FOSS Education/Administration

Proprietary software tailored for education administration has been dominated by a small group of companies. They usually have a niche market for specialized software such as Library Management Systems or student information systems. The costs of these types of software are often very high because of the small market. Usually only the well-endowed universities or schools can afford such systems.Many schools even in developed countries are not able to afford these. Needless to say, they are beyond the reach of most educational institutions in developing countries.

In recent years, FOSS catering to this segment has appeared and in some categories like Library Management Systems and Learning Management Systems, good systems have been developed and are available for use by academic institutions.

Library Management Systems


For any school, college or university with a decent-sized library, a computerized system to automate the management of the library is essential.The most well-known FOSS Library Management System is Koha. There are other systems being developed that are not as mature as Koha, such as PhpMyLibrary ( ) and OpenBiblio ( ). These are at various stages of development. Anctil provides a comparison of the various systems.[1]


FOSS Library Management System - Koha

Koha ( ) was developed in 1999 in New Zealand by Katipo Communications Ltd with funding from the Horowhenua Library Trust. It is available under the GNU General Public License. It is now supported by a growing developer community from various countries and has been ported to several languages. It runs on Linux and uses the Apache Web server and MySQL database and was developed in Perl. It is also possible to use other Web servers or databases to run the programme. Koha is used by the Horowhenua Library Trust for their three library branches, which have a total of 80,000 books and 25,000 patrons. Another library that is using Koha is in Coast Mountain School District, British Columbia, Canada. It has eight branches with 2,000-8,000 books per branch and 1,000 patrons.

Koha is full-featured and has modules for cataloguing, reserves, Online Public Access Catalogue (OPAC), circulation, patron management and acquisitions. The circulation component includes issues, renewals, returns and fines, and it can be set up to use bar code scanners. The acquisitions module includes budgets, pricing and supplier information.

Koha is a Web-based system where both library patrons and staff access the system using a Web browser. It provides a simple and clear interface to allow searches to be done easily via OPAC over the Internet.

The earlier version of Koha lacked some features,such as support for international cataloguing standards. However, the latest version supports the international cataloguing standards Machine Readable Cataloging (MARC). There are also plans to implement a serials module in future releases.

In May 2002, Koha was awarded the prize in the category for "Software for Public Administration" in an international competition organized in France. The competition was established to highlight FOSS that has the potential to benefit consumers and business.

Key Features

  • Circulation module includes issues, renewals, returns, fines, use of barcode scanners, generation of overdue list
  • Full acquisitions including budgeting, pricing and supplier information and tracking of items ordered and received
  • Simplified acquisitions features for smaller libraries
  • Patron (membership) management
  • Reserves with possibility of self-service reservation in the library or via the Internet
  • Online Public Access Catalogue (OPAC) in the library or via the Internet
  • Simple and clear interface for librarians and members
  • Customizable search by keyword, author, title, subject, class number or combinations
  • Ability to catalogue websites
  • Support for Machine Readable Cataloging (MARC)
  • Stock rotation through branch libraries

(Source: )

Learning Management Systems


A Learning Management System is a software application or a Web-based system that provides an instructor with tools to create and deliver online content, monitor student participation and assess student performance. A Learning Management System may also support collaboration and provide features such as chat facilities and discussion forums. Learning Management Systems are sometimes referred to as Course Management Systems.

The availability of such a system in a school or university will help to achieve the pedagogical improvements that ICTs are envisaged to bring to education. Its availability is also essential for implementing e-learning. However, the existing proprietary systems such as WebCT and Blackboard are too expensive and beyond the reach of many academic institutions, especially in developing countries. Fortunately, several FOSS Learning Management Systems are now available. In a report published by the Commonwealth of Learning in June 2003, thirty-five FOSS Learning Management Systems were identified and evaluated.[2] ATutor, ranked the highest,will be described later in this primer.



To facilitate the interoperability of different Learning Management Systems, the content created should conform to a standard. There are a number of initiatives to establish standards for Learning Management Systems.

The Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI) was begun at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2001. It is a collaboration between a number of premier universities, with MIT and Stanford leading the initiative. The initiative has resulted in two Learning Management Systems-Stellar, developed at MIT, and CourseWork, developed at Stanford University. CourseWork was released as FOSS in June 2003.

The objective of OKI is to define an open and extensible architecture for learning technology. It is targeted specifically to the needs of the higher education community. It provides specifications for interfaces among components within a learning management system and facilitates communication with other systems, including existing enterprise systems. Commercial and non-commercial developers of products for the higher education market can use the OKI architecture which is fundamentally FOSS.

IMS (Instructional Management Systems) Global Learning Consortium is a non-profit organization that includes educational institutions, software companies and publishers across the world. It develops open technical specifications to support distributed learning. Several of these specifications are being adopted internationally as standards for learning technology.These specifications allow different course management systems and content from different authors to work together or interoperate. For example, content produced using a proprietary course management system such as Blackboard can be made accessible to another system such as WebCT and vice versa.

A specific implementation of IMS is the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) developed by Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL). It incorporates elements from IMS and other specifications to provide elearning capabilities that allow interoperability, accessibility and reusability of Web-based learning content.

Both IMS and SCORM use XML as a common language to enable communication between disparate systems.

Stanford's Coursework


Stanford University developed its own Learning Management System called CourseWork ( ) used on its campus to provide instructional websites since January 2002. It was rapidly adopted by its faculty in various academic disciplines, supporting over 400 courses with more than 12,000 users by the spring of 2003.

CourseWork has been released as Open Source software, providing academic institutions nonproprietary, open access to a flexible, scalable Learning Management System. It allows institutions to integrate their course websites with other systems such as a student information system, library management system, and other education-specific infrastructure systems. The tools in CourseWork can be customized to suit the needs of a particular institution and the interface can be modified to be consistent with the institution's websites.

CourseWork is designed to be user-friendly so that academic staff can set up a course website without having to be skilled in the underlying technologies. But it has features that allow faculty with greater expertise in Web technologies to build a more complex course website.

Using CourseWork academic staff can put up announcements, syllabi and course schedules. Course materials can be uploaded on the server and managed by Coursework. Students can easily access these by following the appropriate links. Links to appropriate external resources can also be added as part of the online course readings.A discussion forum can be set up for a course to facilitate online discussions among students and with the course instructor.

Tools are available for instructors to create homework sets, assignments and quizzes.Students can submit their completed assignments online. Multiple-choice quizzes can be automatically graded. CourseWork manages the distribution of assignments, collection of student work and provision of feedback to students. Student grades for online work can be displayed and final grades can be computed.


Moodle, a FOSS Learning Management System

Moodle ( ) was first developed by an Australian, Martin Dougiamas. It is an acronym for Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment. It has been released under the terms of the GNU General Public License and currently has a very active group of developers working on it. Developed using PHP, Moodle is cross-platform: it runs without modification on Linux, Windows, Mac OS X and any other system that supports PHP. It supports the FOSS databases MySQL and PostgreSQL and can also be used with other databases. Moodle is multilingual and is currently available in 34 languages, including Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese and Thai.

Moodle has numerous features for site management, user management and course management. It has modules for assignment, quiz, discussion forum and chat. Instructors can put up assignments with due dates and maximum grades, allow students to upload completed assignments, and provide feedback to students on their assignments.Various types of quiz questions can be created using Moodle-multiple choice, short answers, true/false and fill-in-blanks. The quiz can be graded automatically and feedback can be given to explain the answers.The questions can be shuffled to make it more difficult for students to cheat, and the maximum number of times students can take the quiz can be specified. All grades for assignments and quizzes can be viewed and downloaded for further processing if necessary.

Discussion forums can be set up, to facilitate student interaction in a particular course, with the option to email copies to the students. Moodle also has a chat function for live discussions. Chat sessions can be logged for later viewing by both staff and students.

Key Features


Overall Design

  • Suitable for courses conducted entirely online as well as for supplementing classroom learning
  • Uses a simple browser based interface
  • Easy to install on almost any platform that supports PHP and requires only one database
  • Full database abstraction supporting all major database systems
  • Emphasis on strong security

Site Management

  • Plug-in "themes" allow the site to be customized
  • Plug-in activity modules can be added to existing Moodle installations
  • Plug-in language packs allow full localization to any language
  • The code is written in PHP under a GNU GPL license which allows modifications to suit particular needs

User Management

  • Supports a range of authentication mechanisms allowing easy integration with existing systems
  • Each person requires only one account for the whole server
  • Teachers may have editing privileges removed so that they cannot modify the course (e.g., for part-time tutors)
  • As a security feature teachers can add an "enrollment key" to their courses to keep out nonstudents

Course Management

  • Choice of course formats such as by week, by topic or a discussion-focused format
  • Flexible array of course activities available via various modules-Forums, Journals,Quizzes, Resources, Choices, Surveys, Assignments, Chats, Workshops
  • All grades for Forums, Journals,Quizzes and Assignments can be viewed and downloaded as a spreadsheet file
  • Full user logging and tracking with activity reports for each student
  • Teachers can define their own scales to be used for grading

(Source: )


ATutor, another FOSS Learning Management System

The Commonwealth of Learning Report [3] evaluates Open Source Learning Management Systems and recommends two products. The criteria used for evaluation include features and functionality, cost of ownership, maintainability, usability,standards compliance and scalability. The report's top recommendation is ATutor.

ATutor ( ) has a variety of tools to allow the instructor to manage the online content, such as a built-in content editor, a resources database, a forum manager, course statistics and assessment support. It has good standalone modules for collaboration and chatting. It provides good documentation and online help with a tutorial for new users. However, the user interface may not be very intuitive.

ATutor supports IMS/SCORM specifications, allowing content to be imported from and exported to other Learning Management Systems that also conform to IMS/SCORM specifications. However, it is relatively new and does not have a large installed base. ATutor has been released under the GNU General Public License.



Among the other requirements for the administration of educational institutions is a Student Information System for the management of student records and subject offerings, timetabling, registration, management of academic and financial records, and so on. As Student Information Systems are often customized to the needs of particular institutions, there are not many proprietary systems available. So far, there is no production quality Open Source student information system available. However, there are some initiatives for developing such a system.

The SchoolTool ( ) project is one such initiative. The objective of SchoolTool is to develop a system for school administration that can be used globally and which is suitable both for schools and for higher educational institutions. It would incorporate best practices in school administration and would be easily customized for local needs. The system will be made available under an Open Source license. This project was started in South Africa in 2000 with funding from the Shuttleworth Foundation. The project was temporarily suspended in 2002 but was restarted in 2003. It is still in the early stages of development and the software is not yet available for use.

External Resources



  1. Anctil, E., "The Open Source Integrated Library System: An Overview", 2003; available from
  2. "COL LMS Open Source",Commonwealth of Learning",25 June 2003;available from
  3. Anctil, E.,"The Open Source Integrated Library System: An Overview", 2003; available from