How the Open Source Movement Has Changed Education: 10 Success Stories

How would you like to study at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) for free? It has been nearly six years since MIT first announced their MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) program. More recently, MIT announced that the OCW program, a free and open educational resource (OER) for educators, students, and self-learners around the world, is online and will be completed by 2008. The OCW provides open access to course materials for up to 1,550 MIT courses, representing 34 departments, and all five MIT schools. The goal is to include materials from all MIT courses by next year.

MIT provides just one of the 10 open source educational success stories detailed below. Open source and open access resources have changed how colleges, organizations, instructors, online accredited colleges, and prospective students use software, operating systems and online documents for educational purposes. And, in most cases, each success story also has served as a springboard to create more open source projects.


  1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): MIT is the success story in this category, as this college started the intiative that pulled many colleges from all over the world into the OER initiative. In 1999, Provost Robert A. Brown asked a committee of MIT faculty, students, and administrators to provide strategic guidance on how MIT could advance knowledge and education to students in science, technology, and other scholarship areas. This mission was to literally fulfill MIT’s mission statement about how to best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century.

Based on that premise, MIT’s OCW began to provide users with open access to class syllabi, lecture notes, course calendars, problem sets and solutions, exams, reading lists, and even a selection of video lectures in 2003. Eleven other U.S. colleges plan to follow MIT’s example, and six of those 12 colleges have offered an online presence, (other than MIT):

It would be important to note that the colleges that offer OCW courses are
not meant to serve as “distance learning” initiatives. Credits and degrees are
not offered through access to open sources and participants don’t have access to university faculty with these resources. Those who want to take online courses for credit should consider looking into the best online colleges.


  1. OpenCourseWare Consortium: The OpenCourseWare Consortium is a by-product of MIT’s OER initiative, and its rate of growth makes this a clear success in the educational field. This group now includes members from 16 countries, not including the 14 additional affiliate organizations in its fold. Of these, China is the largest participant with 30 colleges that are active in OpenCourseWare Consortium programs under the organizational group CORE (China Open Resources for Education).

Other groups have also climbed on the open source bandwagon, and some corporations have seen benefits in bringing open source products and services to the arena. SunMicrosystems, Inc.’s offering, Global Education and Learning Community (GELC), now serves as a nonprofit organization that provides an online portal for teachers to share resources and knowledge that would otherwise go undiscovered. Other organizations include (but aren’t
limited to):

Online Encyclopedias

  1. Wikipedia: Wikipedia is the clear success story here, despite the recent row created by user editing. Nothing could be more open than
    this user-generated online encyclopedia that allows users to modify its contents. With that said, while many universities point to Wikipedia as a starting resource for some projects, few professors will accept a citation from this site. And, The Wikipedia Foundation agrees.

Despite its reputation as an unreliable source, Wikipedia has branched off into various translations and even into other areas like its Wikiversity, a community for the creation and use of free learning materials and activities. Wikipedia’s venture also has forged the way for other ventures. The following
initiatives validate this Web site’s importance, even with a new beginning by Wikipedia’s co-founder, Larry Sanger, that will be monitored and edited by registered users:

  • Citizendium – Sanger’s experimental new wiki project.
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) – Stanford University’s highly monitored source that meets academic standards and that can be used for citations.
  • Connexions – A Rice University initiative, Connexions is more than an encyclopedia in that approaches learning in modules (a non-linear approach) that develop into courses. This resource is so free with its content that it even offers to share its technology.

Online Collections

Online collections, whether specific or general, have enriched educational experiences for anyone with Internet access. Some sites charge for access to their collections, like Picture History. Some sites charge for some services like copying and research, yet offer open digital access to a variety of materials (like The Library of Virginia). In this category, the student is safe to use most
of these resources as a citable source, as these collections contain many primary source materials. But, just like any brick-and-mortar archive or library, some online open sources are limited by a lack of funds.

For instance, you might see notices like the one that Virginia Commonwealth University professor Roice Luke and University of Richmond associate professor Darrell Walden put out to the general public. They’ve asked for volunteers to help them digitalize the Virginia
Freedmen Project
, a collection of records from The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, a federal agency established in 1865 that assisted freed slaves in becoming citizens after the Civil War.

  1. Project Gutenberg: This open access project seems to fade in comparison to the updated presence provided by Google Scholar Beta. However, Project Gutenberg — launched in 1971 by Michael
    Hart — provides the first example of a free library project and the first producer of free electronic books. And, despite the fact that flashier faces have moved into this arena, Project Gutenberg still enjoys over two million
    downloads per month.

The Internet Archive also shores this category as an example of an open access resource. This nonprofit online library includes texts, audio, moving images, and software as well as archived Web pages in their collections. Like a paper library, this archive provides open access to researchers, historians, scholars, and the general public.

It’s impossible to offer all the online research materials available online, so I’ll point you to the Directory of Open Access Journals so you can find documents that might fit your interests.

Operating Systems

  1. Linux: Without hesitation, Linux provides the success story in this category. Linux was created by a student (Linus Torvalds) in Helsinki in 1991 with the assistance of developers from around the world. Linux is free, it shares its work with everyone — including competitors — and its business model is motivated primarily by adrenaline, altruism, and peer respect rather than by money. Yet, Linux’s functionality, adaptability and robustness has made it the main alternative for proprietary operating systems, especially where budgets are a main concern.

Look for Ubuntu to enter this category as an up-and-coming success story. This particular Linux distribution combines the breadth of Debian and includes the latest Gnome release in its download. It’s based on a user-friendly interface for the individual who wants to wean himself from proprietory systems (such as Microsoft Windows or Mac OS).

Based on the philosophy that “It Should Just Work”, Ubuntu provides solutions that can be used on the desktop or on servers. Many librarians have embraced Ubuntu as a solution to proprietary operating costs and licensing fees. Additionally, Ubuntu offers Edubuntu as an open source OS targeted to schools and other educational environments.

You can use Netcraft
to “peek” into a Web site’s platform to determine if its claim to “open” source or access extends to its OS and to its server as well.


The open source software/free software (OSS/FS) category is broad, so the means to narrow this niche down to one single success story is more difficult than any other in this list. Plus, there’s a minor difference betwee OSS and FS, as OSS implies open access to source code as well as to distribution and licensing. FS, on the other hand, implies that the code, distribution, and licensing are up to the individual who uses the software. This difference seems minor at first glance, but if you read closely you’ll realize that an individual can sell FS materials for profit (see the Free Software Foundation for further clarity).

  1. Based on a focus in education and a pattern of high usage within educational structures (students and instructors), provides the success story in this category. This software makes the transition from educational environments to business applications with its multi-platform office productivity suite. Owned by Sun Microsystems, this front-end application seeks to replace proprietary software (such as Microsoft Office) with its broad language offerings and its features as well as with its collaborative efforts with users. Look for continued efforts to combine other open source applications, such as Mozilla’s Lightning, which combines the Sunbird calendar with Thunderbird email.

Running neck-to-neck with Open Office is the Sakai Project, an “online Collaboration and Learning Environment” that seeks to replace many proprietary educational software in classrooms from kindergarten to college.


  1. Mozilla Firefox: This browser probably doesn’t need an introduction or an argument as the success story for this category. But, to be fair, it should be mentioned that all products offered through the Mozilla Firefox Web site are available free-of-charge for Windows, Mac, and Linux computers in more than 35 languages. This compatibility and availability meets all the standards suggested by the OpenSourceWare Consortium and its major supporter, the The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.


Open source or access projects are receiving attention in the classroom as well. While many projects have relied on cooperation between developers and user groups — and they still do — the best online education programs are now seeing the wisdom in creating an atmosphere that encourages an understanding for these resources.

  1. Google: Google provides the success story here, simply because their apps bring books, scholarly journals, maps, news, patent searches, docs and spreadsheets, and even API code to any browser or OS. Google has won the hearts and minds of
    many instructors and students. But, that’s not the only story behind this success. Google offers a page for educators to learn how to use these apps in the classroom. Google employees are out into the field in efforts to reach University of Washington classes as well.

Other educational options are few and far between at this point; but, since Carnegie Mellon West‘s Software Management program has incorporated a course about open source software into its program, you might expect other schools to follow suit.


With resources like EDUCAUSE that focus on how open source projects can benefit teachers and students, the clear success story in this category belongs to the people who — whether for economic reasons or for the sheer delight in learning to use a “free” resource — belong to the educational side of this open source movement:

  1. Instructors: Instructors, along with their educational institutions, have made the decision that open source venues supply the economic solution to problems defined by school budgets. Although the learning curve is not easy at times, instructors from preschool to Ph.D. levels have found resources that help them to decide what to use, when to use it, and how it’s all done. These resources are often delineated by subjects, countries, and languages, but all can find resources on the Internet — like through the EduResources Portal — that can lead to solutions for open source questions.
  1. Students: Although some students feel that programs like the OCW deprive a student of the bond
    that often comes from a student/instructor relationship, most students have embraced open sources and open access with a budget-minded joy and with a skeptical eye toward college programs. An MIT survey of users showed that about a third of freshmen who were aware of MIT’s OCW site before attending the university said it made a significant impact on their decision to enroll.

Other student benefits to using open source and open access include:

  • An increase in educational opportunities for those who can’t access a classroom.
  • The ability to see the value and quality of courses offered before making
    an application to a college.
  • Access to supplemental learning materials.

Finally, I should point out that a fine line between open source and open access has been defined as well. Open source, according to the linked article, “refers to any enterprise where data (e.g. journal article, piece of software) may be modified by the relevant community and those modifications may be recontributed to the larger whole.” Open access, on the other hand, has come to mean data — like peer-reviewed documents — that may be read without charge. But I would argue that a person can modify how open access materials are perceived when these documents are cited in new theoretical works.

The terms within the “open” educational realm, just as the formats listed in the categories above, will continue to evolve as “open” education permeates society beyond the college campus. If you take part in the success stories listed above, you may discover new success stories that are developing every day.

Update (3/8/07):

Since this article was published, we’ve received numerous e-mails and responses to our choices for the “10 Success Stories” listed above. The loudest protest concerned our Moodle omission, and a slap on the wrist is deserved for that oversight. We were most impressed with the Open Office transition from education to business, so our measurements for success went beyond the educational platform in this instance. We apologize for our omission, and we’ll be anxious
to see how Moodle fares when we decide to update this list at a later date.

Some readers noted that MIT went with a commercial option (Microsoft Content Management Server 2002) for their content management system. We recognized this matter as MIT is “open” about this choice and they state their reasons behind their selection. (They do use Linux for their operating system.) Still, we stand behind our selection
because MIT has motivated many other higher learning institutions to incorporate open access to materials online, and because MIT’s efforts behind the OpenCourseWare Consortium could not go unrecognized.

We also understand that our criteria for judging weren’t that apparent to our readers. We made our choices based upon the following:

  • Initial offerings, i.e. was this choice the first to offer open access/open source materials and platforms, and if not, have they been around long enough to influence how open source/open access is perceived within a given category?
  • Their readership levels, but even more so on how they’ve affected and continue to affect learning at all levels. (Although the focus remained primarily at the college level for this article.)
  • How that choice altered the open source/access aspects in other areas, both geographically and as inspiration for further development.
  • Their popularity based on international access and language offerings.
  • Not judged on the amount of money used/needed to gear up, expand, or to continue operations.

With that said, so many open source apps and open access tools (such as Elgg, Lams, Plone, Dspace, .LRN, LogiCampus, etc.) have joined
this movement with so many offereings that it’s impossible to mention them all here. Additionally, we didn’t set out to add more than one link to each category, but we felt that all the sources mentioned deserved notice. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, for example, offers more than encyclopedic information and they’re definitely more citable than Wikipedia. But, once again, we stand by our choices for this go-round based upon our criteria (except for Moodle).

We think that this educational movement is vital and necessary, and that all open source/access tools should be heralded. Thank you to all who made their voices heard on our choices and about your choices as well.


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