost of Microsoft Windows can prove beyond the means of many institutions, especially in K-12 (kindergarten to grade 12) and emerging markets.

Some institutions believe that they get a higher return on investment (ROI) from OSS. Many institutions understand that OSS is not actually free as there are many other associated costs with implementing OSS. However, they still feel that the value of their investment is not being fully achieved from proprietary software. Institutions consider that an undue percentage of the cost for proprietary software licenses is lining shareholder's pockets and funding expensive marketing campaigns. While this may be an incorrect perception, it is helping to drive institutions towards OSS. Institutions feel that nearly all investment that goes into OSS is going into the development of the product. Thus, they achieve a higher ROI and end up with a superior product over which they have some control compared to that which a traditional proprietary vendor could have provided.

Motivations for OSS Adoption

A number of governments have adopted policies that compel education institutions to implement OSS as they believe it will benefit their country over using proprietary solutions. They are also implementing policies that will force institutions to move towards OSS in order to save money. While governments are in a position to save money with OSS when implementing operating systems, the financial savings will prove much harder to achieve with other applications.

Some of the motivation for adopting open source is a matter of exerting independence away from a certain amount of American dominance, coupled with a feeling that OSS will enable the government to achieve more control over the products in their schools. Central to this concept is a desire to exert further independence from Microsoft. For example, France is showing a propensity towards open source: they moved all of their servers in their local education authorities to Linux at the behest of the Ministry of Education. Such factors are helping to drive the market forward. In addition, some developing countries are looking towards adopting open source initiatives. For example, the State of Kerala in India is now advocating that all departments, including schools, move to desktop Linux and other OSS. While cost savings may prove a motivating factor, it is moving away from American dominance of the software market that is helping to push them towards OSS. Furthermore, the emerging markets of Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) wish to establish themselves as independent, strong economies. Not having to depend on software is a part of this: while they may use US developed OSS, they have their own input into any solution.

OSS Considerations

Implementing OSS is not an undertaking that any institution should take lightly. Implementing OSS, specifically one that is not an operating system, is unlikely to be more cost effective than a proprietary solution. Furthermore, an institution needs to employ or have access to experienced personnel who are able to implement and maintain OSS. While OSS often has a community that exists to offer support, it is dependent on the good will and time of others and there is no guarantee that any glitch will be solved in a certain amount of time. Many institutions, especially those in K-12 and smaller institutions, do not have this expertise. We believe that these factors will hold back OSS from becoming as widespread as some open source proponents believe. Datamonitor's survey of 150 information technology (IT) decision makers in higher education reveals that the smaller an institution's IT budget, the more hesitant they are about adopting OSS. Smaller institutions do not have deep pockets and may find that implementing OSS costs more than a proprietary solution. Institutions should carefully consider the benefits of implementing OSS. These benefits are not universal and OSS is not suitable for all institutions. Benefits can include: i) increased control over the product; ii) better interoperability with other solutions; and iii) reduced cost.

By implementing OSS, institutions are able to increase their control over software. With OSS, end users are free to customize the software to meet their specific needs. A good example is Moodle, an open source LMS. Furthermore, as part of this increased control, the risks associated with vendor lock-in are diminished. With proprietary software, an institution will have software upgrades forced upon them. With OSS, institutions are free to develop and upgrade the software when they see fit.

When implementing any solution, institutions must grapple with the challenge of ensuring that it integrates with other software solutions already in place. OSS is often easier to integrate with other solutions as OSS code can be customized to allow disparate systems to interoperate more easily. Interoperability is important because it can bring together both an institution's learning data and CRM application, thus giving an institution real depth and analysis into their students' activities.

In the increasingly competitive environment for students in today's society, institutions need to ensure that they choose the best and most suitable technology solutions for their institution. Institutions should conduct the necessary due diligence to ensure that they are selecting an appropriate solution, be it open source or proprietary. The areas of cost, quality of product, support from software provider, and internal resources to support software should be evaluated against a proprietary solution. With OSS, it is imperative that due care and attention are maintained as there are a number of specific challenges that can occur when implementing OSS.


OSS is not always right for an institution and certain applications and types of institution are more suited to open source than others. While institutions should always carefully evaluate OSS on its merits, there are certain cases when open source is going to prove a viable alternative and certain cases when it will prove a risky endeavour. Operating systems are likely to provide the most value for K-12 institutions, open source LMS fit well with institutions wishing to have increased control, and institutions entering into an ERP open source solution should proceed with caution.

When assisting and advising institutions, vendors should consider OSS on its merits to that institution. In no case should OSS be adopted for any reason other than strategic. In addition, not all applications are suitable for all institutions and vendors should ensure that they only recommend accordingly. Clearly, open source is going to play an increasingly significant role within education, and this will continue to create opportunities for vendors that are able to offer services.

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