K-12 School Computer Networking/Chapter 34

Free/Open Source Software and Learning Management and Course Management SystemsEdit

The terms "free software" and "open source software" are often used interchangeably as are the terms "learning management system," "course management system," and "content management system." However there are fine distinctions between each. In order to address your organization's software needs, it is important to understand these distinctions.

Free SoftwareEdit

The Free Software Movement focuses on moral and ethical issues related to the freedom of users to use, study, modify and redistribute software (Tong, 2004, p.1). Here the term "free" reflects the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. It is not simply a reflection of price (Free Software Foundation, n.d.). The Free Software Foundation lists four conditions necessary to meet the "free software" designation. These are:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements (and modified versions in general) to the public, so that the whole community benefits. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
(Free Software Foundation, n.d.)

Video: Stephen Fry explains the value of Free Software and contrasts it with the "kind of tyranny" imposed by proprietary software (GNU, 2008).

Open Source SoftwareEdit

Open Source Software is an approach to the design, development, and distribution of software; it focuses on practical accessibility to the software's source code. ("Open Source," 2009).

Open source software is often distributed for free. However vendors can charge for their versions of open software and for technical support. The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) further clarifies that "open source software is different from "public domain" whose copyright is held by the public and "freeware" or "shareware" which are applications that are distributed in some form for free but whose source code is held by the author and cannot be freely changed or redistributed" (CoSN, n.d.).

The benefit of open source development is distributed peer review and transparency of process. The Open Source Initiative (2007) points to the promise of open source as "better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost, and an end to predatory vendor lock-in."

In terms of development practices free software and open source software are similar in that they invite open peer review, and source code transparency and access. However, according to Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Movement, the critical difference is a philosophical one: "The Free Software Movement is a social movement for computer users' freedom. The Open Source philosophy cites practical, economic benefits" (Perens, n.d.).

Essentially, the difference boils down to: "Free Software is superior because it's Free. Open Source software will become superior because the development is Open" (Chisnall, 2007).

What does this philosophical difference between "free software" and "open source" mean to the educational community? The free software movement argues that people should not support proprietary software since it philosophically prohibits freedoms.

How Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) benefits the educational communityEdit

All would likely agree: we need to prepare students for success in the global economy of the 21st century, a period marked by rapid changes in technology and information access. How can the use of free and open source software in schools support this goal?

For one, while students may need to learn how to use word processors to communicate and spreadsheets to explore and expand on data and applications, is it necessary to teach these skills via proprietary applications when free software with the same functionality is available? Do schools teach students and by extension families to standardize to proprietary products, many that may be too costly for home purchase? By adopting the use of FOSS in schools, educators can support students in developing technical skills that transcend the particular idiosyncrasies of the applications (Pfaffman, 2007, p. 40). Further, since there are no license restrictions with FOSS software, all machines (in school and at home) can have the same version of the program and there is no need to purchase additional licenses for new machines or pay for software upgrades. FOSS licenses also guarantee that the software will be freely available forever; users are not limited to free versions of proprietary applications that offer fewer features or limited use (Pfaffman, 2007, p. 40). Two popular examples of FOSS software include Firefox and OpenOffice.org. Both applications were based on commercial code that was subsequently released as open source (Pfaffman, 2007, p. 39).

The United Nation's International Open Source Network (IOSN) advocates FOSS for education for its:

  • lower costs,
  • reliability, performance and security,
  • building of long-term capacity,
  • open philosophy,
  • encouragement of innovation,
  • alternative to illegal copying,
  • possibility of localization, and
  • learning from source code.
(Tong, 2004, p. 3)

The IOSN acknowledges that while initial cost of FOSS and upgrades is negligible, the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) which includes maintenance, support, and training should be considered. However in various IOSN comparisons the TCO for FOSS is still lower than that for proprietary software (Tong, 2004, p. 10). The savings realized by using FOSS over proprietary software can be put to "better purposes such as buying more computers, providing training for administrative and academic staff or developing non-ICT related infrastructure for the institution‚" (Tong, 2004, p. 10).

"In some situations, the availability of funds or lack of it is such that it is not a choice between proprietary software and FOSS but a choice between FOSS and nothing. By using inexpensive or donated hardware with FOSS, some institutions may be able to provide computing facilities to their students that would otherwise be impossible‚" (Tong, 2004, p. 10).

From a pedagogical standpoint, educators are increasingly promoting collaboration and authorship. In an open source model, "students and teachers are learning to work collaboratively within a global community toward the end of improving a product for the good of all" (Guhlin, 2008). FOSS fosters innovation, critical thinking, and the development of 21st century skills. Educators will need to form and refine their own attitudes toward technology and change, if they are to model them for students.

The Consortium for School Networking asks district technology leaders to consider these benefits of open technologies for K-12 school:

  • Cost: License Fees and TCO: Licensing and purchasing costs for proprietary technologies often limit the scope of use in educational settings. Open technologies, often blended with proprietary technologies, may provide a means for the use of technology in a more ubiquitous fashion for students and teachers by leveraging the funding available.
  • Data integrity/interoperability: Data interoperability through open standards increases the efficiency of systems through the use of common data elements and ensures greater data integrity. These open standards assist in both proprietary and open source applications working well together in a blended technology environment.
  • Independence and Flexibility: Because the source code is open, advanced users can deeply customize applications and operating systems to their environment. This opens the door to innovation which is in turned shared with others. Upgrades are voluntary, so users are not locked into continuing maintenance fees or enforced obsolescence.
  • Stability and Reliability: There is high confidence that open source software will have a viable future because so many people are independently vested in it. It is stable because so many skilled developers are working on it and testing it in many different environments. Open source operating system users report that their systems are more reliable, offer greater performance, are easier to manage, and provide better support.
  • Broader Access to Information: Huge libraries of content are being assembled by organizations, agencies and individuals. Search engines make this quickly available at the point of instruction.
  • Community Support: Content management systems make it easy to build attractive informational sites to communicate to the public. An informed community in turn supports schools.
  • Engage Students in Collaboration: It's well documented that our students live in a world characterized by collaboration. They expect to be part of a larger community in the creation of knowledge, not just sharing, but actively contributing to the end result, whether it's the area of music, research or literature. The use of open technologies in education reinforces that view of the world and encourages students and teachers to be active members of the global community typically involved in the creation of these technologies.
(CoSN, n.d.)

FOSS alternatives to proprietary softwareEdit

The following sites provide FOSS alternatives to proprietary software:

Learning Management, Course Management, and Content Management SystemsEdit

Learning management systems, course management systems, and content managements are server-based systems that are designed to manage learning content and learner interactions. To varying extents they enable an online learning environment with public or private access, areas for collaboration, asynchronous discussion, email, archives and storage, and submission and publication of user-generated content. Some provide data management such as attendance, enrollment, class schedules, mastery progress, assessment, and reporting. Most empower school administrators, faculty, and students to post, publish, and manage content directly without the need for programming skills, thus providing these constituents with anywhere/anytime access to a learning environment. These systems can support collaborative learning inside and outside of the school in order to extend the learning environment to the home and further involve parents (Watson & Watson, 2007). Though the terms ‚"learning management system," "course management system," and "content management system" are often used interchangeably. They each have their specific focus as noted below.

Learning Management Systems (LMS)Edit

Learning Management Systems focus on the logistics of managing learners, learning activities, and the competency mapping of an organization (Watson & Watson, 2007). The LMS manages the learning process as a whole and provides an infrastructure for delivering and managing instructional content, assessing individual and organizational learning goals, tracking progress towards those goals, and collecting and presenting data (Watson & Watson, 2007). Essentially, the LMS delivers content but also handles course registration and administration, skills gap analysis, tracking and reporting.

Course Management Systems (CMS)Edit

Course Management systems support the placement of course materials online, "associating students with courses, tracking student performance, storing student submissions and mediating communication between the students as well as their instructor" (Watson & Watson, 2007). LMS also contain many of these functions; however, LMS are not limited to CMS functionality. A CMS provides educators with a framework, templates, and tools to create course content and to manage discussion and interactions with students within the course, without the need for programming skills (Watson & Watson, 2007).

Common features of most CMS include areas for content, asychronous discussion boards, chat rooms, assignment drop boxes, quizzes, rosters, surveys, and an area for students and teachers to set-up their own templated homepages. Students and teachers are able to share resources, collaborate, participate in forums, take online tests, access grades, and upload assignments (Ioannou & Hannafin, 2008, p. 46). CMS support student-teacher communication and collaboration. However, they do not have all of the administrative functions that an organization-wide learning management system would such as tracking school attendance, total enrollment, and customized organizational reporting.

Content Management Systems or Learning Content Management Systems (LCMS)Edit

Content management systems enable web content development. With the LCMS the content is separated from the design and programming of the site; thus CMS software makes it easy to manage content without web design or programming skills (Farkas, 2008). The LCMS is a multi-user environment where developers may create, store, reuse, manage, and deliver digital learning content from a central object repository ("Learning Content Management System," 2009). The LCMS allows anyone to take on the role of webmaster and thus allow educators or students to distribute the responsibility for updating web content (Watson & Watson, 2007).

A LCMS allows an individual or a community of users to easily publish, manage and organize a wide variety of content on a website including: blogs, wikis, resource directories, collaborative authoring environments, picture galleries, podcasts, video sharing, discussion forums, content syndication, and news aggregation (drupal.org). Like LMS and CMS, the LCMS also features role-based permissions for users.

Considerations when adopting a Free/Open Source LMS, CMS, or LCMSEdit

Guhlin (2007) offers the following tips when considering a move to open source technologies.

Eight Steps to a Smooth Transition

  1. Convene a committee representative of teachers, administrators, and office staff and share the problem with them.
  2. The problem: We're spending a lot of money on software licenses. Let's brainstorm some solutions that lower that total cost. Get buy-in on beginning with a familiar basic application open source tool, such as OpenOffice, which can be easily shared and includes a clipart library.
  3. Prioritize the different solutions. Thoroughly evaluate each solution in a test situation so that the committee is aware of why something works or doesn't. Have the members keep a blog or journal of what they experiencing.
  4. Survey all stakeholders. Focus on function and need rather than product. This will give you the data you need to make decisions on the best solutions.
  5. Maintain regular communication. Via newsletters and a Web page, disseminate committee findings and keep stakeholders abreast over time of funds saved and how they've been redirected to worthy projects that directly impact students, teachers, and community.
  6. Immediately create quick reference cards for the open source solutions you choose. Also train your help desk. You can turn to OpenOffice textbooks as well as Web site resources.
  7. Make the transition across several campuses, setting up training and offering to do on-site demonstrations for teachers. Also setup a FAQ page online to help train everyone.
  8. When you announce the decision, make CDs of the software available for people who do not have a high-speed Internet connection at home, including parents of district students. Offer to give those away at the cost of the media/duplication.
(Guhlen, 2007)

Video: Instructional Designer Matt Bodek discusses the reasons why he selected an open source CMS (Drupal) to develop course sites (Bodek, 2009).

Technologies can "change people's understandings of what they can do, what they want to do, what they think they need to do" (Burbules & Callister, 2000, p. 33).

Ali Jafari models a comprehensive "Next-Generation E-Learning Environment" (Jafari, 2006).


In planning for new learning environments, educators should examine their needs, wishlists, and also the affordances of the technologies. Are they static and instructive, allowing for fixed representations and one-way transmission of information? Or are they more collaborative and productive, allowing more flexible, multimodal representations that can be modified and shared (Bower, 2008)?

To compare specific LMS, CMS, and LCMS features in the areas of communication, productivity, student involvement, support, course delivery, content development, and or technical specifications, visit the sites below.


Bodek, M. (2009). Interview: Working With an Open Source CMS (video file). Video posted to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=330k7eiZT6g

Bower, M. (2008). Affordance analysis - matching learning tasks with learning technologies. Educational Media International, 45(1), 3-15. Retrieved July 13, 2009, from Wilson Web database.

Burbules, N.C., & Callister, Jr., T.A. (2000). Watch it: The risks and promises of information technologies for education. Boulder: Westview Press.

Chisnall, D. (2007, March 16). Free Software Versus Open Source Software. Retrieved July 12, 2009, from http://www.informit.com/articles/article.aspx?p=706208

CMSmatrix.org (n.d.). CMS Comparison Tool. Accessed July 13, 2009, from http://www.cmsmatrix.org

CoSN: K-12 Open Technologies. (n.d.). How can open technologies benefit K-12 schools? Retrieved July 11, 2009, from http://www.k12opentech.org/how-can-open-technologies-benefit-k-12-schools

CoSN: K-12 Open Technologies. (n.d.). What are open technologies? Retrieved July 11, 2009, from http://k12opentech.org/what-are-open-technologies

Drupal.org. (n.d.) CMS Features. Retrieved July 13, 2009, from http://drupal.org/features

EduTools. (n.d.). Course Management Comparison: How to Use this Site. Accessed July 13, 2009, from http://www.edutools.info/static.jsp?pj=4&page=HOWTO

Farkas, M. (2008). CMS for Next-Gen Websites. American Libraries, 39(10), 36. Retrieved July 11, 2009, from Wilson Web database.

Fry, S. (2008). Happy Birthday to GNU(video file). Video posted to http://www.gnu.org/fry/

Guhlin, M. (2008, August 22). The Case for Open Source. Tech & Learning. Retrieved July 12, 2009, from http://www.techlearning.com/article/6944

Ioannou, A. & Hannafin, R.D. (2008, January/February). Course Management Systems: Time for Users to Get What They Need. TechTrends, 52(1), 46-50. Retrieved July 11, 2009, from Wilson Web database.

Jafari, A., McGee, P., & Carmean, C. (2006, July/August). Managing Courses, Defining Learning: What Faculty, Students, and Administrators Want. EDUCAUSE Review, 41(4),50-71. Retrieved July 12, 2009, from http://www.educause.edu/EDUCAUSE+Review/EDUCAUSEReviewMagazineVolume41/ManagingCoursesDefiningLearnin/158070

Learning Content Management System. (2009, July 13). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved July 13, 2009, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learning_management_system

Open Source Initiative. (2007). Open Source Definition. Retrieved July 11, 2009, from http://opensource.openmirrors.org/

Open Source Software. (2009, July 11). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved July 11, 2009, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_source_software

Perens, B. (n.d.). Public Policy Area: Open Source Software. Retrieved July 12, 2009, from [http://perens.com/policy/open-source/ http://perens.com/policy/open-source/

Pfaffman, J. (2007, May/June). It's Time to Consider Open Source Software. TechTrends. 51(3), 38-43. Retrieved July 12, 2009, from Wilson Web database.

The Free Software Definition. (n.d.). Retrieved July 11, 2009, from http://www.fsf.org/licensing/essays/free-sw.html

Tong, T. W. (2004). Free/Open Source Software: Education. Retrieved July 11, 2009, from UNDP International Open Source Network web site: http://www.iosn.net/education/foss-education-primer/

Watson, W. R. & Watson, S. L. (2007, March/April). What are Learning Management Systems, What are They Not, and What Should they Become? TechTrends, 51(2), 28-34. Retrieved July 11, 2009, from Wilson Web database.