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Colleges find new uses for open-source tech

Open-source learning management systems such as Moodle and Sakai have made great inroads in higher education, but LMS software isn’t the only area where colleges and universities are benefiting from open source. Higher-ed institutions also are saving money by using open-source software to chat with prospective students, improve library storage and research, and create web pages for alumni–whose donations could prove critical while campus budgets are being slashed in a down economy.

Campus technology chiefs are exploring the merits of open source, while vendors that have proved to be staples in higher education–such as Blackboard Inc.–have introduced ways for colleges to open new lines of communication with students in platforms they are most familiar with, including Facebook.

At Albion College in Michigan, IT administrators have harnessed the open-source model–which encourages flexibility and collaboration in creating software–to attract high school seniors deciding which campus they’ll settle on next fall. Nicole Rhoads, Albion’s web manager, said it took less than two hours to have the open-source, chat-enabled software "up and running."

Albion is using the system to reach out to prospective students and help close the deal. For example, Rhoads said, prospective students interested in majoring in biology are put in touch with biology faculty members.

Melinda Kraft, an instructional technology supervisor on Albion’s 1,950-student campus, said the system allows faculty to answer student questions with more than just words.

"We can send [prospects] a photo of a piece of equipment from our labs or a picture of the inside of a classroom," Kraft said. "So there is a real connection there."

Albion is just one of many colleges–both small and large–that use web-based programs for recruiting purposes. High school students and their parents recently chatted with representatives from several schools, including George Mason University and Marquette University. The web-based introductions included a virtual student union, where students could chat with each other.

Kraft said Albion has used the open-source platform Worpress MU for its recruiting initiatives and to create web pages for graduating classes that want to stay in touch with classmates and the college. This provides a connection between the campus and alumni, and it could spur more donations to Albion, Kraft said.

"The culture is such that we’re very connected," she said. "And we facilitate that. … People are becoming more receptive to that."

Maintaining contact with alumni is critical during a recession that has pummeled endowments that once served as the financial lifeblood of universities, higher-education officials said. More alumni signing up for weekly or monthly online newsletters, officials said, could spur many small donations that could keep campuses afloat while the economy continues its slide.

While campus IT chiefs are finding new way to communicate with students through open-source platforms, traditional technology vendors are introducing programs that offer new modes of communication as well.

Blackboard, a giant in the education technology field, unveiled a partnership in 2008 that will let college faculty work with students via Facebook, the popular social-networking site that many students visit while they’re studying or doing homework. The Blackboard Sync program allows professors to deliver course content and alerts through Facebook. If a student signs up for Blackboard Sync, he or she can check discussion board posts and grades while logged into Facebook.

"A lot of the work we do involves group projects and collaboration," said Zachary Girod, a University of Maryland graduate student. "Having access to academic alerts while I’m on Facebook lets me work more efficiently and informally with classmates and learn from their experiences."

Greg Ritter, director of product management for Blackboard Learn, said the Facebook alerts also can be received by students’ iPhones, which are increasingly common on campuses nationwide.

"At the heart of all of this work is our effort to enable institutions working with Blackboard to offer a more engaging experience to students–one that acknowledges and takes advantage of their interest in social networking and mobile devices," he said.

Blackboard’s popularity in higher education is unquestioned. With more than 2,000 campus clients, Blackboard remains a primary provider of campus technology. But during the latter half of this decade, open-source software has become more attractive for campuses hoping to save money on licensing and maintenance fees.

Bill Thirsk, vice president of information technology and CIO at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., said his school’s switch to the open-source Sakai system has saved money and allowed IT workers to manipulate and customize the program–a luxury schools typically don’t often have with vendors.

"If something doesn’t make sense, we can read the code," Thirsk said. "If we want a feature or function, we can write it. And if we want to collaborate with other colleges and universities, it is welcome."  

Campus library administrators are migrating toward open-source options largely because they can customize storage options, which is key in libraries that must make thousands of books and articles accessible to students and faculty.

Susan Gibbons, vice provost and dean at the University of Rochester’s River Campus Libraries, said vendor products did not allow the campus to focus on web-based book repositories. Crafting its own repository system with open-source software, Gibbons said, has simplified the search process for students.

"We found that the marketplace wasn’t meeting our needs," said Gibbons, who used DSpace open-source software to create her school’s repository. "We could articulate those needs, but there wasn’t a vendor who could be responsive. … Instead of making tweaks on the edges, we felt we had to take it into our own hands … because our students hold us accountable for how their library experience is. It’s not as much the cost savings as it is the control over our own destiny."

Some higher-education IT officials have found that joining active open-source communities is more efficient and less costly than requesting help from vendors. For instance, if a college struggles to find a certain open-source platform, a question is sent to other open-source users, who recommend strategies for writing code.

Gibbons said open source’s reliance on user collaboration fits library systems well.

"In the library world, the community has always been based on sharing anyway," she said. "There is an active community, the burden is spread across the community."


DSpace open source software

Albion College

Marist College


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