Open source scores in U.K. higher education

A report shows widespread enthusiasm for open-source software in colleges and universities but a lack of clear support from the top.
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Only a quarter of Britain's colleges and universities have a policy on open-source software (OSS), yet over three quarters have considered deploying it--largely due to cost considerations.

These findings have emerged in a survey conducted by OSS Watch, an organization that monitors and promotes the use of open-source software in educational institutions, among higher education (HEs) and further education (FEs) organizations across the United Kingdom.

The survey, which elicited responses from 114 institutions, asked their IT managers about procurement policies, skills and deployment in relation to OSS.

It found that just 25 percent of institutions that responded mentioned open source in their policies, but 77 percent reported that they "regularly explore open-source options in procurement exercises".

"It could just mean that policy takes a while to catch up to standard practice, or it could mean that we shouldn't be expecting to find the expression 'Open Source' in an IT strategy," OSS Watch manager Randy Metcalfe told ZDNet UK on Monday.

"Some universities have fairly lengthy ICT strategies that don't mention software at all, so maybe we asked the wrong question. Then again, it could just show that people follow good practice whether or not their policies direct them to," Metcalfe added.

Cost was the main factor in FEs' choice of OSS, as it had been in a similar 2003 survey. HEs now also primarily focused on cost, where in 2003 they had considered interoperability first.

"There are so many more open-source solutions out there that lock-in is not an issue, and many proprietary solutions have begun to embrace open standards anyway," pointed out Metcalfe.

The report also found that only a small number of staff at educational institutions fed back patches or code to open-source projects, a phenomenon Metcalfe said was caused by university policies that could attribute the intellectual property rights in such code to the university itself.

Metcalfe also highlighted the finding that 68 percent of Windows PCs running in universities and colleges had the open-source browser Firefox installed, in addition to Internet Explorer. This could indicate a bright future for other open-source products.

"Institutions feel they need to provide that sort of choice, providing them up there with proprietary ones," Metcalfe said. "It's interesting for what it makes possible three years down the line, when institutions might want to go for a more complete open-source applications suite. The familiarity that people get with open source now will make for more interesting choices in the future."

The report also found that 56 percent of FEs were using the open-source virtual learning environment Moodle. There was no such large-scale uptake of any particular content management system (CMS), with respondents reporting the use of 29 different programs.

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