The recent initiatives for open access to educational resources (ALTO and DIAL) in the UAL are very important in relation to both ethical and practical considerations about UAL’s academic outputs. They follow another milestone project: UAL Research Online which functions as the university’s institutional repository. These projects address ethical considerations because knowledge should be shared for free. UAL invests in these project because it shares this view. They address practical considerations in terms of sharing the responsibility for long-term preservation of this knowledge – i.e. making sure that in a digital world the computer files in which this knowledge is stored survive the rapid evolution of computer file formats and remain readible and accessible in years to come. Both these considerations are core principles of open-source software and it is the purpose of this blog post to start a discussion on why open source software has not been widely adopted by UAL or in fact UK higher education in general.
Open-source software is typically developed by groups of users and programmers who agree to share their expertise and offer their time to a software development project, provided that the results of the project are shared openly. I am a big supporter of the open-source project Drupal, an online content management system. I used it to build Ligatus’s website without having to pay for a license and with the capacity to delve into the code and customise it as necessary. I have found various programming errors in Drupal. Some of which I managed to solve myself, and I have contributed my solutions to the community so that everybody gets a better product in the future. I have learned a great deal by working with the Drupal community and this has improved the quality of my research.
There are thousands of open-source projects covering a range of software applications, from text editors to multivariate statistics analysis and from image processing to vector graphics and 3D modelling. Many of these projects easily compete with commercial well-known packages but they also offer the potential of modifying and extending the functionality by the user, because the user has access to the source code which is, of course, not the case with commercial software. These open source projects are rarely discussed in UAL.
The question is how can we begin to discuss about sharing knowledge when the very tools we are teaching out students to use are impossible to share? How can we convince our students to share knowledge when we cultivate the view that massive costs for software are inevitable?