This article discusses the reasons for the decision of Riga Technical University (RTU) in Latvia to choose an open source product as the application to create ORTUS. ORTUS is an acronym for Open Riga Technical University Services and provides the single point of entry into electronic services for the University.
Latvia is a country of 2.3 million people, located in Northern Europe on the Baltic Sea. The country was occupied by the Soviet Union from 1945 to 1991. Upon separation from the USSR, Latvia reestablished its parliamentary republic in continuity with its pre-occupation status. It has a majority ethnic Latvian population with a significant (30%) Russian minority.
The official language of Latvia is Latvian, with Russian a common second language. As a small country, Latvia recognizes the importance of education and technology and has stressed the acquisition of higher education and multiple-language fluency (primarily English). This means that the Latvian information technology (IT) industry has worked actively to both localize software products into Latvian and to take local products and provide them in multiple languages. A number of open source programs and platforms have been localized, including Latvian versions of Open Office with a Latvian dictionary available.
Riga Technical University (RTU), the second largest university in Latvia, has a history of technical innovation. With a strong academic base in engineering fields, the University offers a wide range of technical programmes. The physical facility of RTU is spread throughout Riga and includes branches in other cities in Latvia. RTU has eight faculties and a student population of over 17,000.
RTU has had pockets of early adopters of technologies for various academic and institutional needs. In the late 1990s, the RTU Riga Business School (RBS) created its own course content management system, known as On-line Assistant. It began as a relatively straightforward means for faculty to provide class and course content to students. The functionality was extended to include student course registration and student financial management, such as providing semester bills. Instructors used the system largely as a platform to supplement in-class materials. RTU's Center of Distance Education used the commercial Blackboard product for similar purposes. By 2006, there was no common platform to support the substantial use of course content management at RTU. Administration recognized the need to develop a coherent IT strategy for RTU. To save resources where reasonable, a strategy was developed with the University of Latvia, Latvia's largest university, to use common standards and software platforms.
IT Strategy Recommendations
In 2006, RTU undertook an institution-wide review of its IT use, needs and strategy. The review looked at all systems in place at RTU, examined their advantages and disadvantages, surveyed functionalities that might be available, and made recommendations regarding future IT needs and institutional strategy for IT development. Stakeholder groups included students, faculty, administrative workers and academic administration. The review was both broad and deep.
The review made a number of recommendations. The primary recommendation was that as many services as possible should be made available through an online portal, and that there should be a single portal entry for all services. Among the services that were to be made available online were:
- library services, including database access
- financial services, including the ability for students to check their financial status
In addition, there was a need for course content management with a wide range of functionalities including:
- document posting
- multimedia posting
- grade posting
- discussion and discussion groups
- personnel matters such as checking on vacation time availability
- email access
- phone and university contact database
Comparing Commercial and Open Source Solutions
The administration responsible for implementation recognized that choosing the right core application(s) was of primary importance. Various units of RTU already had experience with a range of course content management systems and portals, including the commercial Blackboard product, self-developed systems, and the open source Moodle system.
Administration considered the following as significant criteria for choosing an application as the core of the system:
Flexibility: the system had to be language adaptable, expandable and capable of handling heavy demand.
Cost: as these decisions were being made, it was becoming apparent that funding for education might contract and that the price was important.
Support: the system would be complex and support needed to be available.
Stability: the system had to be robust enough to withstand the demands of RTU.
User friendly: the system needed to be open to user requirements.
In a broad sense, administration saw significant differences between commercial and open source applications. Each had its drawbacks. Limitations of commercial solutions included:
Cost: often prohibitively expensive.
Support: the user might be in a situation where they asked questions and are given answers, but they often failed to learn from the interaction.
Flexibility: in many ways, RTU would be subject to the commercial market whims of the producer. If RTU desired new functionality, but the producer did not see commercial viability, the firm was unlikely to expend efforts to provide it.
Limited ability: to participate in further growth or development of the functionality of the product. As an academic institution, it is important that the academic community have the ability to participate in the development of the product.
The limitations for open source included:
- potentially unstable or unreliable code
- the developer community for that product might not be interested in the issues that RTU introduces
- potential lags in development time
- limited and possibly unreliable support
The advantages were, ultimately, more important in making the decision. Open source advantages were seen as:
- the openness of the code/product
- the ability to recruit developer community assistance
- considerably lower barriers to extension or expansion of functionality
- cost, especially the costs associated with expanding the functioning of the product
One very important criteria was the ability to combine resources with the University of Latvia to provide language localisation. Finally, the decision was made to use an open source product.
RTU chose Moodle based on these criteria:
- the IT Institute at RTU had used Moodle and found it stable and reliable
- the University of Latvia was going to move to a Moodle platform
- the number of Moodle installations was constantly growing
- the modular structure of Moodle made it easier to change, extend, create, and individualize its structure
- Moodle was cheaper than comparable commercial products with little functional difference
- Moodle has a large and active developer community
- the next iteration of Moodle was already in development and RTU and its developers could be actively involved
- an understanding that open source is the future for this type of technology
The implementation process involved all important stakeholder groups with a plan including functional development, testing and active education of the various user groups. A full-time, dedicated database manager was hired and various academic departments were involved in supporting or creating user training projects. RTU also did small research projects with the aim of demonstrating the effectiveness of the use of course content management systems to instructors. The University has a dedicated help desk for problems and questions.
Most members of the RTU community have been enrolled in the portal and there are up to 4,000 users logging into the system per day. The portal provides single password entry, filtered by authorities, into all services that are available online. Training for academic personnel is offered on an as-needed and as-requested basis.
RTU's experience in choosing and implementing Moodle was a great success. It was simple enough to integrate Moodle with the existing student management system, student portal, and the service for single signon.
We will always consider open source as a first alternative for future IT projects. When evaluating a potential open source candidate, we keep in mind to look at the community and maturity of the particular open source project.