What are the advantages and disadvantages of Open Source and Free Software for educators?

Credit: Dullhunk

According to Lakham and Jhunjhumwala in their 2008 Educause article "Academia has Adopted Open Source Software for Some Online Learning"

The major advantages of open source are
  • absence of license fee
  • flexibility- they are customizable and new features and tools from open source community can be imported
  • service continuity-a large collaborative community of developers with volunteer help through open source forums
  • continuous improvement- collaboration ensures products keep improving- wide variety of contributors
  • tax benefits- some governments have tax- exemptions to boost open source projects

  • not all open source products are compatible with existing software
  • there are no guarantees with open source implementation compared to commercial products with guarantees
  • possible loss of support- typical users are interested in usability- if an open source support system disappears, the user will have difficulty improving and customizing their open source product
  • other implementation costs are forgotten or ignored (see Real Cost of Open Source and Free Software below)

Open source and free software have been created by individuals working together for the greater good of all. The projects serve as exemplary models of teamwork and the kind of intrinsic motivation that sees individuals and groups work on creative projects for the love of the project and the meaning derived from the process of creation. For those teaching and learning about software development, open and free software can be valuable as a tool to understand how the software is created and it can be used as a building block for further development. Open initiatives can model behaviour that teachers would like to see in their students. By using and promoting the use of open software teachers can introduce students into a community of sharing. With continued shrinking budgets, educational institutions can benefit from wisely chosen open and free software; however, institutions need to consider the real costs both monetary and person time. While small time-tested applications can be easily adopted, larger types of open source that can impact all in the organization need to be considered more carefully.

What is the real cost of Open Source and Free Software?

Although open source software is free upfront, there can be both money and time costs associated with its implementation. It's been said that open source software is as "free as a free puppy". Software procurement costs are typically less than 5% of the total cost of a project. Implementation still requires training and support. In the world of accelerated software release activity often associated with open source software, and where everyone one and anyone can change the code, version control is labour intensive and creates support challenges. While open source solutions allow programmers to tailor a program to their unique environment, a successful implementation also can require a different skill set from operations staff. (Hein, 2004)

Of course if users are only downloading a software product to their own computer, there will not be implementation costs (unless, that is, the software is incompatible with the user environment or contains a virus that crashes the computer). However, if users are installing a large open source tool like Moodle, there will be costs related to servers, compatibility and set-up. According to Patrick Miller of New York University, "if the open source tool has the features you require...and you wish to optimize your decision based on the presence of those features (all other things being equal) then you might want to give it a shot. However, if cost pressure is leading you to go in the open source direction...stop now. It is not cheaper. I have implemented several open source tools for projects in the corporate world (Linux, JBOSS) and the labor rates are 20-30% higher and development and source control were more complicated. A moot point if money and time are no object..." (Educause Comment, 2008)

Please see the page Evaluation Criteria and Template for Free Software to learn more about key points to consider when evaluating and adopting any type of free software.


Free for Profit: The Differences between Open Source and Free software and other types of "free"

Just as there can be time and money costs incurred with the implementation of free software, there is money to be made and economic growth to be had in the free movement. Service providers offer fee-for-service management and integration consulting services and hosting services on "free" software. Some open source software can be used and sold in combination with other licenseable software depending on the restrictions in its license and providing the open source criteria above are followed. Hardware vendors replace proprietary hardware with commodity Intel technology. Free software drives demand for paid database content.

Open source and free software are often confused with Freemium software versions (which also are "free") although they are different. Freemium software drives paid premium subscriptions which offer enhanced functionality over the free version. In traditional marketing terms freemium versions can also be considered a free sample or loss leader to stimulate sales on complementary or other more profitable items. Just as cell phones sell mobile data plans, and free samples of online .mp3 files are now being used by musicians to generate interest in CD's with enhanced content, concert tickets and merchandise, freemium sells other products and services. While manufacturers of hard goods - with real marginal costs - tended to give away only a small quantity of their products, according to Chris Anderson in Free the Future of a Radical Price (2009), for digital products "A typical online site follows the 5 Percent Rule - 5 percent of users support all the rest." (p. 27)

Finally, some of these types of free content (not open source or free software), services, and software sell advertising. "The most common of the economies built around Free is the three-party system. Here a third party (the advertiser) subsidizes content so that the second party (the listener or viewer) can get it at no charge” (Anderson p.137). "Goggle makes so much money with advertising on a handful of core products...that it can embrace Free in everything else it does” (p. 119). Google's ad machine, AdSense led Google, 10 years after its founding, to become a $20 Billion company, `making more in profit (+ $4 billion in 2008) than all of America's airlines and car companies combined)” (p. 121). Thus Freemium, freeware, shareware, and free with advertising models are models created not for the purpose of freeing information or opening up opportunities for all to have access; rather they are marketing efforts created to sell product and are not open source, or free software.

How can Open Source and Free Software be used in Education?

Open source and free software have the advantage of having no licensing fees, so if school budgets lack money for technology, open source is an opportunity for a school to use various technology. While larger implementations of open source like Moodle and Mahara impact the administration and hopefully advantage teachers and students who use them, smaller applications like OpenOffice can impact the individuals who use the software both inside schools and outside schools. Those who can not afford expensive programs like Microsoft Office can use free alternatives. Open source software can aid in even distribution and inclusion of all.
If a school were looking for a learning management system with no license fee, then Moodle would be a good choice. Because many people are involved in its development around the world, Moodle tends to have good support in forums for users. However, the software needs to be implemented, maintained and users continually need to be input, so there are costs associated with the people running it. Smaller types of software like Open Office are downloaded to individual computers. Again because this is a well known software alternative to Microsoft Office, many user forums exist to help users learn the program and maintain it. Educators are able to download the program and run it on as many computers as they like, and students can download it free for their home use. For those in education who are teaching programming, open software provides an opportunity for students to download, examine and enhance the actual open programs. Established open software has the advantage of being time-tested and improved for multiple purposes; however, newer types of open software may have bugs and glitches that may make early adoption questionable. Overall, wisely chosen open and free software has the potential to save money and to level the playing field when cost is an issue.

Check these Examples of Open Source and Free Software