Kuali: A Primer for Community Source Administrative Systems in Higher Ed

I was recently invited to attend a user conference – Kuali Days in Austin, TX – and was struck by the disconnect between Kuali’s relatively low profile and the excitement expressed by the institutional representatives attending the conference. Before getting to any analysis of Kuali and its prospects, however, I need to lay out the basics to help me keep the terminology straight.

My focus in consulting and writing is on educational technology – those systems that directly impact a student’s educational needs. While there are a range of administrative systems within the Kuali portfolio of projects, I will place more emphasis on those systems which are closer to the student experience.

Based on interviews at the conference, the core value that Kuali provides are:

  • Administrative systems designed for specific needs (for higher education, by higher education); and
  • Dramatically lower hard costs for administrative systems.

What is the Kuali Project and Foundation?

In 2004, a group of technologists were looking to collaborate on a shareable Financial System based on a homegrown system designed at Indiana University. Within the CIC (a forum for technology collaboration mostly amongst the former Big 10 schools), there were several discussions about the nature of sharing. Even though the source code and design would be shared, who would own the software and intellectual property? Who would manage common development? These questions led to the concept of a third-party organization.

The Kuali Project was created in early 2005 based on founding partners Indiana University, The University of Arizona, the University of Hawaii, Michigan State University, San Joaquin Delta Community College, Cornell University, NACUBO and the rSmart Group.

The Kuali web site describes the expansion from the initial project to the Kuali Foundation.

As interest peaked in the Kuali Financial System project, new ideas began to form for building additional administrative software under the Kuali paradigm, and in 2006 Kuali Foundation, Inc was formed to facilitate collaboration and handle cross-project concerns such as financial management and software licensing.

The need for pre-award research administration components was recognized as sufficiently weighty to deserve its own project, and in 2006 Kuali Coeus (KC) was born, based on MIT’s Coeus, and received a Mellon grant.

In 2007 Kuali Student came together, receiving a $2.5M grant from the Mellon Foundation.

With multiple Kuali projects, an effort began to separate common code components out of each project and into their own middleware project called Kuali Rice. In 2009, Rice became a fully-funded project with its own Charter, Board of Directors, and steering committees.

Why Community Source?

Community source is a form of open source that is based on institutional, rather than individual, participation and adoption. As most people at Kuali Days liked to state, this is software for higher education built by higher education.

Administrative systems are almost exclusively sole-source (there is only one student system for an institution) and therefore based on institutional decisions. Instructional systems such as the LMS allow the option for multiple systems within an institution and can be based on faculty, departmental, college or division decisions as well as institutional decisions.

As Chris Coppola, CEO of rSmart, explained quite succinctly, community source becomes an important option as you move up the technology stack since the developers are farther away from the users of the system in question. The classic open source projects lower down the stack such as Linux and Apache involve developers who use and understand the software. For complex administrative systems, you need a method to directly include system users – registrars, financial aid counselors, university accountants and administrative staff – in the design and decision-making of the open source software. Community source provides a structure to allow both institutional decision-making and end-user design participation.

Although technically separate organizations, Kuali and Sakai are brothers in arms as community source projects for higher education, and both benefited from Mellon Foundation grants early in their development.

What are the Kuali Projects?

There are 8 projects within the Kuali umbrella of administrative systems, and each project has its own governance and set of partners. Institutions can participate in the Kuali Financial System, for example, but not be involved in Kuali Student.

Within higher education, the general definition of the enterprise resource planning (ERP) suite centers on the big three – student, financial and human resources (HR). Rising in importance, however, is research administration; however, commercial research administration is mostly a niche product that is not (yet) part of the higher education ERP.

  • Kuali Financial System (KFS) was the original Kuali project from 2005, and it is directly based on the homegrown Indiana University financial system. KFS 1.0 was released in 2009, and there are currently ~20 institutions running KFS in production.
  • Kuali Coeus is the research administration system from Kuali founded in 2006, and it is directly based on the homegrown MIT COEUS system. MIT’s COEUS had ~50 institutions that have adopted the pre-Kuali version, and currently ~20 have either adopted the Kuali Coeus or migrated from the original MIT version and are in production.
  • Kuali Rice is not a functional project but rather the middleware suite of products that allows for the various projects to be tied together with a common development framework. Rice was based on the internal design from KFS, but it has since been established as a separate project. There are currently ~20 institutions running Rice in production.
  • Kuali Student (KS) is the centerpiece of Kuali – it is the largest and most complex project and the most central value to higher education. KS was conceived in 2007. Unlike KFS, Coeus and Rice, Kuali Student was designed from the ground up. The full suite of modules within Kuali Student are scheduled to be released between 2012 – 2015.
  • Kuali Mobility was created in 2010 as a framework and set of tools for mobile device application development. If you’re going to EDUCAUSE this year, you can get some experience with Kuali Mobility as the EDUCAUSE mobile app is based on this framework.
  • Kuali People Management for the Enterprise (the HR component, named KPME) is being released in modules between Dec 2011 – 2015.
  • Kuali Open Library Environment is a library management system created in 2010.
  • Kuali Ready is a business continuity planning tool created in 2010.
The Mellon Foundation provided partial funding (typically $2 M – $2.5 M per project, for a total of $6.5 M) for several of these projects, including KFS and KOLE. In January 2010 Mellon shut down the grant program. Member institutions and partners continue fund the projects.
Scott Jaschik, writing at Inside Higher Ed from 2009, describes the fist major milestone as Kuali systems expanded beyond Indiana University.

While the open source movement has taken off in course management systems, with Moodle and Sakai as alternatives to the dominant Blackboard, the administrative side of the house has been almost entirely corporate. While some colleges use home-grown systems, the norm has been to use any of a number of vendors for systems that allow colleges to manage and report on budgets, billing and many other functions crucial to running a college. These administrative software systems cost millions of dollars to install and manage, and any malfunctions can be hugely frustrating to institutions.

Last week, in a move that could lead to a shake-up of the industry, Colorado State University and San Joaquin Delta College both went live with the first large-scale installations of full financial systems produced by the Kuali Foundation, a consortium of colleges that have pooled resources to create open source systems that could compete with corporate offerings. The University of Arizona is well on its way to following, as is Michigan State University. Cornell University is planning for a likely conversion. Indiana University has been involved from the beginning and has tested many modules, which are expected to expand. The University of British Columbia is also expected to be using Kuali soon.

Steve Kolowich also wrote an article at Insider Higher Ed, this one from 2011, that describes Cornell’s adoption of the Kuali Financial System. Both IHE articles are worth reading, especially to see the reactions from the commercial vendors that will likely compete with Kuali moving forward.

Why is this set of projects so quiet?

By comparison to Sakai, Kuali has certainly been less visible in the higher education community. Consider some of the ratios of search hits through Google for Kuali Higher Ed / Sakai Higher Ed (122k : 1.35M), or the number of Inside Higher Ed articles since 2009 for Kuali / Sakai (2 : 12). By any quick measure, Kuali has not had a high profile.

Yet at Kuali Days, there were a record 834 attendees from 134 institutions across 8 different countries (rising steadily since 200 attendees at the Spring 2007 event). Although this was my first Kuali Days, I was struck by the consistently eager and energetic attitude of attendees, especially by institutions in production, mid-implementation, or just kicking the tires.

One significant event, based on my interviews, was Gartner’s February 2011 report “Overview of Kuali Administrative OSS Offerings for Higher Education”. This report has influenced institutions considering whether to join Kuali, in that it gives them a feeling of security that Gartner backs the concept. In this report, Gartner stated (via University of Connecticut summary):

Higher Education institutions considering the replacement or adoption of a point solution financial system or a research management system would be well-served to evaluate these alternatives (referring to KFS and COEUS) along with their commercial counterparts. Such systems may not yet address the needs of every institution, but Gartner believes that the viability of several Kuali offerings appears solid. Joining the current partners and getting a “seat at the table” is one way to ensure that an institution will get a system that covers its mandatory needs.

In a future post I’ll explore the prospects of Kuali for impacting the higher education community and the challenges that Kuali faces to meets its mission.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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One Response to Kuali: A Primer for Community Source Administrative Systems in Higher Ed

  1. Great article, Phil. I am looking forward to see how groups like Kuali and other can be VIABLE alternatives to content delivery. This is a lot of noise in this space, hoping to begin to hear more music than just horn blowing. Sounds like Kuali is getting ready to do so.

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