Pages: pp. 239-248
Abstract—The higher education community is concerned about the cost and performance of commercial software products. A common view is that existing proprietary options do not have the features required by instructors and students or allow for cost-effective customization. One way to address these problems in poorer countries, and hence improve their quality of education and access to knowledge, would be to consider the modern educational tools available with no license fees through open-source software. This paper presents an initial development of a complete open-source software platform called the Open University Project, which contains software that precisely fulfills user requirements in the higher education sector. The paper also highlights the financial advantages of introducing open-source software in developing countries and its positive impact on educational quality.
Index Terms—Proprietary software, higher education sector, open-source software, platform development, developing countries.
The importance of higher education (HE) has led most countries to invest millions of dollars in developing HE curricula and infrastructure in colleges and universities. At the university level, setting up an IT department is an expensive proposition, especially considering the numerous software products, licenses, and upgrades, which must be purchased, as well as support for these products and tools. There are two main software paradigms: Open-Source Software (OSS) and closed or proprietary software. OSS is software that is available under a special license, which means that anyone can access the program code without the license constraints associated with many types of proprietary software. By contrast, proprietary software is developed by a business enterprise to generate profit from the licensing and rental or sale of the software itself.
According to Courant and Griffiths [ 1], "There has been increasing interest in the potential of open source to address longstanding concerns in the HE community regarding the cost and performance of commercial software products. A common view is that existing proprietary options do not have the features required or allow for cost-effective customization." Moreover, Courant and Griffiths [ 1] state that OSS is a viable solution to this problem and that university leaders are receptive to it. Recently, the authors of this paper have completed the process of developing the IT infrastructure for ALHOSN University, which is a new, modern, and private university in the thriving city of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Courant and Griffiths [ 1] mention the following major problems they faced. First, it was very difficult to determine how much should be spent to develop a university IT infrastructure. Second, they found that after purchasing various systems, the users were not happy with the results. The only option for some systems was to move from one provider to another, which is costly. It also affected user productivity, since expensive customizations had to be repeated and interfaces with other systems rebuilt. Third, it was noted that software deployed in the HE sector is adapted from industry software, and often does not work well for educational institutions. Fourth, the development of administrative and learning management systems is dominated by a small number of companies, and so the range of options available is limited.
These problems inspired us to develop our initial platform, called the Open University Project (OUP). The OUP is aimed at helping universities reduce their spending on software licenses and focus on support. It is also intended to promote awareness of OSS and its importance, as well as its impact on the HE sector, especially in developing countries. The objective of this paper is to identify the steps and provide clear guidelines for developing an OSS platform for the HE sector. This platform consists of a carefully selected set of software products that fulfill user requirements. In this paper, OSS also includes free software.
The paper is organized as follows: Following Section 1, Section 2 compares OSS with proprietary software. Section 3 provides a literature review of solutions similar to the OUP. Section 4 explains the methodology for developing the OUP. Section 5 presents the composition of the OUP platform. Section 6 highlights the financial advantages of the project. Section 7 lists the advantages of deploying OSS in developing countries and in the HE sector. Section 8 identifies directions for future work. Finally, the paper concludes with an emphasis on the importance of using OSS in the HE sector.
OSS is defined as software, the source code of which is available to all users. Perens [ 2] and Raymond [ 3] add that users should not only be provided with the source code, but also have the right to use it. This is the definition that is currently supported by the Open Source Initiative (OSI). The OSI [ 4] defines the open source as "a development method for software that harnesses the power of distributed peer review and transparency of process. The promise of open source is better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost, and an end to predatory vendor lock-in." According to Kerr [ 5], the development of free software is motivated by an altruistic desire to improve society at large: society comes first and individual commercial gain a distant second.
According to the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), Software Division [ 6], the term "proprietary software" describes software developed by a business enterprise to generate profit from the licensing and rental or sale of the software itself. The term "closed" is used to indicate that the source code is to be treated as confidential and proprietary information which belongs to the developer alone. In this paper, proprietary software also includes closed software.
While the purpose of this paper is not to weigh the pros and cons of OSS versus proprietary software, it is important to highlight a few of their principal differences. According to Kerr [ 5], the orientation of proprietary software is to make a profit and maintain full control of the product. The source code of this kind of software is closed, making creation and modification the exclusive preserve of those to whom the owner gives access. In their study, "Software and Collaboration in Higher Education: A Study of Open Source Software" [ 1], Courant and Griffiths maintain that many college and university leaders are dissatisfied with the cost and performance of software and that this is a matter of significant concern to them. The use of OSS has grown rapidly in the last decade, and its growth has been accelerating over that period [ 7]. It is widely used in many domains, most notably in the operation of computers and computer networks. Among the best-known applications are the Apache Web server, which runs 65 percent of active Web sites [ 8], and Linux, which is estimated to operate on 20 percent of servers [ 9]. However, according to Courant and Griffiths [ 1], there are two main problems regarding the deployment of OSS in the HE sector. First, a lack of support for noncommercial products used in production systems, and second, many managers see community-developed OSS as insufficiently expert to be used for activities that are essential business operations of the university. However, these authors point out that, in many contexts, OSS is used in a very competent way. Apache and Linux are part of the operating fabric of thousands of commercial and noncommercial enterprises. Abel [ 10] found that 57 percent of institutions in the US use some form of open-source infrastructure software, such as operating systems, Web servers, and databases, and 34 percent have implemented open-source application software, such as course management systems, Web browsers, and spam filters. Courant and Griffiths [ 1] said that, "For schools with limited resources, the ability to acquire software without paying license fees is an important advantage. However, because these institutions also tend to have small IT departments, open source is only a serious option if it is very easy to install and maintain (Moodle appears to be meeting this test)."
Computer Economics recently conducted a survey of visitors to its Web site regarding the perceived advantages of using OSS. The survey indicates that IT decision makers value "reduced dependence on software vendors" as the most important advantage of open source, and not cost savings. Such dependence includes the necessity for the buyer to accept version upgrades that may not be needed or wanted [ 11]. The comparison between proprietary software and OSS has attracted more and more attention over the years [ 1], [ 2], [ 3], [ 5], [ 7], [ 8], [ 9], [ 10], [ 11], [ 12], [ 13], [ 14], [ 15], [ 16], [ 17], [ 29]. According to Weber [ 13], the term "better" is a vague one in describing software. Like any other tool, software has quality attributes, such as reliability, usability, robustness, flexibility, and cost. There is no single optimal balance between these attributes, and much depends on the distinct needs of users. All things being equal, cheaper software with less serious bugs is usually preferable. However, even these criteria are hard to evaluate. Table 1 summarizes the pros and cons of proprietary software and OSS.
In his article, Edward [ 14] makes the following judgment: "Both models have been proven to work. Both benefit the users and the vendors, though in different ways. Also, both can be subject to piracy, with different results: proprietary software can be illegally copied, and free software can be improperly included in commercial software without making the derivative result available." All the OSS selected for the platform is well established and can be relied upon for the essential operations of a small- or medium-sized university.
Many OSS programs have achieved a level of maturity that makes them comparable to their proprietary equivalents. For instance, Munoz and Duzer [ 15] of Humboldt State University conducted a survey on satisfaction with online teaching and learning tools during a course delivered through both Moodle and Blackboard. Blackboard is a Learning Management System (LMS) software and partially owned by Microsoft. It is popular and used around the world. Over $1 million is spent annually at California State University (CSU) on its licenses [ 15]. Moodle is a free OSS LMS, and is supported by software developers worldwide. The main question posed in the survey is the following: "Can OSS satisfactorily meet the needs of students, faculty, and instructional technologists for online teaching and learning?"
The survey showed that student satisfaction with the two solutions is quite comparable, with a slight preference for Moodle. More significant differences emerge from the instructor and developer assessment. Table 2 presents the percentage of students who strongly agree.
The last question in the survey is, "Which do you prefer, Moodle or Blackboard?" A total of 49.2 percent of students had no preference, 35.7 percent preferred Moodle, and 21.4 percent preferred Blackboard. Another example of where OSS can compete with the proprietary software is the creation by the Plain Black Corporation of the CMS Matrix site several years ago in an attempt to provide a comprehensive list of Content Management Systems (CMS) [ 16]. The CMS Matrix provides a detailed comparison of 56 CMS (145 features of CMS grouped in 10 software quality attributes). Table 3 gives summarized ratings of SharePoint Portal server 2003, which is Microsoft's portal product application, and Drupal 6.6. This is free OSS, which allows an individual or a community of users to publish, manage, and organize content on a Web site. The numbers of comparisons, with other CMS, are 18,615 and 277,667 for SharePoint Portal and Drupal, respectively. The values in the table present the mean value, out of 10, of all the ratings for each software product per software quality attribute.
None of this proves that OSS is better than proprietary software, but it proposes that OSS is an option, which can compete effectively in the marketplace so that software users are able to decide among the available alternatives.
According to Weber [ 13], the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for OSS analysis has been controversial, in part because the cost details of upgrades and maintenance is rather ambiguous relative to proprietary pricing. Yet, in some stages of ownership, there is a basis to believe that OSS may be advantageous to the TCO. For instance, when an organization is gathering information about available solutions, OSS can be tested without delay. Often, the OSS acquisition is cheaper. Deployment and training are sometimes more expensive with OSS, as several proprietary software companies have put a great deal of effort into making their software simple to install and configure. Nevertheless, the accessibility to the source code allows the use of internal expertise to repair errors or modify customization, as well as to enlist external support from the open-source community worldwide. Although the closed-source approach seems to be appropriate for the general public, source code availability and the adoption of open standards offer interesting advantages to government administrations and military systems. Charpentier and Carbone [ 17] stated in their report that the need for greater flexibility, more competition in software supplies, and, finally, direct cost savings will tend to justify considering OSS in the next decade. Indeed, proprietary software and OSS can coexist, since they are supported by different communities who work according to different standards.
OSS occupies a growing segment of the software market. There are many OSS projects serving users in the HE sector, but only a small number of them have had a great deal of actual, or even potential, influence in this market to date. These include the operating system Linux, the Web server Apache, and the MySQL database. According to the ITAA Software Division, "Today there are an estimated 2.6 million Web and file servers running Linux" [ 10]. SchoolForge [ 18] is an example of a foundry that has developed a number of beneficial resources through its project history. Its roots are in a project owned by Simple End User Linux (SEUL) called SEUL/edu, which initiated the effort toward creating and fostering viable, vibrant OSS in the educational community. The Special Interest Group in OSS for Education in Europe (SIGOSSEE) Project and the JOIN Project [ 19] are further examples of initiatives created to investigate the uses and benefits of OSS and open content, and inform and advise the educational community on them. In their report, Courant and Griffiths [ 1] provide an exhaustive list of existing initiatives and organizations related to OSS in the HE sector.
To the best of our knowledge, there is virtually no complete platform serving the HE sector in the open-source literature. This paper introduces the OUP, which is a complete software platform containing all the applications required by a modern university. The OUP is unique among free software products which have been built through the integration of OSS.
The sections below give the current implementation details of the OUP and describe the components that are installed and operational on the pilot project at ALHOSN University.
According to the Internet community [ 20], the two best-rated clients (desktops) are openSUSE 10.2, representing the Red Hat Package Manager (RPM) package format, and Ubuntu 7.10 (Desktop Edition), representing DEBIAN (a computer operating system composed entirely of software which is both free and open source) package format. Since the server version of openSUSE is also top-rated [ 20], it was selected to be the Operating System (OS) for the platform on both sides.
The openSUSE project is a community program sponsored by Novell. Promoting the use of Linux everywhere, openSUSE.org provides free, easy access to the world's most usable Linux distribution. With the launch of the openSUSE project, openSUSE is now being developed in open model public development builds and releases, with access to openSUSE's Bugzilla database for defect reporting [ 21].
By default, all OSS, including office applications, Internet and communications applications, graphics applications, and utilities applications, are installed automatically without any need to download, install, or configure anything, if the typical installation mode for openSUSE is selected. A normal user has free access to all the software without the need to be an administrator or log in using the "root" account. All screenshots ( Figs. 1, 2, 3, and 4) are taken from the OUP Platform in order to illustrate its implementation progress.
Fig. 1. Office applications.
Fig. 2. Utilities applications.
Fig. 3. Internet applications.
Fig. 4. Graphics applications.
Not all OSS products listed in this section are installed automatically if the typical installation mode for openSUSE is selected, although most of it is available with the openSUSE 10.2 installation DVD. Instead, users must download some products from the Internet, and then install and configure them. Moreover, a normal user cannot access any of the software listed below unless he is an administrator or logs in using the "root" account.
All infrastructure application server packages are found on openSUSE installation DVD or CDs, so there is no need to download them. They are easily installed using the Software Installer tool provided by openSUSE 10.2 or the software management tool, YAST2.
In addition to the infrastructure application servers, OUP has servers such as Moodle, Focus/SIS, and Vtiger. Moodle is an open-source LMS. It requires Apache and MySQL to be installed before starting its own installation. The Moodle setup will create all the necessary database objects during installation. Fig. 5 is a screenshot taken from the Moodle application server hosted on the OUP Platform.
Fig. 5. Moodle application server hosted on the OUP Platform.
Focus/SIS is an open-source Students Information System (SIS) which aims to fulfill all the data needs of universities and colleges. It is built upon free, enterprise-level technologies, like Linux, Apache, PostgreSQL, and PHP [ 22]. Fig. 6 shows a screenshot taken from the Focus/SIS application server hosted on the OUP Platform.
Fig. 6. Focus/SIS application server hosted on the OUP Platform.
Vtiger ( Fig. 7) is an open-source Customer Relationship Management (CRM) solution built over a LAMP/WAMP stack and other third-party open-source packages.
Fig. 7. Vtiger application server hosted on the OUP Platform.
Table 4 summarizes the main server applications of the OUP.
The first openSUSE project was completed under the sponsorship of Novell Networks, which was originally a company that specialized in networks and security, and so security was taken into consideration in this project. Physically, openSUSE comes with a built-in firewall application (YAST Firewall) [ 23]. In version 10.3, there is a special Anti-Virus/Firewall system developed especially for openSUSE [ 24].
Although openSUSE does not yet have an Arabic user interface (UI) like some versions of Microsoft Windows, it was built based on the UNICODE technology, which supports some languages by default, including Arabic, and the openSUSE localization team is currently working on translating the UI [ 23]. Fig. 8 is a screenshot of a file with an Arabic title and containing Arabic text.
Figure Fig. 8. Arabic User Interface of openSUSE from the OUP Platform.
Apart from the methodology described above, the main criterion for selecting OSS for the platform is the fulfillment of the same HE sector user requirements as provided by proprietary software. From this perspective, the platform encompasses specific OSS for the HE sector on both the client and server sides. Table 5 presents the open-source products installed on the client computers of the platform.
On the server side, other types of application are required in the HE sector and can be chosen from the available OSS, such as Apache, MySQL, PHP, Manta Mail, etc. Table 6 presents the solutions that are installed on the server side in the platform. It should be noted that using OSS enables users to modify the source code for their own purposes.
Even though all the OSS selected for the platform function properly, they do not have the same level of quality and maturity. For instance, many institutions [ 25], [ 26], [ 27], [ 28] changed the proprietary LMS that they were using, such as Blackboard, to WebCT by Moodle, which is the open-source LMS, for its usability, reliability, and dependability, and not for financial reasons. However, other products in the platform are less mature, like Koha, the Library Management System, even though it is working properly.
The platform can give software customers more influence, since it would put pressure on software vendors to lower prices. In fact, the mere existence of OSS should make a difference in the relationship between software customers and vendors.
With proprietary software, familiarity and experience are widespread, and users are likely to find help from a friend or colleague if they use the most common applications. However, when they use a proprietary solution, the vendor controls the cost, which means that the vendors decide what those institutions have to pay, and when. In contrast, when institutions run OSS, they control their own code. They also control the budget. This is a fairly obvious, but vital, distinction. For the educational community, then, open-source operating systems, Web servers, databases, and desktop computer applications promise to deliver needed capabilities with no licenses fees. Tables 7, 8, 9, and 10 allow organizations to compare the cost of proprietary and OSS installations [ 17]. As stated by Charpentier and Carbone [ 17], the comparison is not intended to be a TCO model. It covers a five-year period with one assumed upgrade of the proprietary installation. Table 7 provides the variables of proprietary software and OSS installations.
Table 8 summarizes the cost of installation of the proprietary software.
Table 9 summarizes the cost of installation of OSS.
Table 10 presents the cost of migration from proprietary software to OSS.
Table 11 lists the costs of the proprietary software, and their equivalent solution in the OSS arena, in use in a real-world IT infrastructure at ALHOSN University in the UAE between 2005 and 2007.
The only claim is that universities can use this platform as a starting point to build up their software infrastructure with no license fees.
In the last few years, governments around the world have started to recommend the use of OSS when it began to provide a feasible alternative to proprietary software. Developing countries have considered such an alternative, as many of these nations suffer from limited information technology budgets and look to the prospective gain from deploying OSS solutions. Moreover, OSS advocates point to its advantages in terms of dealing with mounting network security concerns, and providing public data liability and clarity. Public administrations also take into consideration the significant contribution of OSS use in building local human resource capacity for the information and communication technology industries, as well as its substantial effect on a country's economy.
The governments of several developing countries have embarked on the use of OSS in the public sector and persuaded the private sector to do the same for a number of reasons. These can be categorized into six groups.
First, OSS represents a valuable way to gain independence from single suppliers, who may not be focused on the country's best interests, keeping the main information technology expenditures at home and participating in a promising local software industry. This carries with it the hope of improving indigenous human resources capacity and the country's technical base.
Second, the security and sovereignty of public data is a crucial priority for all governments, especially in the current hostile environment of computer viruses worldwide, and emerging fears of malevolent programs. "At a minimum, introducing diversity into the base of functioning software code reduces the possibility of catastrophic failures due to viruses that attack a monoculture of code" [ 13]. In fact, the necessity for open standards is directly connected to demands for improved liability and clarity in public administrations. For instance, Edgar Villanueva, a Congressman from Peru, initiated the deployment of OSS in all government systems. In his letter to Microsoft Peru [ 29], he stressed that, in order to ensure the free access for citizens to public information, it is essential that data coding and treatment should not be tied to a particular supplier. Essentially, countries must be capable of relying on systems without elements controlled by foreign providers in order to ensure their national security.
Third, there is increased concern worldwide for intellectual property rights; as a result, the existing options for software users are becoming clearer. OSS presents a choice to fulfill proprietary intellectual property requirements. For instance, the OSS council of South Africa [ 30] has admitted that using open standards releases the government from the responsibility of illegal employee usage of proprietary software. Thus, not only can OSS usage reduce costs, but it can allow a different view of intellectual property as well. "If software is 'owned' by everyone, it is also owned by the people on the African continent. This 'ownership' also provides the possibility to influence the direction of its development, and new 'African' features, like the development of user interfaces in local languages, may be proposed" [ 30]. In fact, the accessibility to a panoply of OSS can signify by itself a kind of wealth transfer to any nation and can have positive dynamic impact on the country's economy. Many developing countries have considerable potential in terms of low-cost, specialized manpower. In combination with OSS, this potential produces an advantage that is significant at a national level as well as, in some circumstances, at the international level. At this point, the pledge is that, for users in developing countries, it will become increasingly possible to contribute to software innovation [ 30].
Fourth, OSS opens the door for developing country users to customize applications according to the local market specifications, and encourages the normal growth of applications within particular contexts. Indeed, it will not be convenient for users in the less-developed world to directly adopt the software user interface principles defined in developed countries.
Fifth, OSS can support developing countries' sustainability. Even with its weaknesses, OSS is gaining increasing interest worldwide. For example, when financial support is reduced, the fact that there is no licensing fee is an important feature for less-developed countries. "The openness and flexibility of Open-Source software is more important when considering the question of sustainability in Africa" [ 30]. In developing countries, more and more people know the potential of OSS from a strategic point of view. With its free licenses, more openness, less reliance on software vendors, OSS provides a significant opportunity for shifting the position of less developed countries within the universal information society. In their article [ 30], Reijswoud and Topi stated, "Now that most countries in Africa are connected to the Internet, individual OSS initiatives, which rely on it, are finally thriving. By adopting OSS the company can offer new solutions to the educational sector at low costs." The OSS paradigm provides advantages that are relevant within the developing country context.
Sixth, access to the source code provides, for software development communities in developing countries, an insight into the proprietary software development process and a chance to improve their skills based on such participation. A broad implementation of OSS in developing countries could permit their governments to negotiate better conditions and enhanced functionalities with software suppliers. Over the years and recently, OSS has matured into a serious alternative when considering new software, and its flexibility makes it easy to customize to regional needs. The deployment of OSS needs to be sustained in developing countries, as it will reduce the technological difference gap between north and south, and this may constitute the first step toward true sustainability in the information technology field.
The reputation of some OSS has attracted the attention of governments around the world. Among them are the United Kingdom, Germany, and France, but it is estimated that many other countries are preparing policies and action plans to adopt OSS in their government and industrial systems. According to the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, "The strategic rationale for migrating to OSS is typically related to three main factors: 1) the expectation of direct cost savings, 2) the reduction of economic loss at the national level caused by proprietary software imports, and 3) the hope to better develop national IT expertise by means of access to source code" [ 17]. We can classify the benefits of using OSS in the higher education sector as follows.
Cost-effectiveness. Although some warn that its customization is costly, OSS has been designed to encourage customization and peer review. These attributes can make OSS a viable alternative to commercial equivalents used in HE. Indeed, the primary advantage of OSS is its availability. Besides being free of charge, OSS could be an appropriate solution for start-up universities seeking high-quality products at probably lower price. This also allows managers to assess the suitability of the product to their business needs with no license fees.
Accessibility to knowledge. Open-source-based education improves accessibility to knowledge, especially in low- and middle-income countries through enhancing the use of free, modern educational tools. The cost of a desktop is not a major issue in the households of low- and middle-income countries. However, on one hand, having installed software with a valid license on every student's laptop is almost unimaginable there; on the other hand, the concept of "cracking" software has no meaning in the OSS community, since OSS is "cracked" to start with.
Demystification of the proprietary software development process. Proprietary software is generally developed by companies in developed countries. Learners in low- and middle-income countries have no knowledge of the structure or the code of proprietary software. The idea behind OSS is to quench the thirst of those learners and give them the chance to excel. Furthermore, for disciplines such as Software Engineering, the teaching process becomes a down-to-earth one. The teacher can develop the entire course by handling real software with available source code.
In future work, the team is planning to put the platform on a self-running CD, so that users take the whole environment with them everywhere they go. Such a platform could serve as an alternative solution to the proprietary software infrastructure. Further research could be conducted on the possibility of deploying the OUP Platform on computers that are locally made. In such cases, the software and hardware of the IT q-05infrastructure will be independent of software and hardware providers. Furthermore, the cost of the associated infrastructure will be very competitive. Another research niche could involve the transfer of the experience of developing an OSS platform in the HE sector to other fields.
OSS can make a vital contribution to the improvement of technologies designed to support learning and knowledge development. The Open University project (OUP) is aimed at providing a complete software platform, made up of OSS, which fulfills user requirements in the HE sector and promoting the use of such products. The OUP can considerably reduce the IT costs of any institution, if funds are invested in the right place. Furthermore, for less well-resourced institutions or for poor countries, this platform can have real added value for the HE sector by democratizing the use of IT for disadvantaged students. In specific sectors such as the military, the development of a similar platform could have an important strategic impact, since it would allow the military's computer technology to function independently of any company producing proprietary software. Moreover, the OUP can also guide the open-source community effort toward providing a reliable and completely free software solution for the HE and other sectors. Indeed, deploying OUP through international organizations could allow developing countries to achieve rapid and sustained economic and social development by using affordable and effective open-source solutions to bridge the digital divide between north and south in the HE sector.
The authors would like to express their profound thanks to Dr. Hassan Mustapha, professor of English in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at ALHOSN University, who subjected the paper to rigorous scrutiny and greatly improved its quality.