Securing Our Children’s Data

How Open-Source Virtual Classrooms Provide Data Sovereignty

The issue of data security and sovereignty is a good way to illustrate the power of open source. We are all becoming more conscious of our online data and how it is being used. We are doubly concerned about our children’s online educational data. This isn’t just a question of transparency and fairness, but of how long the data is kept and where. As an open-source educational solution, BigBlueButton has several advantages over commercial systems because of its ability to be configured to meet the government data regulations of the country in which it is deployed.

The toughest data protection in the world is found in the EU, which has led the world for almost two decades in protecting the online data of its citizens. The General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), implemented in 2018, require that all data collected on citizens must be either stored in the EU, so it is subject to European privacy laws, or within a jurisdiction that has similar levels of protection. Since the EU’s regulations are the strictest in the world, this usually means that data must be kept in the EU.

Many cloud-based software solutions in the educational field do not meet these principles, or they are hosted in the cloud in countries outside the EU. This is a key factor that led education ministries in Germany and France to adopt BigBlueButton. To start with, they could ensure the sovereignty of student data by hosting the software in their own countries. But, as well, being an open-source solution, they could also adapt BigBlueButton to their own needs and to reflect their own data security laws.

The Open-Source Alternative

The fact that open-source software is free would seem to be its biggest advantage, but in fact this can also lead to misunderstanding. Many believe that you “get what you pay for”, thus open source must not be worth as much as expensive commercial packages. However, the biggest success story in open-source software is Linux, which now powers 96.3 percent of the top 1 million servers in the world, including 90 percent of all cloud operations and 100 percent of the world’s top 500 supercomputers. Clearly, this critical infrastructure is not being built on a second-rate solution.

In case you’re thinking that Linux is a special case, it isn’t an isolated success story. Open-source software is available in almost every field and application, from audio editing and theology to quantum chemistry and artificial intelligence. There are many reasons why the open-source approach to software development produces better software.

The Power Of Communities

Open-source software is created by communities of developers. When open-source code is released into the public domain people are not only allowed to use it for free, but they are also allowed to make it better. The original software serves as a starting point for many organizations, then they develop their own customized versions or, as is more often the case, create improvements that are then contributed back into the community. This is the classic Cathedral vs. Bazaar argument put forward by Eric S. Raymond – a project that has many developers working in parallel is stronger than one working sequentially.  

As the community grows, the power of the software also grows. For instance, BigBlueButton is now localized in over 55 languages.  Aside from English, each language was contributed by a community member that wanted to give back and make the platform work better for themselves and others.

This community development model tends to make the software more reliable. If there is a bug, you don’t have to wait for the software company to fix it, one of the community members will already have handled it. This has proven to be one of the biggest strengths of Linux. It also makes it more secure, for similar reasons. 

Because the emphasis is on shared development, open source is always based on open standards so that it is easier to get the software to interoperate with other software. For example, BigBlueButton follows the accessibility standards put forth by the The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, an open standard for helping ensure that software is accessible to all.

Under the hood, open-source software is also based on open, modular architectures that make it possible to easily plug in functionality from shared libraries. If there is a function you are looking for that doesn’t yet exist, chances are that others are looking for it too, which can lead to collaborative projects to create it. The community defines exactly what it wants, and the community of users gets to be the beta testers to help refine it. 

This leads to a robust ecosystem of developers, who are always communicating about the software, sharing ideas and code, and quickly maintaining, developing and extending the software. Open-source development tends to be faster, more agile and new features tend to better reflect actual use.

French Ministry of Education

Crowned the champion of open source in 2018, France heavily promotes the use of open source. The Public Transformation and Civil Service Minister, Amélie de Montchalin, spoke last November at an unveiling of the government’s development roadmap for open source. She emphasized that as relations between citizens and government are increasingly digital, open source fosters a “culture of transparency” necessary for “democratic trust”.

Reflecting this promotion of open source, the French Ministry of National Education has built a national platform of educational tools that includes BigBlueButton. They offer a government webinar solution built on BigBlueButton that will be part of the suite of digital services shared at the national level. The project pays “great attention to the voice of users, and relies on a network of contributors from all academies.” They mirror the French government’s promotion of open source software identifying the issue of keeping data within their country as an important goal of the project.

Batten-Wurtemberg Creates A Big, Blue Pool

In Batten-Wurtemberg, the educational ministry became a heavy user of BigBlueButton when the pandemic hit. They had 3,000 schools using Moodle, and they wanted to offer a solution for all of them to go online quickly in a way compatible with GDPR. In the end, using an open source BigBlueButton load balancer called ScaleLite, they scaled up to over 4,000 BigBlueButton servers and peaked at over 185,000 concurrent teachers and students.

Uruguay and Antel Develop Zero-Rate Internet Access

When the pandemic hit in Uruguay, all students within the country went fully online. The government was concerned about student privacy in online classes, but there was another issue: the bandwidth costs for access to online classes – which for commercial solutions meant students would be accessing servers outside of Uruguay.

Like Batten-Wurtemberg, they created a pool of BigBlueButton servers within Uruguay and went one step further: they partnered with the country’s internet service provider Antel to “zero-rate” all access to BigBlueButton. With open source, they offered their students privacy of online virtual classes with no extra cost to their families.

These are just some of the many examples of how the extensibility of open-source software, such as BigBlueButton, makes a more powerful educational software solution for many organizations.


About Blindside Networks

With over 2 billion minutes of recorded teaching time on our servers, Blindside Networks supercharges BigBlueButton, the world’s only open source teacher-centric virtual classroom.