Thursday, October 20, 2005

Open Source for Law Schools?

A recent article from Inside Higher Ed ( discusses the purchase of WebCT by Blackboard, a move that potentially means that Blackboard will monopolize the course management industry. I was struck, however, by the discussion of the "open source challenge," as the author puts it. Apparently a number of schools, either individually or as part of consortia, are shifting away from commercial course management software and pursuing the open source route. One open source option, Sakai, was founded by Indiana University, MIT, Stanford, and the University of Michigan, and thus has substantial resources behind it. A foundation has been created "to give the project a permanent infrastructure," according to the article. Sakai is currently being used by 80 colleges and universities in the United States and abroad.

The article also talks about the dilemma of open source--do I pay now for commercial software, or pay later to have my systems administrator customize a "free" open source product? We have had this discussion many times in my own library, and we have usually opted to go with the open source option simply because of the flexibility it gives us; this might not work in every library, but it works in ours.

It will be interesting to see whether the movement toward open source course management takes hold in law schools. Many of our schools currently use TWEN, which is a very useful tool, but makes our students see the world through the Thomson/West prism. A number of students have told me that they assumed that the law school preferred Westlaw because we had chosen to use TWEN! These students then see no reason to learn or use Lexis. We always explain that use of TWEN is not an endorsement of Westlaw, but the point is lost on some. I would love to see an open source alternative to TWEN that had its functionality, but was not branded with the name of a CALR vendor. Does anyone know if such a product is in the works?

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