Tuesday, October 25, 2005


Another Good Idea Crashes and Burns...

Steven Krause’s blog recently mentioned a few free, open-source alternatives (Moodle, Sakai) to the big-market course platforms (WebCT, Blackboard, eCollege). Since I’m all about efficiencies, I jumped on the idea, and forwarded the names to my friendly local on-campus techie. (Course platform software is what we use as the architecture for online courses. Since online courses allow us to reach folks who couldn’t otherwise be reached, and to save classroom space during ‘prime time,’ we’re offering more of them each year.) Since we have to buy a whole new package this Fall anyway, and we have to retrain everyone anyway, I figure, why not save the licensing cost? We could channel the savings towards, oh, I don’t know, reducing our operating deficit!

But noo....

Annoyingly, a big-budget school could do this, but a tightly-budgeted one couldn’t. The rich get richer...

The critical variable is support. With a proprietary package, if something goes wrong, you have someone to call. With an open-source package, you don’t. If you have a significant number of in-house experts anyway, that’s fine; the U of Michigan could probably get away with it. But your local cc can’t, since we just don’t have the quantity of tech staffing to jump into the breach when the inevitable bugs start scurrying around. Which they will.


Seems like there’s a parable in here. When safety nets are privatized...

Well, two thoughts on this:

* When something "goes wrong" with an open source software product, there is a whole community of "tech support" folks out there because all of these products have lots of users who participate in different forums (blogs, mailing lists, web sites, etc.) who are more than happy to help out. So just because there isn't "some guy" at the end of a toll-free number doesn't mean there isn't tech support.

* I think "no to open source" is the default answer of IT people everywhere, I guess for a variety of reasons. If an institution pays (this is just a wild guess) $75,000 a year to Blackboard or WebCT for a product, they could pay a person (maybe even two) to do tech support for an OS product instead. But it's easier for managers to just pay a company than to pay a person (who might get sick and who needs bennies and goes on vacation and who might be hard to fire at some point).

The other thing is, in my experience at least, IT people know what they know and they know almost NOTHING else. So when you suggest something like "hey, why don't we look at this Moodle stuff?" their default answer is "No because that isn't WebCT" or whatever it is you're using.

From an individual user point of view though, the nice thing about all these products is I can use it myself (if I'm willing to do my own legwork, of course...)
WE have developed our own on-line course-management system, and so have the internal expertise to deal with it. That's a plus.

We are now proceeding with a major revision of it (and it's morphed into a 6-institution consortium). The problem is that this revision seems to have been designed without input from the users. That's a disaster.

ANY platform is only as good as the attention paid by the developers to the needs and interests of the users.
the solution that several cc systems are doing is using open source across colleges, which is important because it increases the amount of expertise they can put toward a problem. it is one thing for a small department to commit to two things, but it is whole different thing for a state system, with 40 or 50 such departments, to commit to open source. after a while, the provinciality of the local systems people breaks down and you get quality support at all levels, or so goes the theory.
There's also the option of using a vendor like rSmart. That way you are using open source software but paying for support. My institution (MIT) has it's own staff and we don't use rSmart, but it has always seemed like a fine 'middle path' between something like BlackCT and running Sakai on your own.
I would have to agree with steve. I'm the techie at my school and I'm ready to push for an open source solution. I've been given the go ahead to set up several on a trial basis. Honestly, I think educational institutions should use nothing but open source. They could save a ton of money and in most cases, there's an open source solution for everything.

In my experience, many IT people, especially managers, are used to out-of-the-box solutions. Even when they don't work that well. They're afraid of open source because they don't use it.

Funny thing, I was having an argument with a guy about open source. He said most of it "wasn't stable." I said, when was the last time the web site went down? He said, well, not in the 3 years he's been here. I said, funny, that's all built on open source software. Left him a little speechless.
I am both a community college dean and one of the local techies. Moodle is workable and can be done.

In my experience, its not the techies who have to be convinced. Most of us love the opportunity to get into something and monkey around. It's much more interesting than the more mundane and repetitive tasks we encounter daily. In fact, if your local techies don't exhibit this kind of curiousity and enthusiasm (i.e., geekiness), I'd be worried.

My problem has been convincing the faculty to embrace Moodle. Not so much, I think, because it is open source, but rather because it is different and unknown. We are about to upgrade to WebCT 6.0, and we will have to do a great deal of training and course revision anyway, but mention Moodle, and instructors eyes glaze over. They don't hear about it at conferences or in newsletters; ergo, it must not be any good.

If you can overcome this obstacle, Moodle will work. There is an extensive online support community, including commercial support through http://Moodle.com. Certainly problems sometimes occur, but in the three years I have been using Moodle to teach my own online courses, I have never had a debilitating problem. As adminstrator of my college's WebCT server, I wish I could say the same for it.

You might want to take another look.
I've used Angel, Blackboard, and Web CT. Angel is definitely comparable to Blackboard and far better than Web CT. Although it's open source (I'm pretty sure) I think that there is also some support available.
Hmm, Sakai certainly requires a good deal of support, however there are thousands of teachers running their own Moodle sites with themselves (and the Moodle forums:-) for support staff.

On our campus, we're finding Moodle less expensive to run than Blackboard Basic, especially when SIS integration and automatability of repetitive tasks (course setup, enrollment, etc.) are figured in to the equation.

There are also a number of small to larger colleges who have switched over with positive results, I have some of them listed here.

Moodle.com offers remote hosting and/or remote support, as do a number of other Moodle experts, just ask over on the Moodle forums and you will probably find a number of folks who can help. The level of support you get from WebCT/Blackboard for a basic license (your techie calls their support folks) can be much less expensive with Moodle (and if you don't like your support partner, you can change them without changing your LMS). The free support on the Moodle forums is quite good, also, every bit as helpful as the free support on the commercial LMS forums (which is often the most timely form of support for the commercial LMSs anyway:-().

Out of curiosity, what different OS LMSs did you look at and is your evaluation and how you figured the cost of the OS tools vs. commercial available? Did you get a quote for setup and support from a Moodle partner that was greater than your cost for your commercial package?
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