Free, Open Source Software for Colleges and Universities to Use in Their Strive for Digital Transformation

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Dr. Darren Wilkins

By Dr. Darren Wilkins ([email protected] | 0777129092 & 0886703789)

The digitization of education is a phenomenon that has transformed the education sector globally, while Liberia continues to play “catch up”.  Nowadays, academic institutions explore the potential for digitizing education through, virtual universities, online courses (AME University recently ran a pilot project), education portals, courseware and so forth. Furthermore, the advent of the Internet and its technologies has kindled more opportunities to combine educational and economic goals on a common, globally accessible platform. But such a platform requires extensive technical support to create and sustain the software infrastructure on which digital education primarily depends.

In Liberia, many of our colleges and universities continue to struggle with the integration of ICTs in their institutions. This is primarily due to the lack of resources (financial and technical) and to some extent, the lack of will and vision on the part of some of our leaders. To address this (in my own way), I have invited a group of ten students to come to my training and development lab to apprise them of the thousands of free and open source academic resources, (especially educational software) that are available on the Internet. The second reason is to train them in the use and development of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), and create an environment that allows them to test, develop, deploy and use open source software at their various colleges and universities. The third reason for inviting these kids is to build a team of evangelists who will go out and evangelize the need for the infusion of ICTs in our colleges, universities and the entire nation, so as to leapfrog social and economic development.

As I mentioned above, one of the main reasons why technology integration has been slow in the Liberian education sector, is the lack of resources; both financial and technical. The lack of equipment (computer labs, testing environment, and internet), the lack of qualified instructors and the lack of a robust Educational Technology Policy or Plan to guide the sector in its efforts to improve pedagogy through a paradigm shift that leverages ICTs, are some of the challenges that sector faces. But as they say, where there is a will, there can always be a way. We know that the cost of software has always been prohibitive, thus denying ICT managers the resources required to provide much needed ICT services to their users. In worst cases, the prohibitive cost of software is one of the main reasons ICT managers install PIRATED SOFTWARE in their environment; something that can bring litigation from vendors. Hence, we try to suggest the use of FOSS where applicable. Another option is to go to the CLOUD. But that’s a different topic for a different day. Let’s focus on FOSS today!

Before going further, let me attempt to provide a succinct description of what FOSS is. FOSS is software that can be used for free. It also provides the source code of the software for the user to tinker with. There is also a commercial version which also provides the source code to the user for tinkering. For the purpose of this article, FOSS refers to both free and commercial software that make their source code available for user to tinker with. Below, I discuss a few FOSS that colleges and universities could use for School Management System (SMS) or School ERP, Online Learning Management System (LMS), FOSS for instructors and students to use for teaching, learning and doing assignments, Web Development, as well as software for teaching a Computer Science or Engineering Program.

School Management Systems

Fedena is an open-source university management software that largely focuses on handling records. It is a school ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) software that offers unlimited administration and student logins to use their system, along with unlimited courses and batches. The system includes, admission, course management, faculty messaging, attendance tracking, student information, dashboards human resources, a calendar, financial management, examination management, and student/parent logins. Fedena has free version and a commercial version. The commercial version obviously adds more features and provides a better level of support.

Gibbon: This education ERP software can be used to manage the administration department and post all student-related information like admission information, staff management, payroll, invoicing, scheduling, gradebooks, rubrics, assessments, library catalogues, examination details and timetables. It also comes equipped with tools like assessments and planners which can be used to enhance the teaching experience for the teachers. Gibbon has a clear user interface for ease of use. One thing to note about Gibbon is that maintenance is quite technical, requiring coding knowledge, which is standard for open-source software. Support is limited to online guides for administrators, teachers, and parents

There are other SMSes both Free and Open Source and commercial or proprietary. Ascend SMS, Smart Edu, EduKiran, are a few commercial/proprietary SMSes.

Learning Management Systems

LMS tools are used mostly to create and manage learning content on the web. Some of the most widely used LMS tools are MOODLE, Bodginton, Sakai, Claroline, Dokeos, ATutor, OLAT. Of all the LMSes, I prefer MOODLE; not only because I have deployed, managed and used the platform, but because it is what I used as a student in college. MOODLE is downloaded about 500 times a day. It is installed on more than 28,000 registered sites, over a million courses are being offered though MOODLE, and it has a learning community of 10 million users in 175 countries.

There are also several commercial or proprietary LMSes: WebCT, Blackboard, ANGEL Learning, and Desire2Learn. Depending on your institution’s resources, you can decide on which platform to use.

Teaching Computer Programming and Engineering

Colleges and universities that run IT/ICT/Computer Science programs can teach programming, operating system, database management, Web Development, using the following: Python, C/C++, Java , SQL, HTML5, CSS3, PHP, JavaScript. Since these are open source software, improving Open Source programs can be a realistic assignment. If the community accepts their additions, they’ll have OSS experience they can note as credit toward their professional careers.

Web development

The IT/ICT department can use the following to develop their colleges or universities’ website or portals.- ZEND framework, PHP, Apache web server, MySQL MariaDB database, etc. They can use LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL/MariaDB, and PERL or Python) as their web development platform. Drupal is another open source content management software that many, if not all Ivy League schools use for their websites.

For Instructors and Students

Instructors’ lesson plans and students’ assignments and presentations can be done using LibreOffice or OpenOffice. Instructors teaching Accounting can use GNU or LibreOffice Calc spreadsheet solutions. Instructors teaching Engineering, or Architecture can use CAD or DIA to give students a practical experience.

Open educational resources (OERs)

Open educational resources (OERs) are online resources that provide free applications and learning materials for academic institutions. Some Open Educational Resources include but not limited to:

Open educational resources are available from the following initiatives:

  1. Connexions provides instructional material for primary, secondary, and postsecondary levels, as well as the industrial sector.
  2. MIT OpenCourseWare makes undergraduate and graduate course materials from MIT available on the Internet. This initiative has not damaged the university’s reputation but instead has encouraged other institutions to publish their courses online as well.

Finally, I have briefly discussed a few software that can be used at our colleges and universities at little or no cost. These institutions will need a paradigm shift to be able to integrate ICTs in their learning environment. And this paradigm shift has begun as some colleges, universities and schools in Liberia, have begun hiring CIOs or Vice Presidents for ICT or IT or Technology to lead transformation to a digital learning and research environment. Liberia has 55% of the ACE fiber optic cable capacity. I believe 10% of that capacity is alloted for Education. It is time we leverage that 10% capacity and build a broadband network and name it; “Liberian Universities Broadband Network”, or LUBNET. This network will connect ALL universities and colleges for learning and research purposes. With FOSS and a broadband network, we can improve our education sector, particularly at the tertiary level! Until Next Week! Carpe diem!!!!!

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