Open Source in German higher education

German universities call on government to support Open Source

Published on: 07/12/2020

Over the course of 20 years, alliances of German public universities developed Open Source learning software that now power 90% of German universities. They now call on politicians to support the creation of the next generation learning software.

In the year 2000 the German state of North-Rhein Westphalia saw the opportunity to get its publicly funded universities together to strengthen Open Source learning management systems (LMS) that would not only better fit their needs, but also would not incur yearly licensing cost for each of the universities and in addition create a local ecosystem of private enterprises that could support the development and maintenance of the software, tells Thomas Wenk, since 2019 managing director of CampusSOURCE, the European Commission OSOR.

The organisation CampusSOURCE was founded to facilitate this development. It organised the university community in Germany around common projects, financed development and even developed its own Open Source licenses to address legal conflicts between widespread Open Source licenses and the German legal order of the day.

Need for public support

Today, the success of Open Source LMSs cannot be denied, with 90% of German universities using an Open Source LMS, such as ILIAS, Moodle or Stud.IP. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the need for a comprehensive, cost-effective and legally-compliant online learning solution. Cornelis Kater, department head at the Leibniz University of Hannover, has in a blog-post outlined that the ability to work together on immediate solutions for practical problems was crucial when universities had to transfer all of their teaching resources to online as the pandemic emptied auditoriums and seminar rooms from one day to the next.

But public funding for learning software was greatly reduced, as did the state of North-Rhine Westphalia shutter their project in 2006. Today, a broad alliance of universities in Germany is calling on politicians to recognise once again the need and the opportunity for public funding to support funding in a coordinated and sustainable manner, across the German states as the current funding barely is sufficient to finance operation. The alliance maintains that the returns for giving public funding will greatly outweigh the cost and developed a catalogue of demands, among them:

  • Make Open Source software an essential criterion in public calls for tender.
  • Recognise that free open source software is a vital part of the German educational landscape and that it should be further developed from within the educational institutions. 
  • Support and leverage the "communities" for open source software at educational institutions. They possess invaluable know-how on digitisation, which has been built up over the past 20 years.
  • Implement an open and interoperable infrastructure for all open source LMS for the exchange of free educational resources.
  • Provision public funds for the continuous improvement of free and open source platforms.

The next generation LSM

Besides ensuring that ongoing systems function well, plans for a bold new concept for an LMS, NextGenLMS are being supported by CampusSOURCE. The project, led by ETH Zurich is attempting to determine how an LMS in times of social media, cloud computing, machine learning, life-long learning, competence oriented learning and increasing diversity among students should look like. Thomas Wenk from CampusSOURCE told OSOR: “From my point of view the NextGenLMS is for campusSOURCE a very exciting and innovative back-to-the-roots project - to develop with the collected experiences of the last 20 years a completely new vision for the next 20 years - open source lifelong learning support transferred from the ground up into our future”. The development is also supported by Germany’s state long-distance learning university FernUni Hagen. CampusSource organised a first workshop in August and first results are due to be published in Open Access journal eleed soon. Interested parties can contact the team at ETZ Zurich.