February 8, 2006

Review: The Open Source Portfolio Initiative

Author: Bruce Byfield

The free software movement was inspired by the ideals of academic research, and in the last few years it has given some of the fruits of that inspiration back to academia. One of the largest open source projects in academia is the Open Source Portfolio Initiative (OSP) -- a specialized content management system, comparable to WebCT. Its functions are to assist universities in administering Web servers, teachers in preparing online course components, and both teachers and students in designing and using portfolios, which are academically oriented personal Web pages. Despite some flaws, the project fulfills its functions well.

Academic portfolios evolved from samples of work assembled by writers and artists. In the last five years they have become a major part of online learning. Instructors' portfolios usually consist of syllabuses for the courses they are teaching and samples of professional work. Students' portfolios show their efforts to understand course material, often by a combination of two elements: Reflections, or blog-like writing about the course material, and artifacts, which are related graphics or sound and movie clips. Both professor and student portfolios may also contain contact information and résuméés. Students' portfolios may be public, or shared selectively, and are often coordinated with online course components that may also include elearning modules and student presentations.

These are the needs that OSP is designed to support. OSP was begun in January 2003 as a joint project of the University of Minnesota, the University of Delaware, and The rSmart Group, a commercial company specializing in open source applications for education. The first version, released in July 2003, was built on top of a job application program. The second version, funded by a grant of $518,000 from the Mellon Foundation and matching funds from Indiana University and The rSmart Group, is built on SAKAI, an open source content management system for education. OSP 2.0.1, a maintenance release, was released in August 2005, and version 2.1 is scheduled for release next month.

Supported by educational grants and directed by a board of directors, the OSP is more formal than many free and open source projects. The project's charter and organization includes provisions for workgroups to focus on defined areas whose existence is limited to one year at a time. Those who wish to start a workgroup must fill out an application for approval that includes project milestones and the resources that the workgroup requires. Chris Coppola of The rSmart Group, a director of both OSP and SAKAI, explains that this formality makes the project "better able to commit to deadlines." Since SAKAI is registered as a not-for-profit organization, OSP can also "manage intellectual property and software licences with the same rigor as the Apache Software Foundation," Coppola says in a white paper available from the project's home page.

Participants in the project include more than 100 universities and other educational institutions. A core group of 15-20 programmers representing about a dozen institutions work on the project. Unlike the members of many free and open source projects, OSP members meet face-to-face twice a year. The core management team meets even more frequently, assembling every couple of months.

Community support is available through a mailing list, and commercial support from The rSmart Group. The project offers a guided tour online, as well as a demo server and downloads for both Windows and Mac OS X / Unix. The software is released under a licence that is based on Apache's and approved by the Open Source Initiative. Case studies (or, to be more exact, academic articles about implementing OSP) testify to the software's growing popularity.

Installation

Installation of OSP is not difficult. However, because the only guide to installation is a short readme file, the installation process requires either experience or patience. Key details, such as how to set up database passwords so that a Web server can access the database, are not even mentioned -- an omission that raises the possibility that inexperienced users might set up an insecure installation without knowing they have done so. Users without a minimal knowledge of Web servers and databases should be prepared either to experiment or spend some time on the OSP mailing lists in order to install the software successfully. Alternatively, they may want to enlist a system administrator at their university to help them.

Installation would be eased even more if Java 1.4.2 and MySQL 4.1 were included with the download -- but perhaps licensing issues makes that difficult. Instead, they must be installed separately beforehand.

Once you figure out the interactions between programs, installation is straightforward. On both Windows and Unix-based systems, installation is a matter of running scripts: One to install the software, a second to create a database in MySQL called "osp," and a third to configure the program and start Tomcat. Knowledgeable users may also be interested in changing the ports used for the Web server or to access the database, using different databases, or integrating OSP's password authentication with existing systems.

Using OSP

OSP suffers from the usual limitations of Web-based applications: A response time that varies wildly with the number of users, and interfaces that sometimes seem to involve endless drilling down through different screens. However, no program can do much about response times on an overloaded system. Moreover, OSP requires much less drilling down than some similar software. While exploring OSP, I had to drill down four levels only once or twice; most of the time, I only had to descend two or three.

This flattening of navigation is due largely to OSP's use of tabbed pages. This design gives students single-click access to both their own portfolios and Common Interest Groups -- courses that users are teaching or enrolled in, or campus services and interest groups to which users choose to subscribe. From their home tabs, labeled MyWorkspace, users can administer their memberships in Common Interest Groups, and receive a summary of announcements from each group to which they belong.

Because of the integration with SAKAI, users also have an array of other customizable online tools available, which are listed on the left menu of each tab.

All users can set their preferences for receiving announcements and emails. Students can take advantage of such tools as an online scheduler that can print to PDF, a Learning Matrix that records the status of activities in different classes or groups, a Drop Box accessible only to them and their teachers, and a résumé-building tool.

Teachers and administrators can add users to the system and define roles for other users. Just as importantly -- at least from the viewpoint of their students -- they can also create repositories of forms for online interfaces and of templates for portfolios and presentations. According to Coppola, collections of forms and templates are scheduled to be available with the next release, either on the Web or as part of the download, but for now, users have to create their own. Although establishing such repositories runs the risk of destroying some of the purpose of portfolios by enforcing too much conformity, that risk is probably outweighed by the advantages of giving students some guidance, at least while they are familiarizing themselves with the system.

Other available tools for teachers include ones for creating course syllabuses and grading student assignments. Teachers can also add chat rooms and email to online courses.

Manipulating files, of course, is at the heart of any content management system. With OSP, you can upload files directly or using WebDAV, or create files on the fly in a plain but serviceable HTML editor. All files are uploaded to a central repository, where they can be used for multiple purposes. Users can set the permissions for each file, as well as the copyright status of material -- a major concern at universities, especially with portfolios. The amount of space available to the current user is displayed in a bar graph in the upper right corner of the file manager.

Unfortunately, these tools are supported only by terse online help. Help contents is arranged by tool, and only secondarily by task. As a result, basic concepts are largely unexplained, and users may have to search to find what they want to know. Similarly, the instructions on the file manager for setting up WebDAV omit a guide for GNU/Linux users -- an admitted minority, but one that is probably at least as large as the OS X community on many campuses.

A recommendation

When I first came across OSP, I questioned the need for another free or open source content management system. Even though it is designed specifically for use in academia, couldn't an existing piece of software be tweaked just as easily?

Coppola explains that the development of OSP was determined partly by its funding -- specifically, its sponsors' preference for integration with other projects they support. Even more importantly, Coppola says, the OSP community includes leading theoreticians in the use of portfolios, which helps to keep development focused.

The advantages of this approach speak for themselves. OSP is one of the best-designed content management system for education that I have seen. Its attention to the user interface means both convenience and high scalability for end users, and the integration with SAKAI connects portfolios to other aspects of online learning. These advantages place OSP far ahead of its competitors, including commercial proprietary software such as WebCT. Although some might disagree, I recommend it strongly to educators, as long as they have some computer competence already and technical help to assist them in setting up the system.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com and IT Manager's Journal.

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