[Edu-sig] open source admin in academia? (editorial)

kirby urner kirby.urner at gmail.com
Tue Jul 20 05:44:17 CEST 2010

On Mon, Jul 19, 2010 at 5:29 PM, Edward Cherlin <echerlin at gmail.com> wrote:
> It frequently happens that the Computer Science Dept. uses Free
> Software for almost everything, and everybody else uses proprietary
> software. CS can't talk to the others effectively, because they are
> "just geeks". I have more hope for elementary schools.

Yes, I understand.

Actually I suppose my query has two components, one having to do
with the self sufficiency of educational institutions when it comes to
the core software needed to run their operations...

and the other having to do with free and open source software,
which is one way communities band together collaboratively,
in order to co-develop said core software.

Like maybe MIT has some big programs for scheduling courses,
registering students, keeping info on financial aid / scholarships,
and publishing the catalog, all of which was developed in-house
over many iterations -- but none of these applications have been
released under GNU or other open source license.

In that case, MIT would be self sufficient by criterion (a), but is
not in the business of helping other schools ramp up using
customized versions of said FOSS software (b).  Maybe it's
too site specific?

MIT's in-house solutions might use open source (e.g. Python)
but the solutions themselves are the closely guarded secrets
of MIT (likewise a private company or government agency, like
Industrial Light and Magic, or NASA, might use Python but
not see any reason to share code).

This is all familiar ground by now -- we're all aware of these

I'm just thinking back to all those OSCON talks by R0ml
Lefkowitz and others, connecting FOSS practices and ethics
to the culture of the liberal arts.

If FOSS is about empowering and enabling local control,
then why would any self-respecting academy want to outsource
its core functions?  What kind of message does that send?

One could imagine that big strong universities would be
somewhat self-sufficient, semi-autonomous, when it came to
managing their own admin internals.  Do we have some well
known examples?

Having the system completely open for tweaking to those
on the premises potentially means faster evolution, more
expression of the human imagination, a tighter coupling
between theory and practice, drawing board and realized
features.  Schools could develop a reputation for the
ingenuity of their internal applications, which might also
help students coordinate their own schedules, promote
events, submit work etc.  Teachers would have access to
multiple resources as well, including tools no one has
thought of yet...

Beyond that, it means a culture that knows first hand
about collaborating on large projects, complete with
version control, division of responsibilities and all the rest
of it.  Shouldn't universities be centers of innovation,
starting with the bread and butter applications that
define their institutional relationships?

I remember a panel discussion I attended at a previous
OSCON, about open source in Africa.  The institutions in
that picture were quite keen to do as much of their own
programming as possible, as the whole point was to develop
the skills and understanding needed for self sufficiency.
Licensing fees can be a huge drain, and are in principal
avoidable in this day and age, given sufficient commitment
to local control.

I also remember CERN having some conference scheduling
software the EuroPython tried to repurpose for some
context outside CERN, and how frustrating that was.
Not every inhouse tool is equally adaptable.  Similar question
on Slashdot, re FLOSS conference management software:

> There are exceptions, such as Moodle.

I suppose the argument could be made that universities
charged with teaching just don't have the time and
resources to compete with private industry, when it
comes to developing software for production use,
bug free enough to entrust with student records and

However, given how Linux, FreeBSD and GNU got off
the ground, you'd think there'd be a ready-made culture
of developers here, at least in some schools.

Add the open source ethic and model for sharing, and one
wonders why there's not already a lot of free and open
solutions out there -- like frameworks.

Here's something obscure that's at least in the ballpark:


This paper describes a WAP-based course registration
system designed and implemented to facilitating the
process of students' registration at Bahrain University.
The framework will support many opportunities for
applying WAP based technology to many services
such as wireless commerce, cashless payment…
and location-based services.

...so is Bahrain University somewhat self sufficient when
it comes to admin software?


> On Mon, Jul 19, 2010 at 18:30, kirby urner <kirby.urner at gmail.com> wrote:
> > I'm becoming more aware of the fact that one
> > reason universities need to charge those
> > tuitions is to pay licensing fees to private
> > vendors who provide them with such basic
> > services as the ability to store and schedule
> > classes, record student enrollment and grades,
> > record instructors etc.  The catalog needs to
> > be published on-line.  There might be a lot
> > of extended education options, e.g. non-credit
> > courses open to anyone willing to sign up.
> >
> > Some of these proprietary programs are pretty
> > old, lack features departments need, and so
> > various intermediating applications grow up
> > around the edges to fill in the gaps.
> >
> > Maybe the big dino system doesn't record
> > student evaluations for example, or keep track
> > of which courses are in the pipeline, but still
> > haven't found a place in the sun.
> >
> > One would think that universities in particular,
> > which pride themselves on having advanced
> > knowledge of state of the art skills, would band
> > together in various consortia to pool resources
> > and "eat their own dog food" as it were.  A
> > school that teaches medicine actually practices
> > medicine (the "teaching hospital").  Shouldn't
> > schools that teach computer science and
> > business administration actually walk the talk
> > in some way?  Maybe many of them do, I don't
> > actually know.
> >
> > To outsource something so core to one's business,
> > to pay licensing fees while not having the power
> > to make design modifications, just seems more
> > than a tad on the ironic side.  It's like a bank
> > outsourcing everything it does around money.
> >
> > I realize not every college or university wants to
> > reinvent the wheel around something so basic,
> > but I do wonder to what extent there's some
> > open source sharing going on, around these core
> > utilities.  Are universities so competitive they
> > won't share?  So does that mean they all pay
> > the same licensing fees to use the same
> > private vendor offerings?
> >
> > I remember Zope / Plone and SchoolTool.
> > http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SchoolTool
> >
> > Is there something even more comprehensive
> > that's out there, suitable for college and university
> > use?  Does it come in modularized components?
> > Is it an over-the-web database?
> >
> > Or do few if any universities really eat their own
> > dog food?
> >
> > Like I say, I'm new to this business, just trying
> > to get oriented.
> >
> > Kirby
> > _______________________________________________
> > Edu-sig mailing list
> > Edu-sig at python.org
> > http://mail.python.org/mailman/listinfo/edu-sig
> >
> --
> Edward Mokurai (默雷/धर्ममेघशब्दगर्ज/دھرممیگھشبدگر ج) Cherlin
> Silent Thunder is my name, and Children are my nation.
> The Cosmos is my dwelling place, the Truth my destination.
> http://www.earthtreasury.org/

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