At UMass Amherst, we have significant computing teaching capacity via a network of Office of Information Technology computer labs scattered across campus and in the exciting “Learning Commons” which resides in the W.E.B. Du Bois Library. These labs provide Umass Amherst students with access to many of the most important information technologies available today.
But clearly, a -- if not the -- core mission of universities like UMass Amherst is to introduce and expose students to new ideas and emerging issues facing society. In recent years, there has been an increasing interest in organizations and society in general over the development, deployment and use of Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FOSS). In some countries, national, state or local governments are starting to mandate their use. Around 2004 it was clear that a potentially important “society and technology” issue was emerging centered around open access to source code, open standards, and interoperability.
With generous support from IBM that began in 2004 and continues today, the CSBS' Open Source lab was established as a resource to expose students in disciplines beyond computer science and engineering to these issues. We see this lab as a complement to the other computing labs on campus – a kind of “satellite Learning Commons” -- that provides a place on campus where faculty and students can explore the capabilities and limitations of Free/Libre and Open Source Software. It also provides a “testbed” for emerging software that could possibly be eventually included in the standard suite of software available in more “official” UMass Amherst computer labs.
In addition, the lab is a resource that works closely with the College of Social and Behavioral Science's Science, Technology and Society Initiative, National Center for Digital Government, Social and Demographic Research Institute and the all-university-wide Information Technology program. It also is the home for the UMass Amherst Student Linux User Group. In addition to providing an open source technology lab for teaching and student work, to a limited degree, we support CSBS faculty research. For example, we host a “wiki” and content management system server where faculty can manage collaborative research projects and have used the lab computers to support specific research needs.
But we should be clear:
The mission of this lab is not necessarily to promote the use of open source software over proprietary software, or to send the message that open source is necessarily better than what is found in commercial settings. In fact, we expect that a very high percentage of open source software have or will fail. It is our belief that the future of computing technology in organizations and society will not be separated along the lines of "open source versus proprietary" but rather will shake out along the lines of what software solutions meet end-user, cost and interoperability (e.g., open standard) requirements.
But given most of the software available in UMass computing labs are proprietary packages, there was a need on campus for a lab where students and faculty can test out and use open source solutions. Through this, we hope users can get exposed to this category of technologies and better understand the (positive and negative) issues of cost, usability and interoperability that information technology users face today and will continue to face in the future.
-- Charles Schweik, Michael Ash, UMass Open Source Lab co-Directors