An important consideration when selecting a given technology is the source of that technology and the standards that it adheres to. With respect to software, there is a common distinction between “open source” and “closed” or “proprietary” source. Open source refers to software that is distributed with its source code completely open for anyone to read and modify. Source code here refers to the collection of files that contain all the “instructions” or code that programmers have written that are the source of a given software’s features and functionality. Open source is often contrasted with proprietary or “closed” source technologies, those which restrict access to source code and can only be changed by the vendor. Open source technologies are usually available for free, proprietary technologies usually require a licensing fee to use.
Open standards refer to publicly available specifications that provide a common method of achieving a particular goal. These standards are usually free to use and are often defined by formalized committees that are open to participation by any interested party. These are often coupled with open source code that provides a reference for how the standard is implemented. Open standards are contrasted with “closed” or proprietary standards that require licensing to implement and are usually defined by individual companies or organizations.
With respect to technologies used for teaching and learning, Middlebury Library and Information Services (LIS) has had a strong commitment to both open source and open standards. In 2001 the LIS Curricular Technology group began to develop database-driven web applications using the Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP (LAMP) open source web platform. Segue was developed at Middlebury and released as open source software in 2003. Segue v2 implements a set of specifications developed by the Open Knowledge Initiative (O.K.I.) that continue to be promoted as open standards. Other open source technologies in use at Middlebury include Moodle, Drupal, MediaWiki and WordPress.
Thus the Curricular Technology team favors open source technologies because they allows LIS designers and developers to integrate such technologies with other systems on campus including other open source projects. Segue itself builds upon a number of open source tools including the CKEditor. The Curricular Technology team also favors technologies that use open standards because they help to prevent lock in to a given application or vendor.
There are exceptions to these rules. For example, proprietary technologies can certainly be good candidates for selection when they implement open standards. While the Microsoft Exchange server is a proprietary system, it implements a number of open standards such as LDAP, IMAP, and SMTP that allow LIS to integrate data from the Exchange server into other applications such as Segue, WordPress, Drupal, and your favorite non-Outlook email clent. Google Apps for Education are another proprietary platform that can be fairly easily integrated with existing platforms and infrastructure.
Thus this historical commitment to open source and open standards does not preclude the use of proprietary software, but it does favor open source solutions when these solutions offer comparable functionality. The use of proprietary formats may be necessary and supported, but only if such formats adhere to open standards, can be edited by more than one application or offer unique functionality not replicated in other formats.