Open Source in Education Administration

Like any organization, schools and universities need resource planning software to take care of everything from human resources to budgeting. They also have unique needs, such as integrating with government financial aid programs, and nine-, ten-, and twelve-month payroll cycles for different classes of employees.

Colloquially referred to as “campus ERP” (enterprise resource planning), many educational institutions choose to integrate these functions with their student information system (SIS) platform that handles student eligibility and admissions, grades and transcripts, scheduling, as well as billing and disciplinary records. Considering the breadth of the requirements, open source can save educational institutions considerable money over proprietary packages and custom-written systems.

ERP systems from traditional proprietary vendors such as Oracle and SAP are popular, but so are vendors like SunGard that target the higher education market, integrating ERP and SIS systems into a tightly-connected platform. These systems are database-intensive, handling thousands of student records, dozens of concurrent client users, and processing regular reports. For institutions with the resources to customize existing code, open source ERP packages such as Compiere or Openbravo offer an attractive alternative to vended solutions, but home-grown solutions tend to dominate.


The premiere open source educational administration project is the Kuali Foundation, a non-profit consortium supported by more than two dozen universities and an assortment of hardware and software companies. The Kuali Foundation produces ERP, SIS, and research administration systems, as well as infrastructure components that can be used to build other services. The Foundation was first formed in 2004, courtesy of a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Its initial software was based on code developed in-house at Indiana University.

The most prominent Kuali product is the Kuali Financial System (KFS), which handles general accounting, purchasing, salary and benefits, contracts and grants, budgeting, and capital asset management. Future releases of KFS will add support for endowment management, an important feature for private institutions. The latest version is KFS 2.2, which was released in April 2008. KFS is written in Java and designed to work with the Apache Web server and Tomcat servlet container. It can use Oracle or MySQL as its database back-end.

The SIS package Kuali Student (KS) is a newer effort (launched in 2007) that currently handles curriculum management, and is developing support for admissions, enrollment, scheduling, and financial aid. KS is slated to make its first major release in early 2010. Both KS and KFS are developed using Kuali Rice, a modular application development framework created by the Foundation.

Kuali’s development model is member-based, with each organization that joins contributing dues to help pay developer and administrative costs. All of the software products are developed on a regular timeline with structured release milestones and a thorough review process. Despite the membership structure, however, all of the code is available under the open source Educational Community License. Several affiliated companies provide sanctioned commercial support contracts to institutions deploying Kuali software.

Open Source SIS Options

When Kuali makes a stable release of KS, it will no doubt make a big impression on the educational community by virtue of the Kuali Foundation’s support. Until then, there are several other projects offering SIS functionality.

openSIS manages student demographics, scheduling, attendance, grades, transcripts, and health records, and its parent company makes add-on modules to support additional features like disciplinary tracking, billing, food service, and bulk email/SMS messaging for emergency contact. openSIS is marketed both to universities and primary/secondary schools. A separate open source product called OpenIntel adds “data warehouse” features designed to serve an entire school district managing multiple campuses.

Many of the other SIS packages in widespread use target primary and secondary schools specifically, often adding features not found at the college SIS level, such as “parent portals” and report cards, and catering to the special government reporting needed for the US public school system.

Open Admin is a GPL’ed packaged managing student and family information, attendance, disciplinary records, grades, transcripts, report cards, and fee-based programs such as meals. It can manage several schools–such as a school district–with a single installation. It is Web-based, requiring Perl and MySQL or PostgreSQL.

Centre manages student information, eligibility, absences, activities, and grades, and includes a full scheduling system that can arrange courses and class periods system-wide. Add-on modules support government reporting features, disciplinary records, billing, and food service programs.

SchoolTool is supported by the Shuttleworth Foundation and is deployed in South Africa. It handles registration, attendance, grades, scheduling, and extracurricular activity participation. The Data Analysis and Reporting Toolkit (DART) was developed in the Bering Strait School District in Alaska, and handles student records, standardized testing, school improvement planning, and special education tracking.

Open source ERP and SIS systems are not as widely deployed as open source courseware–particularly at the university level–but that may change in the coming years. Unlike courseware, ERP and SIS are “mission critical” systems where virtually no down time is acceptable, and many schools have aging legacy systems built on older hardware and console clients. As institutions seek to replace these legacy products and upgrade them for Web integration and other modern features, the traditional vendors may find themselves facing competition from open source products for the first time.