Education tech and battling stubborn Open Source myths

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When back in 1998, Netscape — inspired in part by a treatise on Linux and free software development — released the source code for its Communicator web browser, it was an unprecedented step.  Having just reported poor financial results, this move by Netscape was seen as particularly risky – but executives at the company were adamant that it wouldn't just fulfil the company’s philosophical and social values of ensuring computer users' freedom, but would also help propel the whole software industry forward; powering innovation and enabling new products and services to come to market.  

In the intervening years, open source has fuelled digital solutions, provided flexibility and agility to business and helped scale cloud computing. Industry was, understandably, quick to pick up on this innovative technology – but the benefits and reasons for getting on the open source bandwagon have fundamentally changed, as have the risks involved.  

When open source first hit the market, for many it was indistinguishable from The Free Software Movement. The key appeal was, indeed, that open source software was free – primarily because of the unchecked redistribution rights, where licences didn’t restrict any party from selling or giving away the software. 

Rewriting the use case 

Fast-forward, however, and the benefits of open source technology have fundamentally changed. While cost savings are still important, what’s more crucial is the collaborative approach to innovation which open source enables. For many, because open source software (OSS) is crowd-sourced, it brings cost, flexibility, freedom, security, and accountability benefits that simply can’t be surpassed by proprietary software solutions.

Put simply, a service can be built, honed, and continually improved by thousands of users.  Whereas a commercial vendor might focus on one specific thing, a community has many "irons in the fire" working on a wide range of features, all of interest to an individual or small group of contributing organisation – breaking boundaries and improving products all the time.  

And the security concerns felt initially by many have now transformed into security assurances. Open source now has the ability to give transparency or assurance around system security and code integrity. When your source code is open, anyone can test it for vulnerabilities — and talk about it publicly. So it’s in a vendor’s best interests to fix any issues quickly and comprehensively. When your source code is closed, people not only can’t check to see if the code is vulnerable: and they can’t verify that you fixed issues - so quality assurance is limited.  

Of course, not everyone knows how to do a thorough security check themselves, so many open source vendors now run annual open security audits on their products where third-party, independent experts are paid to find vulnerabilities, and then report on it for everyone to see. An open approach to innovation has morphed into an open approach to security – and this benefits everyone.  

And lastly, open source no longer means going it alone – without the support of a vendor. There are now many supported or managed services, built on open source technology. As such, it is possible to marry the best parts of both proprietary tools and open source, with the power and flexibility of an open source product and services like support staff being available 24/7. It also means that there is a clear route and method for enhancements because there is a direct contact with the provider and the ability to take feedback and input from user groups. 

So who benefits next? 

While many industries have benefited exponentially from open source, some have, so far lagged behind. We see education in this camp. In a time-poor industry, with security and privacy at the forefront of everyone’s minds, it’s understandable that adopting unfamiliar technologies can be daunting. However, when they’re implemented to solve real problems, through an egalitarian procurement process, and where pedagogical aims are at the heart, open source technology has the power to fundamentally make teaching and learning better.  

Where the majority of proprietary software is sold on an as-is basis, open source software is customisable - users have the ability to change it to suit their needs. This is important in education, where both standardisation is required, but some customisation is key too. In education, flexibility is crucial - and this is what open source provides.

Whether it's development or advocacy, open-source software and other collaborative projects benefit through, and because of, community. And education is fundamentally collaborative – committed to sharing best practice and learnings, in order to improve the learning experience for all. As such, educators are a natural audience for open source, its ethos of collaboration and community mirroring that of many teachers.

Unlike with traditional projects that require physical resources, sharing economies are generally only hindered by the number of people contributing to an effort and their ability to acquire and share knowledge; and this is where the continued popularity of open source has spurred it on.  The open source community is diverse and highly motivated and has contributed to its success.   

So, open source continues to dominate in technology. But the use case, and established benefits, of open source have fundamentally changed since day one. What was free but risky – and ultimately meant going it alone – is now more secure than ever, and propels a user firmly into a community with common goals and aspirations. But open source still means innovation and breaking boundaries - and we believe the market can only continue to grow. 

On top of this, we believe that there are still some areas where open source has yet to dominate - but has the potential to deliver significant benefits. The education industry is a prime example of this. With collaborative staff and leaders, and the need for customisable and flexible solutions, the potential of open source for schools, universities and colleges is great.   

Jas Kalsi, EMEA Solutions Engineering Director at Instructure 

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