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Open Source Course Management Systems Get a Shot at Tenure

by Kristin Shoemaker

Open source software encourages learning, the exchange of knowledge and information, and project improvements that rely as much on its users, and its developers’ colleagues, as it does the developer. It’s not unlike education. Ideally, learning is a continuous cycle of taking in, processing, and giving back, with modifications.

It’s puzzling, then, that the adoption of open source software has been relatively slow, even in higher education.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, open source course management software is starting to gain a foothold. And not overly surprising is the fact that the “free as in cost” concept holds very little significance in the decision to use open source software.

Blackboard, Inc. is currently the heavyweight of the course management software field. The software is closed by nature, which is certainly limiting for many schools, but most likely isn’t the reason Blackboard’s grip on the market is slipping. According to The Chronicle, it has much to do with the software’s inflexibility when it comes to connecting with related course sites made with open source applications, and even more to do with Blackboard’s disquieting lack of customer support.

The Chronicle focuses primarily on Blackboard’s efforts to hold on to its existing customer base, but highlights some of the great points (and misconceptions) surrounding the adoption of equivalent open source platforms (such as Moodle and Sakai).

Many arguments I’ve heard (and been involved with) regarding the deployment of open source software in educational and non-profit settings revolve around the idea that if the software has a bug, or an issue with hardware, or if a new feature is needed, there is no one to call. Yet nearly everyone who has ever worked in a school technology department that uses specialized closed source software can attest that just because there is a number to call, help is not necessarily forthcoming. New features (and fixes) might not be delivered on time, or at all — and even if the technical staff at the institution are the most capable programmers on the planet — they are, essentially, powerless to deliver a feature if the vendor can’t (or won’t).

By and large, I’ve found that many administrators (even those that don’t deal with technology) like the idea of open source. The sticking points that are almost inevitably raised are the previously mentioned customer support issues, the ultimate scalability of the software, the learning curve required (for the systems staff, but moreso the faculty and students), and how difficult the software is to maintain and administer. There is also the issue of cost (yes, cost) of deployment over certain time frames.

None of these issues are small, but neither are they insurmountable. My former employer made the decision to go open source roughly two years before being able to even begin planning how the system would be implemented. It is a matter, for many educational institutions, of testing, researching, and timing — “will we?” isn’t asked nearly as often as “how will we?” and “when will we be able to?” It takes planning to time the deployment with existing license expirations and any required hardware upgrades (or reassignments and retirements).

The fact that open source course management applications are being used more frequently now in a wider range of institutions than even two years ago seems an extremely good sign for projects like Moodle and Sakai. Though their market share is small, the increase is by no means insignificant. Timing is everything, and the Blackboard Next Generation release is still in mock up, with no estimated release date for a final product. What remains to be seen is how effectively open source courseware takes advantage of hardware and licensing life cycles.

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