Tackling the challenges of open source adoption in education

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In our recent survey on free and open source software in the UK education sectors, we asked colleges and universities for their main reasons for not selecting an open source solution according to 12 criteria. Below you can see how important each of the criteria were rated for software running on servers:

Interoperability and migration problems 80
Lack of support 71
Poor quality software 60
Not what users want 51
Lack of staff expertise, training needs 49
There is no open source solution for our needs 43
Legal issues including licensing 30
Time costs of identifying relevant software 29
Migration costs 25
Existing contractual obligations 18
Poor documentation 15
Solution does not scale 14

The question I'd like to pose today is if we were to consider these as representing the barriers to greater adoption of free and open source software in education, are the barriers to be found within institutions, or are there issues with the available supply of software and services to the sectors?

To answer this I've split the criteria into two groups—supply-side and demand-side. Let's look at the supply-side first of all.

Supply side factors

Supply-side factors

Three of the top four criteria are supply-side considerations: lack of support, poor quality software, and not offering what users want.

We could also consider "There is no open source solution for our needs" as being largely the same thing as not offering what users want, which would place it as the top concern.

This would imply that, from the perspective of colleges and universities, the open source software community just isn't offering the kind of software products the sectors need.

From our experience in compiling the Open Source Options for Education list, this would seem a bit curious. Perhaps the issue is one of awareness and marketing? Or are there significant niches in education where there really are no open source options? We also know that the procurement processes in many institutions would likely exclude open source from consideration—is this also a factor in this lack of awareness?

The second major issue on the supply side would then be the provision of services and support. As we've seen in the public sector, having commercial partners is a crucial factor in getting solutions adopted. (There is a chicken-and-egg issue here is that there has to be adoption to support a services market, but lack of services hampers adoption.)

Finally there is the quality issue—are open source solutions aimed at education really poor quality? Or is it that the kinds of solutions being considered are not mature?

Now lets look at the demand side.

Demand side factors

Demand side factors"

The top issue is interoperability and migration problems—if we also add in the respondents who considered migration costs, then it is by far the most cited reason why open source isn't selected.

We've noted before that there is no simple relationship between open source, open standards, and interoperability; while in principle open source affords the adoption of open standards and greater interoperability, the practice is a lot less clear cut.

However, what we haven't untangled here is whether the issue is with open source options lacking interoperability features or standards compliance, or whether the issue lies with the incumbent systems they would replace.

The next ranked issue is lack of staff expertise; again we haven't untangled whether this is a lack of expertise amongst the potential users of the software, the IT operations staff, or the staff involved in the procurement so its hard to interpret precisely. Given the question relates to server software it could be any of these groups.

It may also be the case that this issue goes hand-in-glove with that of lack of support from the supply side; often for server-side software the complexity of configuration and operations can be overcome by contracting a supplier to deal with it on your behalf. For open source options, if there are no suppliers of services available then its up to the institution's staff to figure it out.

Finally, the rest of the issues here fall under the category of contractual, legal and procedural issues with procurement itself. While each individual item is not ranked highly, taken together they suggest there are significant barriers still in place in procurement. This is something we've been looking into recently in more depth, for example in our Decision Factors for Procurement briefing.


Taken altogether, the demand side and supply side issues of open source adoption in education carry pretty much equal weight from the viewpoint of the institutions themselves. But what are we to make of it?

I think we can distill it into five challenges:

  1. We need to tackle the interoperability question. Is lock-in a problem? Is lack of standards a problem? This is something our friends at CETIS could take a lead on.
  2. We need to improve awareness of existing open source solutions available within the sector; lists like our Open Source Options for Education are useful here, but projects also need to be more proactive in raising awareness, and may need a higher profile at events such as the UCISA and ALT conferences.
  3. Institutions need to improve software procurement processes so that they can consider open source solutions effectively and equally with closed source.
  4. We need to build up the open source services market for education. ULCC have been very effective with their Moodle hosting, but companies supporting other major open source software solutions don't seem to have much of a presence in the education sector. (As I mentioned earlier though, this is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem)
  5. Bootstrap projects in areas where there are no existing open source solutions. Of course there are well known problems with funded projects, but there are alternative approaches, for example the Jisc Co-Design programme could play a role here.

Originally posted on OSS Watch Team Blog. Reposted under Creative Commons.

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Scott Wilson has worked in both the software industry and public sector, particularly in the areas of interoperability and open standards. Scott has a great deal of practical experience of open development; he is a committer on several projects at the Apache Software Foundation, and is chair of the Apache Wookie project. He is also co-chair of several W3C groups.


Thanks Scott for sharing. I was surprised how high "Interoperability" ranked as an issue, and wondered if you'd lumped Interoperability and Migration issues into a single criteria in the survey, or if you had consolidated two answers into one after the fact. I would think they may be related but they can be very different concerns (i.e. an organization desires interoperability as an attribute of the target application - sees that as a post-adoption benefit - but may have migration issues due to tack of sufficiently skills resources).

Thanks Deb,

We did lump together interoperability and migration issues (though migration cost is a separate category). I agree that there are a number of different issues this broad category covers, and thats something I'd like to look at with some follow on research.


There are two disturbing issues that I have found in past six of total approximating fifteen years working to bring Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) into the education field.
One has been the proclivity of academic institutions to formulate their software requirements by lowest costs of specific "proprietary" applications rather than by clearly defined functionality.
This ties in intricately with the second issue encountered with most if not all of the persons responsibly for technology in their school(s) systems have an intimate and strongly preferential relationship with Microsoft or one of the other large commercial vendors in this sphere. The worst part of this saga is the greed and/or personal financial incentives/ gains of these decision makers for loyalty to entrenched technology suppliers.

The end result of such very closed and regressive attitudes and actions is that exorbitant operational costs related to technology purchase and use will continue to grow significantly, and any progressive educational programs that would benefit from innovative and cost effective FOSS use will suffer badly or disappear.

I think within any organisation there can be a tendency for IT staff to identify with their preferred suppliers as much as with their employers, and some firms seem to actively encourage this identification (one wit on Twitter recently described it as Stockholm Syndrome As A Service). This is something that a transparent procurement process needs to be in place to counteract.

The survey results are an indicator of how deep the hole is that educational institutions have dug for themselves with M$'s tools. I've rescued several schools from similar lock-in, often out of necessity. While the schools could respond in a similar manner to the survey, their IT was practically non-functional, requiring frequent repair/replacements of hardware and software just to maintain the status quo. IT-staff were working so hard keeping the system running they had little time to plan a migration let alone to implement one. My solution was to convert 90% of the PCs to GNU/Linux by re-imaging. That actually took less work than fighting malware, slowing down and outright failure to function. The workload thereafter was greatly reduced. Thus, all the reasons for not migrating vanished in the light of day, replaced by amazement at how fast the old computers had become. In fact, users found the old computers faster than brand new computers using the old software. Users also appreciated that the server now hosted an abundance of good web applications similar to what they were used to on the web, requiring little or no training.

So, the solution to most of those imagined problems is to migrate and deal with the few issues that arise. Compatibility becomes no issue at all if everyone follows open standards. Training becomes no issue if everyone is using a familiar web browser. Migration of data may be a real issue for some systems because of past mistakes but those can always be fixed for less cost than paying M$ and "partners" exorbitant fees for permission to use hardware forever. One can solve a lot of problems in migration simply by allowing a small group of users to keep their present solution, typically 10-20%. That gives a huge savings still and allows FLOSS to flower in education. I found the most locked-in users were in school administration whereas the teachers mostly had a small cache of teacher-generated files which were easily migrated. Students didn't even notice the changes. It's a GUI after all. Students are the ones who can pick up a strange smartphone and have it do magic in minutes. The natural tendency of users to resist change can often be overcome by offering some new gear or improved performance.

All arguments come directly from the marketing indoctrination of M$ and Cy.
"The top issue is interoperability and migration problems—if we also add in the respondents who considered migration costs, then it is by far the most cited reason why open source isn't selected."
This argument is real because closed source will always frustrate open standards.
"We could also consider "There is no open source solution for our needs" as being largely the same thing as not offering what users want, which would place it as the top concern."
This by far the most ridiculous argument when you look at it from an independant position, but not if you know the indoctrination the customer as gone through by M$ marketing FUD.

Conclusion: since the open source community has no army to fight the opponent, we need to get ready to fight a guerilla war against the companies who suppress freedom of software

"not what users want" is not a supply-side problem, it is a marketing and conditioning issue. Users want only what they are familiar with, which is why today people still use Microsoft Office and, yes, even Windows XP. Given the choice, people will not learn something new. This is not just an open source problem, it's a computer education problem.

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