A Rs 38 crore mandate awarded by the Union HRD Ministry in June to an affiliate of Redmond-based Microsoft Corp for developing a flagship web-based education platform is coming under increasing fire in the academic circles — both for the manner in which the contract was handed out and on the choice of proprietary software over free open source options already being deployed by premier educational institutions in the country.
Microsoft was selected as the technical partner for the HRD ministry’s SWAYAM (Study Webs of Active-Learning for Young Aspiring Minds) platform based on the recommendations of a “technical committee”, presumably after the tendering process for selecting a system integrator for SWAYAM —a MOOC or massive open online courses platform — floated thrice through the e-procurement platform since November last year failed to elicit any response. While the Ministry of Human Resource Development has cited the decision of a “technical committee” behind its choice of proprietary software over open source software and that selecting Microsoft does not run foul of the rulebook, the deal has raised eyebrows over the lack of objective criterion on how the decisions were taken in the first place.
The choice of proprietary software, entailing costs of Rs 38 crore and more for tools such as SQL (structured query language), is being questioned on the grounds that the selection of proprietary software on payment basis was done despite a clear option of going in for open source platforms such as Open EdX. For instance, Open edX — an open-source, not-for profit platform floated by MIT and Harvard University that was released as open source in March 2013 to act as the WordPress for MOOC platforms — is used across at least 126 universities and organisations globally. Even more intriguing is the fact that an MoU is already in place between IIT Bombay and edX, under which edX released complete platform code in open source. The signing of the MoU in June 2013 was actually facilitated by the Ministry of HRD. Open source platforms such as Open edX allow users to use plug-ins to expand the core functionality, thereby imparting tremendous flexibility when it comes to scaling up the platform or modify it to suit the specific requirements of a particular college or university. Since January last year, IIT Bombay decided to opt for Open edX and launch a customised version called IITBX as an extended online educational services for the benefit of Indian learners and training workshops for teachers, wherein the premier engineering institute has added significant functionality to the Open edX platform to create and offer MOOCs. Similarly, IIT Madras had a Google-based Course Builder platform ported in their own computer infrastructure while IIT Kanpur had a homegrown platform called MOOKIT, based again on open source software.
Even if the debate over open source and proprietary software were to be set aside, there are varying interpretations on why the three tenders floated since November 2015 failed to get any response. According to sources, there was an industry consultation facilitated by PwC, the consultant appointed by the ministry, in October 2015 and a pre-bid meeting in December 2015. However, in the pre-bid meeting, most of those present decided not to make a bid on the ground that there was no clarity in the mandate and operational requirement itself. The reason for the lack of clarity, experts say, is reflected succinctly if the RFPs (request for proposals) floated for SWAYAM on November 21, 2015, and an earlier one floated for the proposed National Career Services portal (on August 13, 2014) were to be kept side by side and analysed — a discernible similarity in the two architectures is difficult to miss even though the two projects for which RFPs were issued are quite different. NCS is simply an econtent platform while SWAYAM is a far more advanced MOOCs initiative.
In response to specific questions sent by The Indian Express, R Subrahmanyam, Additional Secretary -Technical Education, the Ministry of HRD, said that Microsoft’s selection was done after the tender for the selection of the System Integrator for SWAYAM had been floated through the e-procurement platform three times but returned no qualified bidder. “It was therefore decided to ask AICTE to take up in-house development of SWAYAM portal by selecting suitable platform. A technical committee assisted by consultants M/S PwC evaluated both the open source and proprietary software and decided to use the proprietary software keeping in view the needs of this large enterprise model with complex inter-connected processes. After this, all the proprietary software has been evaluated and the Microsoft Platform has been selected as best suited based on objective criteria. The development is currently going on the Microsoft Platform by a team of developers, led by Microsoft.”
On the issue of why open source options such as Open edX or Google Source Builder were not considered, Subrahmanyam said: “All that appears ‘free’ is not always free!”. He said “the option of using edX has been evaluated carefully. Since the intellectual property of the courses placed on edX is lost for the country, it was not found to be a viable option. There are also substantial payments to be made to MIT for placing the courses on the edX platform. The decision of the government was also to have a National Platform for the MOOCs.”
He, however, admitted that in the Microsoft deal, further payments might be envisaged for proprietary tools that might be required to fully operationalise the package. “There are certain tools that were required for development of the IT platform. They have been procured using the DGS&D (Directorate General of Supplies and Disposals) rate contract,” he said in response to the query.
Experts counter the arguments raised by the ministry of the ostensible lack of scalability of open source software with respect to the needs of “large enterprise model with complex inter-connected processes” by specifically citing the example of enterprises such as the BSE switching from proprietary hardware to open source — the first major financial institutions in India to go open source by deploying an open source platform. Corroborating the improvement in the transactional efficiency from the switch, a BSE executive told The Indian Express: “For two decades, we were constrained by the proprietary technologies and found that old infrastructure had limitations in innovation, apart from the elevated cost of upgrades.” “To improve this, BSE collaborated with Red Hat to build an entirely new trading system on open source technology, powered by Red Hat Enterprise Linux Operating System. Post this development and its deployment, BSE has increased the volume from 10 million orders a day to 500 million plus orders a day, cut hardware costs by 66 per cent, and has also increased its trading speed from 10 milliseconds to 6 microseconds,” according to company information.
Also, among the open source platforms, edX itself is run by over 126 institutions across the world, with several countries and private entities announced their adoption of the edX open source platform to launch new initiatives. There involve EdRuX in Russia, France Universite Numerique and MOOC France Tv Education in France and nearly a dozen Chinese universities joining to form an online education initiative in China under the XuetangX platform. BITs Pilani is among the private sector institutions that run edX-based courses.
On the specific assertion that AICTE was doing “in-house” development of the MOOCs platform, sources in the know said that the AICTE has no software development team of its own and the Council’s own governance system has been developed and is managed by an outsourced agency (L&T Infotech). A query sent to the AICTE on the issue remained unanswered. Details about the composition of the technical committee that, assisted by PwC, decided to use the proprietary software were unavailable. Specifics of the “objective criteria” cited by the Ministry of HRD that was used to select Microsoft for the deal could also not be accessed.
As regards the loss of IPR argument flagged by the ministry, experts point to the fact that all content created using Government of India funding is Open Educational Resources under the relevant Creative Commons licence and, as a result, the question of IPR simply does not arise. On the similarities in the RFPs for SWAYAM and one floated earlier for NCS, Viplav Baxi, the chief product architect for an edTech startup Fliplearn Education said: “The similarities (in the RFPs) are fairly outrageous. It’s clear that the consultants who placed these advertisements do not know what MOOCs is and possibly the other project also! MOOCs is necessary but it’s important to approach it the right way”.