Open Source FUD Flies at Florida Higher Education Conference

by Ostatic Staff - Oct. 31, 2008

The New York Times is running an interesting piece from IDG News on how administrators and IT chiefs for higher educational institutions are at odds over whether it makes sense to deploy open source software instead of proprietary products. The flap went on this week at the Educause conference in Florida. Within the argument that's going on, a number of surprising fallacies about open source are apparently cropping up. Here are the details.

Ask many folks in the open source world why it makes sense to deploy open source software in schools, and a lot of them will say that cash-strapped schools can save money by doing so. We've argued this before many times, including here, here, and here.

The New York Times quotes Adrian Sannier, university technology officer and professor of computing studies at Arizona State University, speaking at Educause. He argues that cost savings will be consumed by the consulting fees paid to deploy "community-source enterprise applications." "The consultants who help you are like bartenders serving drunks," he's quoted as saying.

This issue, and tangential ones, are often raised when school administrators argue against open source. Along with this purported problem regarding hidden costs, many school administrators argue that open source licensing issues are too prickly and complex. Kristin tackled some of these issues well in this post. She writes:

"The sticking points that are almost inevitably raised are the previously mentioned customer support issues, the ultimate scalability of the software, the learning curve required (for the systems staff, but moreso the faculty and students), and how difficult the software is to maintain and administer."

I've worked at large companies where one single, talented and well-informed IT person can support the varying technology needs of 500 people, including providing support for open source software. With the huge cost savings that educational institutions can reap from deploying open source software, I see no reason why a team of these types of IT managers couldn't be hired, couldn't learn the open source solutions they deploy from end-to-end, and couldn't support students and staff completely. Even with a team, the cost savings would be substantial. As far as licenses go, businesses all over the world are deftly deploying open source while staying in compliance with licenses. There is no reason the eggheads at schools can't do so as well.

As I've written before, the larger problem here is one of entrenched views and prejudices. When school administrators and IT people think of technology deployments, they lean heavily toward Macintosh hardware, and established moat-building commercial applications such as Blackboard.

Even the providers of these solutions protect their moats aggressively. Apple does so with its marketing to schools, and Blackboard drew a heaping helping of nasty criticism for its over-the-top patents, and lawsuits regarding parts of its learning management system that many people feel belong to the open source community. This is an area where open source evangelists need to educate the educators.