College Taps Open-Source App to Solve Costly Paper Chase

Case Study: The UNC School of Medicine turns to an open-source system to reduce the costs of course materials.

The 160 first-year medical students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Medicine used to receive a boatload of printed course materials during their first weeks in school—four cases worth of paper per student, in fact.

Printing costs were sky-high. So it wasnt surprising when state budgetary officers zeroed in on printed course materials as a prime opportunity to slash.

But with printed materials no longer available, pressure was mounting on the electronic version of course materials, available on the SOMs intranet site. After pondering upgrading the course materials via a commercially available application, the SOMs Office of Information Systems decided to go with an open version of course management software, implemented by Cignex, a systems integrator specializing in open source and based in Santa Clara, Calif. Cignex would prove critical in helping SOM select an open application that would prove a scalable platform for future growth.

Going with an open-source application also saved the school plenty of money by avoiding the need for licensing fees, according to Charlie Hitlin, manager of application development and media services for the UNC-CH SOM. The SOMs open-source experiment also paved the way for other UNC-CH departments to get involved with the free code movement. Although the university hosts ibiblio, one of the largest mirror sites for SourceForge, an open-source software development Web site, it was not itself an open-source user.

"We really never had a large open-source solution before. UNC-Chapel Hill widely uses proprietary software solutions. Education has been slower to adopt open source," Hitlin said. Therefore, open source was not a clear path two years ago when the OIS began evaluating its options, he said.

In January 2004, the state budgetary cuts that eliminated the printing of paper course materials had stepped up pressure on the OIS, which for nearly 10 years, had maintained a Web site with electronic course materials for the first- and second-year med students. But the situation was hardly ideal—for students or faculty members. According to Hitlin, the 2,000-plus pages were static, and updating the content (which ranged from each lectures Learning Objectives to the syllabus for each course) required Web designers to manually link in the new information using Adobe Systems Dreamweaver.

Professors were not able to post their own materials, leading to delays in information being available online, recalled Kapil Thangavelu, Cignexs principal consultant. Students were reportedly frustrated at having to wait for course materials to be posted.

A SOM CMS (content management system) committee was formed in early 2004 to conduct a thorough needs analysis, with Hitlin among its members. Over the course of the next several months, Hitlin said the committee considered both commercial and open-source content management software. The committee evaluated Vignettes Vignette and Oracles Oracle Portal, which was attractive since the SOM already used an Oracle database as its back end, Thangavelu said.

/zimages/1/28571.gifRead more here about open-source CMS.

At the time, cost estimates for these systems ran to a quarter-million dollars—and that was just for software licenses. That figure represented the total amount that the school could devote to the entire project.

"All that would buy us was a plain-vanilla version. We wanted a solution that fit our process," Hitlin said.

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