Open source and higher education

Gabriel Engel
March 1, 2018
min read

Open source and its origins in higher education

The open source movement has been closely linked to academic institutions since its inception. Almost all software created in the 1950s and 1960s was developed by academics and researchers working in collaboration. The A-2 system, which is widely considered the first example of open source software, was developed by professors at Pennsylvania University in 1953.

A-2 and much of the software that followed were released to customers with its source code, giving users the freedom to make their own modifications. As such, software was generally distributed according to the principles of open exchange and participation long established in academia, which broke with the common view that software was a commodity in itself.

This spirit of collaboration has lent itself to other innovative projects and groups, including the hacker' movement, which is known for its playfulness and exploration within the open source community.

Large proprietary organizations such as AT&T have collaborated with the open source community. The latter granted free licenses of Unix, an operating system that could run on multiple computer platforms, to academic and government researchers in the early 1970s for instance. Two operating systems built on Unix include Mac OS X and Linux, which is arguably the most well-known and widely-used open source software of them all.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s it became common practice for computer vendors and software-only companies to charge for software licenses, and AT&T followed suit. As Unix grew more widespread, AT&T stopped its free distribution and began charging for system patches. As switching to another architecture was difficult, most researchers paid for a commercial license.

Many of the critics of these new proprietary practices were academics and researchers, the most prolific of whom was MIT's Richard Stallman, who founded the GNU project in 1983 to write a complete operating system free from constraints on use of its source code.

GNU is based on four essential freedoms: (1) to run the program, (2) to study and change the program in source code form, (3) to redistribute exact copies, and (4) to distribute modified versions.

Soon after the launch of GNU, Stallman coined the term free software and in 1989, the first version of the GNU General Public License was published. By the early 1990s, there was almost enough available software to create a full operating system, but Hurd, the GNU kernel, failed to attract enough development effort and GNU was left incomplete.

This is where Linux comes in. In 1991, Linus Torvald released the Linux kernel as freely modifiable source code, and then relicensed it under the GNU General Public License in 1992. Together, the Linux kernel and the GNU project formed the free operating system built on the four essential freedoms envisioned by Stallman nearly a decade prior.

The founding of the Open Source Initiative (OSI) in 1998 did much to formalize these prior developments through coining the term open source. Though the OSI was not linked to a university, its principles were largely aligned with those held in academic circles.

The recent shift towards open source learning solutions

Given the deep historical and philosophical connection between open source software and academia, it is unsurprising that projects such as Linux are popular amongst students and universities alike.

Countless Linux repositories for educational use already exist and many schools and universities around the world use Linux; there are more than 500,000 computer stations in Brazilian schools that run on Linux. In 2007, Russia announced that all of its school computers would run on Linux and in 2015, 33 German universities announced they would adopt Linux.

The uptake of open source solutions within academic institutions looks set to continue and is not limited to Linux.

Last year, the University System of Maryland announced its mini-grant scheme, which rewards several faculties across community colleges and public schools who are adopting, adapting or scaling the use of OER (open educational resources). Moreover, colleges in New York have started distributing open source, copyright-free textbooks to update its more traditional materials and offer a more accessible solution.

Meanwhile MIT pioneered an open source approach to higher education when it began making its course materials accessible to the public through Creative Commons licenses in 2001 with MIT OpenCourseWare.

The benefits of open source to students and universities

This shift towards open source solutions is driven in unequal measures by the ideologies outlined above (least important) and by financial pressures (most important).

In the US, the costs associated with higher education have steadily increased over the past decade or so. As housing costs increased by 50% between 2006 and 2016, tuition fees increased by 63% and the cost of textbooks rose by 88%. To travel back a little further in time, it is estimated that colleges in the USA spent more than $5 billion on enterprise resource planning software in the 1990s and 2000s.

An open source approach to higher education could alleviate some of the financial strain placed on colleges and students. It is estimated that college students could save $128 on average per course if they had access to open source textbooks.

Another interesting - and perhaps less immediately apparent - benefit is that early adopters of an open source product have the potential to influence the future development of that product. A good example is that of the Open University (OU) in the UK, which launched its e-learning platform based on Moodle in 2006. At the time it was the largest Moodle installation in the world.

As early adopters of Moodle's open source model, OU staff now maintain key parts of Moodle software, like its assessment system. This gives the OU the strategic advantage of influencing Moodle's product development to fit their needs as an institution.

Open source projects can also present a unique learning opportunity to student coders and enthusiasts. The transparency that is inherent to these projects means that their code is laid bare to be interrogated, modified and added to, offering students a practical means through which to test their coding and critical thinking skills; there's a reason as to why many in the open source community maintain that hacking is the best way to become a better coder.

How you can get involved

There are plenty of opportunities for budding student coders to get involved in open source projects. The most well-known initiative is perhaps the Google Summer of Code (GSoC), where students work with open source organizations on a programming project over their summer break. Last year, more than one-hundred organizations took part, including the Apache Software Foundation and Mozilla.

Rocket.Chat itself worked with seven students as a GSoC sponsor organization (four of whom were sponsored by Google and three by Rocket.Chat) on projects from a mobile SDK to extending communication beyond teams with the help of federation to a personal gateway that bridged the gap between personal email and team chat. The students worked under the mentorship of core Rocket.Chat team members - including founder Gabriel Engel - to create code for the use and benefit of all.

Other student projects like Outreachy and Rails Girls Summer of Code were founded to promote diversity in open source by funding those traditionally under-represented in the community to complete and contribute to open source projects.

Last year's Rails Girls Summer of Code was a huge success, and 20 teams were sponsored to contribute to open source projects. What's more, the organization found that 50% of participants continued to contribute to open source projects even after the summer was over.

Whether it be intellectual curiosity or just a plain sense of fun, this new-found loyalty to open source is motivated by several factors.

Whatever they are, we should continue to encourage students to contribute to open source, and not only to create software that can be used and enjoyed by all, but also to continue the rich tradition of open source projects and the ideas they have come to represent within colleges and universities.

If you are a student interested in working with Rocket.Chat for GSoC 2018, you can find more information in our documentation.

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Gabriel Engel is the CEO and co-founder of Rocket.Chat, the leading open source communications platform.
Gabriel Engel
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