IBM is giving away software and curriculum to schools worldwide at no charge as part of a new initiative aimed at teaching computer-science students about open-source software and better preparing them for 21st-century jobs.

“Finding qualified [open-source software developers] is a growing problem among businesses around the world,” said Buell Duncan, general manager for IBM’s Independent Software Vendor (IVS) and developer relations.

Businesses today, he said, are trying to better leverage their IT investments by turning to affordable, open-source platforms such as Sun Microsystem’s Java, Linux, and Eclipse, an open-source platform used to create other software programs.

“The fastest area of development is in the [programming] languages that are heterogeneous,” meaning those that can be used to design software for a variety of platforms, open-source included, said Margaret Ashida, director of cooperate university relations for IBM. “If you look at universities and college courses, Java is being taught, but not at a rate that will meet the demand.”

Ashida says the world has about 8 million professional software developers, most of whom are skilled in legacy programs or develop for Microsoft platforms only.

The IBM Academic Initiative hopes to change all that by providing institutions of higher education with free access to the tools, curricula, and training needed to teach open-source standards alongside Microsoft standards.

Participating schools will gain access to a variety of software, hardware, training, and course materials at no charge through the IBM Scholars Portal.

The portal already offers more than 40 IBM software technologies at no charge for integration into college curricula. In addition, IBM is offering “aggressive” discounts on certain hardware products, such as its newest POWER5 and blade servers.

In addition, the Scholars Portal will provide more than 50 IBM-developed course materials on key software and hardware technologies, as well as a wide array of informational resources, including newsletters, community forums, education roadmaps, white papers, brochures, workshops, and technical events.

To further assist schools in deploying the courses, a group of IBM employees will travel to each participating school to help design its curriculum, as well as provide technical training to the faculty.

“Our goal over the next three years is to reach millions of students,” Duncan said. “There will be no schools we will turn away in helping them offer these courses in open standards.”

The primary target for the IBM Academic Initiative is higher education, but the project can scale to K-12 institutions as well, he said.

While the initiative is still in its infancy, many schools have already been piloting the initiative over the last 18 months, including Indiana State University, Northface University, Texas State University, and the University of Wisconsin.

“It’s the most exciting initiative in undergraduate computer science that we’ve seen in years,” said Haym Hirsch, chair of computer science at Rutgers University. Hirsch is eager to offer his students access to Eclipse, an industry-recognized software development environment, as well as provide the accompanying tools, assignments, and lecture materials to his faculty.

“To be an effective computer science department, we need to teach our students broadly in all the tools they will need,” Hirsch said. And the free software doesn’t hurt, either, he added.

Microsoft Visual Studio is the most widely known software development program, but because it is so expensive, Rutgers relies on ad-hoc programs that are freely available to teach software development, Hirsch said.

Also included in the offer is IBM’s WebSphere software, which is a licensed and fee-based program for developing software that works with any platform.

Eclipse and WebSphere are alternatives to Microsoft Visual Studio, but with an important distinction: They allow programmers to develop software for open-source platforms as well as Microsoft platforms.

Because Visual Studio uses a proprietary architecture on which to build software, the programs work well together but are insular and won’t work on other platforms, IBM said.

“There are economic reasons and there is value in teaching our students a range of platforms,” Hirsch said.

Mayur Mehta, chair of Computer Information Systems at Texas State University-San Marcos, agreed.

“This initiative will enable us to expose our students to the benefits of open standards, the use of open-standards technology, and will prepare them to become the IT leaders and IT innovators of the future,” Mehta said. “With all three major vendors–IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle–now playing a significant support role in academia, students will get a more balanced view of the technologies available to develop innovative products.”

Microsoft officials declined to comment on IBM’s initiative.

Links:

IBM Academic Initiative
http://www.ibm.com/university

Eclipse
http://www.eclipse.org

Rutgers University
http://www.cs.rutgers.edu

Texas State University-San Marcos
http://www.txstate.edu

Indiana State University
http://www.indstate.edu

Northface University
http://www.northface.edu

University of Wisconsin
http://www.wisc.edu