Current economic constraints demand that organizations find
alternative resources for developing and delivering their learning
assets. One option some learning executives are exploring is open
In recent years, open source software (OSS) has steadily matured
and moved into the mainstream for many businesses initiatives. Some
examples you may be familiar with include the LINUX operating
system, Apache web server, and the Internet browser Mozilla
Although learning may not lead in the number of OSS projects under
development (there are more than 230,000 OSS projects listed on
SourceForge.net), there have been some significant developments.
And while many may think that most OSS offerings for the learning
realm reside mainly in the social media domain, other prominent
tools are being offered in budget-draining areas such as learning
management (Moodle, for example) and courseware libraries (Open
E-Learning Project, for example).
Workplace learning and performance executives are under increasing
pressure to understand what OSS is and how it is used and licensed.
Here's some help.
What is OSS?
Wikipedia defines open source software as "computer software for
which the source code and certain other rights normally reserved
for copyright holders are provided under a software license that
meets the Open Source Definition," which is maintained by the Open
Source Initiative (OSI). OSI is a non-profit corporation which
manages and promotes its Open Source Definition through a
certification program and certification mark, and its model of
distribution requires 10 conditions:
- Free redistribution. The license shall not
restrict any party from selling or giving away the software as a
component of an aggregate software distribution containing programs
from several different sources. The license shall not require a
royalty or other fee for such sale.
- Source code. The program must include source code,
and must allow distribution in source code as well as compiled
form. Where some form of a product is not distributed with source
code, there must be a well-publicized means of obtaining the source
code for no more than a reasonable reproduction cost preferably,
downloading via the Internet without charge. The source code must
be the preferred form in which a programmer would modify the
program. Deliberately obfuscated source code is not allowed.
Intermediate forms such as the output of a preprocessor or
translator are not allowed.
- Derived works. The license must allow
modifications and derived works, and must allow them to be
distributed under the same terms as the license of the original
- Integrity of the author's source code. The license
may restrict source-code from being distributed in modified form
only if the license allows the distribution of "patch files" with
the source code for the purpose of modifying the program at build
time. The license must explicitly permit distribution of software
built from modified source code. The license may require derived
works to carry a different name or version number from the original
- No discrimination against persons or groups. The
license must not discriminate against any person or group of
- No discrimination against fields of endeavor. The
license must not restrict anyone from making use of the program in
a specific field of endeavor. For example, it may not restrict the
program from being used in a business, or from being used for
- Distribution of license. The rights attached to
the program must apply to all to whom the program is redistributed
without the need for execution of an additional license by those
- License must not be specific to a product. The
rights attached to the program must not depend on the program's
being part of a particular software distribution. If the program is
extracted from that distribution and used or distributed within the
terms of the program's license, all parties to whom the program is
redistributed should have the same rights as those that are granted
in conjunction with the original software distribution.
- License must not restrict other software. The
license must not place restrictions on other software that is
distributed along with the licensed software. For example, the
license must not insist that all other programs distributed on the
same medium must be open-source software.
- License must be technology-neutral. No provision
of the license may be predicated on any individual technology or
style of interface.
OSS not only permits users to use, change, and improve the
software, and to redistribute it in modified or unmodified forms,
it is expected. As such, OSS fits perfectly into the Web 2.0 model
in that it is very often developed in a public, collaborative
It is important to recognize that OSS is not "public domain"
software, which is software that has is absolutely no ownership
(such as copyright) of the intellectual property that the software
represents. OSS continues to be subject to copyright protection.
Similarly, OSS is not "freeware", which is copyrighted software
that is offered at no cost, but which may be subject to license
restrictions, including restrictions which may prohibit the
modification or redistribution of the software in question. An
example of freeware is Adobe Acrobat Reader.
Pros and Cons of OSS for e-learning
Open source software is advancing into the world of online
learning. There are OSS e-learning offerings for learning
management systems; learning content management systems; course
authoring tools; tools to create media elements such as animations,
audio, and video clips; browsers and players to present content;
and courseware libraries.
Open source proponents are quick to point to the potential rewards
and benefits associated with OSS, including a reduced development
cycle, lower development costs, improved product reliability and
stability, lower costs, increased flexibility, and decreased vendor
The Brandon-Hall.com report "Open Source E-Learning: Alternatives
to Proprietary Tools, Systems, and Courseware" notes that OSS
e-learning software can provide important benefits:
- low initial cost; open source software is free to download
- flexibility and customizability; you can modify the software as
needed to make it better.
- extensive active user communities; participating in open source
projects is a source of distinction among developers.
- multiplatform capabilities; many open source applications run
on multiple platforms including Windows and Linux.
- adherence to standards; interoperability is a high priority for
many open source developers.
- tendency to use and link to other open source software;
including popular languages and platforms such as PHP and MySQL
However, the use of OSS also presents a number of risks that
organizations need to consider in order to ensure that these risks
are appropriately managed within its enterprise. Learning
enterprises that are considering using an OSS solution must address
- Is it safe? Can you tell whether it follows a "security by
obscurity" or security by design" model?
- Is it supportable?
- Is there a large user base?
- Is it updated frequently?
- Is there appropriate documentation?
- Are there support options, such as forums or wikis?
- Does it use one of the standard open-source licenses?
To be sure, there is plenty more to know about open source
software. Hopefully, the information presented here can jumpstart
your exploration in its potential for learning.