Why European universities are choosing open source software

Open source tools give students around the globe the freedom to learn without restrictions.
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Nowadays, it is no surprise that a lot of universities, academies, colleges, conservatories, etc. have already implemented open source software in their learning process.

Open source culture and concepts help students, professors, and communities have a better learning experience, being independent of tech giants that always call the shots, and therefore free to share their ideas and build on the work of others.

Let's explore why open source software is so attractive for Higher Education Institutions (HEI) in Europe.

Combining open source efforts

Universities do their best to develop and support various open source initiatives. Thus, there is the Open Source University Alliance, an initiative of the Erasmus Without Paper project. Their goal is to help all higher education institutions meet the latest demands of digital transformation.

The alliance is creating an open repository of source code and software so that the higher education community has access to multiple tools and services necessary for teaching and learning. Among HEIs that have already taken part in the initiative and shared open source solutions are the University of Porto, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, University of Münster, and Ghent University.

Security above all

This is not just an empty phrase or some kind of motto of security fanatics. The security factor really plays a very important role when choosing software for universities, institutes, etc.

As many of you know, after the introduction of the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) in 2018, the requirements for processing personal data for companies that work with the EU residents became much stricter. The data of students, teachers, professors, and educational staff is no exception in this case.

Let's remember, for instance, when MS Office 365 was banned in German schools over privacy fears. And although that case referred to schools, the principle also applies to universities. Therefore, a growing number of them prefer open source solutions because often, "big names" simply do not meet the existing requirements.

Among those who opted for open source is, for example, sciebo, a "sync-and-share" service of the IT center at Münster University, which is Germany's third-biggest university with more than 40,000 students and 5,000 employees. Among sciebo users, there are lots of researchers who often deal with sensitive and confidential data. That's why it's so important that such data is thoroughly protected against any leaks or losses. Sciebo implemented the combo of open source content management platform ownCloud and open source online editors ONLYOFFICE. The choice was made because both solutions are GDPR compliant and offer scalable, robust architecture.

OwnCloud and ONLYOFFICE are deployed on your own private server that allows for keeping all the data safe in-house. Data exchange between the storage and the editors is protected with the encrypted signature in the form of JSON Web Token. Advanced sharing permissions and additional features such as restriction on downloading or restricted access to separate user groups help protect files from unwanted attention and insider actions.

The ownCloud/ONLYOFFICE combo was also chosen by GWDG, a computing center for the Georg August University of Göttingen and a computing and IT competence center for the Max Planck Society. For them, the opportunity to organize secure document collaboration was the decisive factor.

Another example is the Institute of Biology of Lille, which also implemented ONLYOFFICE because they were looking for a self-hosted solution that could provide full control over data.

SURF, the collaborative ICT organization that links Dutch universities and research institutions, also went for open source. They deployed ownCloud to ensure secure data exchange for scientific operations.

The full use cases of the above-mentioned universities are published on the official websites of ONLYOFFICE and ownCloud.

Flexibility. Enough or not?

I guess most people have heard about Moodle, one of the most popular open source platforms for education. With Moodle, educators can create courses, share their learning materials, assess students, etc. One of the reasons why this learning platform is so popular among lots of universities is that it is highly customizable; you can get any necessary features by adding plugins (in fact, there is a vast number of them in the Moodle plugin directory). Just see this list of the latest approved plugins. There you will find a plugin for SSO authentication, a plugin that allows creating advanced grading forms, or ONLYOFFICE document converter that automatically converts submitted text documents, spreadsheets, and presentations to PDF and simplifies the grading workflow.

Let's discover another example. Universities always need content management and collaboration platforms. Some of them have decided in favor of open source platform Nextcloud. Its flexible app ecosystem allows students and educators to create a customized learning environment adding tools they need: web conferencing, Moodle integration, e-book reader, dashboard app, mind maps, etc.

This flexible adjustment also includes apps that allow extending the Nextcloud functionality with online processing and docs co-authoring. And it's super easy for universities to find an appropriate solution: Nextcloud offers integration with open source Collabora as well as ONLYOFFICE.

So, open source products allow for extending their functionality in the way you need it. In case any feature is missing, the community can freely contribute to the project. And importantly, open source apps can often be complemented by other open source applications that universities already use.


Yet another reason for choosing open source software is pricing. Even basic features that educators and students need could cost too much, especially when talking about small educational institutions with a limited budget. That's why HEIs often prefer free alternatives (that could provide even better functionality) to the typically expensive proprietary academic resources.

Remote learning challenges

While working on this article, the situation around the globe changed drastically. Who could ever have imagined that?

Amid the current crisis, when most universities are closed, and in-person classes are being suspended, digital education is getting even more important. Open source software is of great help for lots of educational institutions that have to switch to remote learning.

Many vendors and associations are trying to somehow support those in need. For example, members of the OSB Alliance, Europe's biggest network of companies and organizations that develop and contribute to open source software, offer lots of tools and services for home office and homeschooling. Among those are HumHub, Kopano, Nextcloud, ONLYOFFICE, OpenProject, ownCloud, Univention, and many others.

Stay safe and share your thoughts: should all higher education institutions adopt open source software? What open source apps do you think are the best ones for HEIs?

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Working at Ascensio System SIA, open source enthusiast, switched from outdated Windows to Kubuntu, linguist and translator (English & German), music lover (also playing the piano).


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