August 14, 2006

George Fox University teaching open source IT management

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

The world has plenty of open source programmers, but there's a dearth of information systems managers familiar with open source. Greg Allen, assistant professor of professional studies at George Fox University, is looking to fix that. To that end, the university is requiring undergraduate students in the management and business information systems program to solve real-world IT problems using open source software as part of the course requirements.

According to Allen, the difference between this program and others that make use of open source is that "we're actually implementing it, taking it from a management angle.... The object is not to make open source programmers, the object is to make effective managers using open source." Students in the program will conduct needs analysis studies to identify what an organization needs, and then proceed to a project management phase to set up a timeline for implementing a solution.

The students won't be the only ones benefitting from the hands-on experience. Allen says that the university will work on setting up solutions for non-profit organizations as part of the university's mission. "George Fox is a Christian institution, and we wanted to make a lasting impact on the world, which is why we choose to help non-profits."

As you might expect, assistance in installing open source software in and of itself is of little use to organizations without long-term support. The projects will include more than installing and configuring software, says Allen. Students will also create documentation and train users, and provide ongoing support.

In addition to using open source, Allen says that the project will give back to the community. Naturally, any software created or modified by the students will be available under an open source license, and Allen also says that the plan is to make course materials available under open source licenses as well. "If anything is created, it would be given back under an open source license. We just want to contribute any way we can."

The first project

The First Baptist Church in Newberg, Ore., will be the first non-profit organization to benefit from the project. Frank Lednicky, pastor of the church, says that he's happy to be working with the university. "We're so crude here [technologically], we're not even in the '90s, much less the next century. We have a shared network, as opposed to a server, and we've learned to make do the best way we know how. If there's a way to bring us into the '90s, much less to 2006, we'll jump at it."

The church does have a Web site and uses computers in its operations, but it's not getting the maximum benefit out of the technology. For example, the church has no file server, and updating the Web site can take weeks because the changes are made by a staff member in Word, and then emailed to a church member who makes the conversion to HTML and updates the site.

Lednicky says he'd like to see a "much more interactive Web site" with podcasts and downloads, to allow members to "feel connected to the body" when they cannot attend church. "In an information society, you cannot over-communicate. The church should be more effective than anybody else, but quite the contrary -- we're usually way behind."

Seeking sponsorship

The cost of open source licenses is effectively zero, and the student participation also means that organizations have no labor costs in implementing open source solutions -- however, it's likely that organizations will need new hardware at some point, and that's going to require sponsors.

So far, no one has stepped up to sponsor the program, but Allen says that the university will be soliciting grants. In fact, this is another learning opportunity for George Fox students -- Allen noted that the school of professional studies has a class in grant writing that will be using this project as an assignment.

Choosing open source

Allen says that he hasn't always been an open source advocate, but that he "came to the light" after leaving his job at Enron Broadband Services as training director for network operations. At Enron, Allen says that the attitude was "whatever you need, just spend the money," but in the university environment "we don't have unlimited funds and neither do they [non-profits]. Open source is a great fit."

Despite the focus on open source, Allen says that they're not going to force open source on any of the non-profits if the software doesn't meet the requirements; if proprietary software is the only way to do the job, then that's where they'll turn. "If they want to use Microsoft Office, we'll show them OpenOffice. We can train them to use OpenOffice, but we won't push it.... It's a customer service issue as well."

Allen says that he thinks open source will meet the needs of most organizations, but ultimately it's up to them to choose the right tool for the job. However, unless the organization can get grants or other funding to pay for proprietary software licenses, cost will likely be a deciding factor in choosing open source over proprietary solutions.

The program is designed for non-traditional students who are likely to be working while attending college. Students will attend class one night a week, and will also need to meet on six or seven Saturdays. The course should take about 16 months to complete. Students will need to have 78 credit hours completed in general coursework before being admitted to the program, and will receive a bachelor's degree in management and business information systems upon completion.

Participating in George Fox University's program, says Lednicky, is "a real win-win" for the students, university, and the church. "I'm not as much interested in being groundbreaking, in exposure or notoriety ... but getting people to work together for that which is in the best interest of all involved."

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