SCoPE: WebCT & Blackboard Merger: November 21-December 4, 2005

Will Open Source Be a Cheaper and/or Better Solution?

Will Open Source Be a Cheaper and/or Better Solution?

by Elizabeth Wallace -
Number of replies: 16

In the opening discussion topic, we recorded out reactions to the news of the WebCT/Bbd event--let others debate whether it?s a merger, or a takeover. Almost immediately, we began to question whether this would encourage institutions to turn to Open Source solutions, such as Moodle.

Dan rattled a few cages by suggesting that Open Source is no cheaper than commercial packages, and went on to support his position with thought-provoking detail. Richard was inclined to agree, but Cindy argued that the investment in Open Source would benefit society. Andrew questioned why we weren?t putting teaching and learning issues and the need for innovation ahead of administrative costs.

Let?s pursue this question of whether Open Source is the best solution, in the face of what Alan calls ? behemoth like? proprietary platforms. Decision-makers at all our institutions are wrestling with this question. Dan has reminded us that ?one size does not fit all? so what are the issues where you work? Has the WebCT/Bbd event changed your organization?s attitude towards Open source? What criteria are guiding the thinking? Will Moodle or Sakai win the day?

In reply to Elizabeth Wallace

Re: Will Open Source Be a Cheaper and/or Better Solution?

by Dan O'Reilly -

As I mentioned on the other thread, the first thing that came to my mind when I heard about the BB takeover of WebCT was that this is a practical joke.  As soon as I realized it wasn't, my next thought was Moodle!  We need Moodle to protect us from the vicissitude of the free market system.  Open source was on the mind of many individuals using WebCT (probably also those using BB, but as it is a BB takeover, I don't think that they are as concerned as the WebCT community), as the discussion list devoted to the BB-WebCT-MERGE ( To subscribe, go to:  http://home.oln.org/cgi-bin/wa?SUBED1=bb-webct-merge&A=1 ) has spent the last 3 weeks debating the value of open source solutions (mainly Moodle).

That debate made me rethink the prima facie advantages of open source (the BB-WebCT-Merge list had a long discussion about free beer!, using that metaphor to represent/not represent the freedom to use Moodle).  From my initial inclination to Let's get Moodle!, I now believe that the arguments for open source are not as simple as I first imagined (such is life).  In fact, I now believe that it may not be in the interests of some institutions to go open source; it may hurt their (hate to say it) competetive advantage. 

 

In reply to Dan O'Reilly

Re: Will Open Source Be a Cheaper and/or Better Solution?

by Dan O'Reilly -

Talking about LMS providing a competitive advantage is a bit facetious; nonetheless, one of the reasons that administrators support initiatives such as advances in new technology is to either make sure that their institution does not get left behind and/or they can use the technology to demonstrate to students that there is an advantage to attending their institution.

Nonetheless, as noted on this discussion list there are a myriad of other reasons for using LMS.  I started using it because I enjoy working on/with computers, I saw that using computers could enhance my courses (this has definitely been the case with logic), and I believed that it would facilitate a better learning experience for students, as well as a learning experience that most students would prefer.  I conducted a survey of all students using WebCT at TRU 2 years ago (at that time we had about 6,800 WebCT student accounts) and 73% (5 point scale, with 73% agreeing strongly or agreeing somewhat) of students responded that if they had a choice between a course with WebCT and one without, they would select the course with WebCT.  [For those interested the following is a link to that survey.  It compares responses obtained from all students using WebCT to my Critical Thinking class( http://www.tru.ca/ae/php/phil/oreilly/webct_survey_phil111/phil111_survey_compared_general_survey_05may2004.htm ).]  I think that when done properly, courses with LMS will be preferred by most students. However, the survey definitely pointed out that if LMS is done poorly it upsets students. 

At our institution we are now undergoing a review of the LMS platforms that we have implemented, plus we are reviewing other potential platforms.  Currently we have WebCT 4.1, a test server with Moodle, and access to a server with WebCT 6.  With the advent of the merger of WebCT and BB, this review process has taken on new focus.  The committees interest has definitely shifted from maintaining our commercial platforms to going the open source route.  I believe that before the merger there was less interest in open source, and one of the reasons was the concern that a platform such as Moodle would not be able to handle a large production environment. 

One issue of major concern is the quiz/test environment.  Will Moodle provide the same level of security that is currently provided by WebCT for testing?  Will it be able to handle 100 to 200 students taking the same quiz at exactly the same time?  We are currently attempting to answer questions of this sort.  What about other institutions?  Are you also undergoing review processes?  If you are could you share what you are doing in the review process?

In reply to Dan O'Reilly

Re: Will Open Source Be a Cheaper and/or Better Solution?

by David Le Blanc -
I think that when institutions are considering among different LMS's that we need also to consider how the implicit design of the LMS will affect the design of courses and may direct the instructional choices (strategies) made feasible.

Dan said:
I think that when done properly, courses with LMS will be preferred by most students. However, ... if LMS is done poorly it upsets students.

I agree heartily with Dan's statement. So much attention is devoted to the tools used for delivery with little concern about how to best exploit these tools in teaching and learning situations. The assumption is that faculty, as domain experts, are already skilled at engaging their students in meaningful learning activities. Simply by training the instructor how to use the LMS tools and supporting them with mounting their course content should ensure successful learning experiences. mixed This approach, however naïve, appears to be the norm at many institutions. With the countless workshops offered to faculty on how to use their LMS tools, why is there a paucity of discussion about teaching strategies and practices within the new environment?

I suppose that a lot of this comes down to time. The immediate concern will be to get the course mounted and the faculty member(s) comfortable with the LMS navigation and administrative features. However, if the discussion stops there, are we not leaving too much to the LMS? If this is the case, I wonder how much the implicit design of the LMS actually dictates the design of a course's instructional activities and general flow. thoughtful
In reply to David Le Blanc

Re: Will Open Source Be a Cheaper and/or Better Solution?

by Corrie Bergeron -

David asked, "training the instructor how to use the LMS tools and ... mounting their course content ... appears to be the norm at many institutions. With the countless workshops offered to faculty on how to use their LMS tools, why is there a paucity of discussion about teaching strategies and practices within the new environment? "

Few institutions have a committment to pedagogical innovation.  Most faculty simply teach the way they were taught, and have no incentive to change.  I mean that quite literally.  There is ususally absolutely no incentive in the form of release time, extra pay, decreased duties, etc. to take on the additional cognitive load of learning and trying out a new strategy, much less a whole new way of teaching.  Many faculty still lecture for 90 minutes twice a week for sixteen weeks, with a 70-minute written exam at midterm and another for the final. 

Once in a while a bright-spot faculty member will want to try something innovative, and may actually find the time and energy (and perhaps grant money) to follow up on it.  But generally, it's gigabytes of shovelware Powerpoints.  

In reply to Dan O'Reilly

Re: Will Open Source Be a Cheaper and/or Better Solution?

by Cindy Xin -
I started to reply Dan's postings in the other thread two nights ago. I had to force myself to stop when I realized that it was 2:00 in the morning. I seem to get sucked in by the discussions at SCoPE. I have to be careful so I have enough energy to keep my day job.

OK, back to the topic. I sang my praises for the freedom, innovations, and the leverage power open source has to offer. Now I want to come back to Dan's concern over Moodle's capability of enterprise systems integration and scalability. These are very legitimate concerns. Moodle offers excellent adaptability when it comes to teaching and learning and capability for developing new tools. I think this is a point most people agree with. However, I have learned that this very strength is also its weakness when it comes to enterprise integration and scalability from sources outside of this discussion. Now I've heard Dan saying this here too. To be fair, the Moodle community is trying hard and has done quite a bit to address the issues. However, there are still real concerns.

About Moodle's scalability, there is a very good thread of discussion at moodle.org. It seems to me, they are confident that Moodle can support tens of thousands of users. If I remember correctly, the largest installation known today supports around 40,000 users. I?d appreciate it if someone can verify this for me. However, there is the question whether it can support hundreds of thousands of users. Dan, you say you are concerned with its quiz/test environment, both its security and its scalability. I'd go to moodle.org and ask this question there directly. If you get an answer, share with us here.

About Moodle?s capability for enterprise systems integration, I don't know how much has been done to address the related issues. I haven't checked the Moodle.org forum to see what kind of discussions is available. It'd be worth a try.

Now back to the more general level. I mentioned the education reflected architecture. Michael Feldstein argues that an education reflected architecture should have a user-facing layer that optimizes easy tinkering, and a developer-facing layer that allows easy integration and scalability. Can Moodle's architecture be evolved to offer not just the user-facing layer but the developer-facing layer too? Can WebCT/BB be? Who is likely to do it in the long run? These are some of my genuine questions.
In reply to Cindy Xin

Re: Will Open Source Be a Cheaper and/or Better Solution?

by Ken Udas -

Hello,

 

I just thought that I would jump in quickly to verify that Moodle is supporting some large installations. I was with the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand when we adopted Moodle as part of the NZOSVLE project, which is probably the installation to which you are referring. The team there feels that there will be no trouble scaling to the UK Open University and beyond. If you are interested in learning a bit more about some of those activities you might want to refer to Eduforge.org where the project is hosted (https://eduforge.org/projects/nzvle/).  

 

Integration, I think, is a more complex topic which depends on what is meant by ?integration?. We have been chatting a bit about integration and interoperability at SUNY (State University of New York). The discussion has resulted in the development of the LMOS (Learning Management Operating System) notion, which is being floated at https://eduforge.org/wiki/wiki/lmos/?pagename=HomePage.  If you have been following along with Michael Feldstein?s blog, you probably already have a flavor for this. My point is that at the level of integration needed for the LMOS, we felt that Moodle was not well suited.

 

 

Cheers  

In reply to Ken Udas

Re: Will Open Source Be a Cheaper and/or Better Solution?

by Elizabeth Wallace -

Thanks for adding this information, Ken. And thanks, too, for reminding us that these matters are being discussed on an international scale. If someone participating in SCoPE attends the Online Education Berlin Conference, perhaps we can get a report on one of the presentations that is taking place this coming Friday, Dec. 2:

According to the summary:

A panel of experts will discuss the implications of the open source
movement at the OEB 05 Plenary Session "Open Standards, Open Source and Open Content - the Shape of Things to Come" on Friday, December 2, 2005, 9:30 - 11:00. Two of the speakers at the session are Randy Metcalfe,
Manager OSS Watch, UK, whose subject is "Managing Institutional
Engagement with Open Source" and Dr. Vijay Kumar, Assistant Provost and
Director of Academic Computing, MIT, USA, who will talk about "Open
Strategies for Educational Innovation at MIT".

Further information on OEB:

http://www.online-educa.com/en/
In reply to Elizabeth Wallace

Re: Will Open Source Be a Cheaper and/or Better Solution?

by Salvor Gissurardottir -

I do think Moodle has everything to win and Blackboard/Web CT has everything to loose.  I have been teacher in Moodle and Web Ct and a student in Blackboard environment and it is very hard to understand what you are paying for... Moodle is in many ways easier and better tool.

An added bonus was that several of my students were able to set up their own Moodle for their communities (small rural communities in Iceland).

The recently announce decision by Open University in Britain that they will use Moodle for all courses will have impact in Europe. But it is difficult to change a big system and there is a lot invested now in WebCT courses and teachers are reluctant to go over to new systems if it is not much better.

Open source is really the way to go for software for schools.

In reply to Elizabeth Wallace

Re: Will Open Source Be a Cheaper and/or Better Solution?

by Andrew Feenberg -
This is a great discussion from which I am learning a lot. But I have some basic problems with the orientation.

Cheaper or Better, that is the question. Or rather two very different questions. We've heard a lot about integration and with it risks to security and subservience to a dominant vendor. But what about better? Better cannot be a synonym for cheaper and more efficient. Surely better has to do with educationally better.

Dan mentioned that you can track failure and respond in an integrated system and that is surely important. But does this trump all the good things that happen in small classes between students who are interested and their teacher? As for his comment that educational research shows that large classes are just as good as small ones, can anyone confirm this from memory? (I except those extraordinary classes run by teacher-performers. I never had one of those great big classes, but I've heard of them.) Even in large classes, sections are provided with grad student instructors to get things down to human scale. What about on the Internet? Is this a major focus of training? I attended one training session in which interaction in online forums was only mentioned because I asked about it. "Putting your class online" seems to mean doing the equivalent of handing out mimeos with html. How much "better" is that?

I worry that we are beginning to think the Internet is mature, and not just in online education. This is a very new, flexible and rapidly changing technology. It is full of gaps and opportunities. The LMS business may be mature but not online education. Take a look at this forum, for example. Is this really the best we can hope to do? It is hardly improved over newsgroup software available 20 years ago, unless the little pictures of the participants is a big deal. I think there is a lot of progress to come in service to pedagogical ideas of faculty and students. If we must sacrifice some degree of integration to preserving the flexibility for that innovation, I'm in favor of it.


In reply to Andrew Feenberg

Re: Will Open Source Be a Cheaper and/or Better Solution?

by Dan O'Reilly -

Just a couple of comments in response, to make sure my original point wasn't misunderstood.

Dan mentioned that you can track failure and respond in an integrated system and that is surely important. But does this trump all the good things that happen in small classes between students who are interested and their teacher?

Definitely not.  I am not arguing against small classes.  In fact, philosophy (my discipline) thrives on small classes.  Despite this, all courses should have a web presence, even small classes.   And clearly, a presence does not mean that tracking will necessarily work for all. 

At one level, I am arguing that certain subjects and disciplines, especially first/second year courses, lend themselves well to online delivery/support and tracking.  These subjects can gain much from the ability to track.  And, for most institutions, it is retention at the first and second year that is of paramount importance. [Though I am portraying the issue from the point of view of the institution, I like to beleive that it is a correlative relation.  Retention, hopefully, will lead to a better educated student.]

But even for small classes tracking can work.  One can add a discussion component which enables tracking.  Discussions force students to express their thoughts in coherent sentences.  This is a challenge for a lot of students; one that is worth engaging.  Forcing them to interact online will get them writing.  Getting them writing online will enable tracking. [Hopefully it is a correlate relation.]  In fact, one issue about responding to a Moodle module, everything is tracked, much more than WebCT.  I found that very interesting.  [WebCT is the pits for tracking; Moodle is excellent.]

As for his comment that educational research shows that large classes are just as good as small ones, can anyone confirm this from memory?

Well, it was not a point from personal experience, it was a point from empircal research in the area.  Nevertheless, if you want personal, I liked exceptionally large classes because I did not have to worry about answering a question.  If I did not raise my hand in these large classes, I knew that I would not be asked a question.   I liked that big grin.

Finally, I do not believe that the Internet is mature.  In fact, if anything we are in the Wild West of the Internet.  On the one hand this makes it extremely exciting and on the other hand it makes it extremely disconcerting, even dangerous.

Time to mark essays.

Dan

In reply to Dan O'Reilly

Re: Will Open Source Be a Cheaper and/or Better Solution?

by Andrew Feenberg -
Thanks for the clarification. I had large classes in Paris as a student. These classes were so big and so anonymous that not only did we have no worries about being asked questions, we could hiss the teachers if we didn't like them. How's that for student centered pedagogy!
In reply to Andrew Feenberg

Re: Will Open Source Be a Cheaper and/or Better Solution?

by Frances Atkinson -

I work in the IT department so I'll comment on this question from that perspective.

Is open source cheaper? I think it is well established knowledge that savings in commercial license costs are generally offset by the need for more development expertise in the IT department. On that score, I would say no.

Is open source better? It depends. Either could be fine or a nightmare, or various degrees in between. It is impossible to say without digging into the specifics of a particular product.

Is open source likely to be more or less reliable than a vendor product? Either may or may not have a responsive off-site support structure, but a local installation of a open source system is likely to be more dependent on the local expertise. A vendor will always supply a consultant, albiet at a price.

As for a non-IT perspective, it seems to me that for the typical activities that go on - designing courses, supporting instructors, supporting students and so on - I see no reason to assume that open source is inherently better than commercial or vice versa.  I could see that the presence or example of a particular feature in any product might influence things. For example the presence of a wizard to faciliatate a first cut at course design might reduce the need for startup support for instructors, while the absence might increase that need.

In reply to Frances Atkinson

Re: Will Open Source Be a Cheaper and/or Better Solution?

by Andrew Feenberg -
I agree with the main point of this comment, that one can't judge apriori which is better and cheaper, commercial or open source. It is necessary to evaluate each product on its merits.

My question, which I keep posing, concerns the evaluation. What is most important? Is it things like single sign-on and integration or is it educational and pedagogical value and flexibility? This discussion seems mainly to focus on the former but in my opinion the latter is at least as important.

After all, we are talking about an educational environment. If it were a building we would of course take very seriously structural integrity and plumbing but it would not occur to us that these were the only important questions to address. Given that we are responsible builders and will do the material basics right whatever the design, the fundamental variable concerns such things as classroom size, which in turn depends on a pedagogical choice that ought to be made by faculty or at least in consultation with faculty.

We need such a focus in our discussion of online educational environments and this requires faculty input, faculty input not just about the matters of most concern to administrators and computer center personnel but to teachers and students. Of course, if faculty don't rise to the occasion it is up to others to make decisions for them. (And faculty have certainly been known to disappear just when you need them!) But they should be included and if necessary prodded to participate in the discussion in terms of their own concerns.

The result will be buy-in by the principal educational actors who, believe me, are as difficult to herd as kittens. Without this buy-in there is a considerable risk of wasted money, time, and conflict. This is the story at several other Canadian institutions. We should avoid repeating this history if we can.
In reply to Andrew Feenberg

Re: Will Open Source Be a Cheaper and/or Better Solution?

by Cindy Xin -
Andrew, you raise very important points regarding faculty involvement. This forum is meant to involve all stakeholders in higher ed, especially the practitioners, as the name of the SCoPE (P for practice) indicates. The voices of the faculty members need to be heard and they must speak up. Sylvia and Liz are trying hard to get faculty to participate. It is wonderful to see engagement from professors like you who have been actively involved in online education since its early days. Democratic participation from all actors definitely makes this forum more meaningful for everyone.
In reply to Andrew Feenberg

Re: Will Open Source Be a Cheaper and/or Better Solution?

by Frances Atkinson -

Re "What is most important? Is it things like single sign-on and integration or is it educational and pedagogical value and flexibility?"

I don't think it's either/or. I think that single signon and integration with the student registration data (so that students can be automatically imported into the correct courses) are an essential lowest common demoninator for a system that is being used by tens of thousands of students. Otherwise an army of clerks would be needed to accomplish these tasks This would probably mean that, no matter how good its features were, the system would not be used widely.

Similarly a system that is being relied upon by tens of thousands of students for absolute deadlines (such as quiz deadlines) has to meet a certain standard of reliability and performance. For security of confidential data, such as grades, certain technological security standards must be met.

To use your analogy of classroom size, even if the room met the size requirement to suit the choice of pedagogy, it wouldn't be acceptable if it didn't have heat and light, sturdy seats, probably Internet connectivity, and so on.

I think that the minimum bar of single signon,  integration, performance and security should be used to shortlist systems, if full campus availability for calendar courses is the objective. Beyond that, pedagogy considerations should take over in the selection of the system.

There will always be courses with specialty needs and early adopter faculty who need to try something new. It may not be possible to accommodate these and the mainstream in the same way. It seems to be this is life as it should be in a university and the main challenge is not to confuse the two sets of needs. 

In reply to Frances Atkinson

Prioritizing features (Re: Will Open Source Be a Cheaper and/or Better Solution?

by Corrie Bergeron -

I agree with Frances - it's both/and.  But there may be an issue with ones definition of "educational flexibility."  Most educational programs are course-centric.  They have been for decades, and will likely remain so for a long time to come.  Within that overall context, both COTS and OSS systems provide a great deal of pedagogical flexibility.  I've been using Blackboard for close to seven years, and there's very little that it structurally prevents me from doing.

However, many "forward-thinking" educators view the course model itself as outdated and restrictive.  They argue that it encourages silo thinking rather than holistic understanding, and so forth.  So to that group of users, a course-centric system may be automatically viewed as lacking flexibility because it assumes that students are enrolled in courses.

Alice MacGillivray raised a related point in a recent discussion on SMEs.  She's asked me to reference it here, since she seems to be unable to post in this thread.  http://scope.lidc.sfu.ca/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=61  The gist of her question is: 

It seems to me that the intent of any course shapes the -- dare I say ontology and epistemologies -- behind the course.  However, other courses I have designed/taught are about facts and best practices and are structured and assessed very differently.  How do we manage the tension behind a drive for consistency in everything from structure to look-and-feel with the inherent differences in the nature of knowledge and ways of knowing in different fields?

IMO, it's fundamentally a moot point.  It doesn't matter.  Regardless of the content domain, regardless of the method by which learners/participants will learn/construct ever the content/knowledge,  before you begin the process, you will have (or should have) defined the condition for a successful outcome.  That's going to be true whether you're teaching a set of facts to be memorized, or facilitating a vision/values/mission session.

There are simple-to-use tools that can help clarify the priorities of different stakeholders, for example, the Preference Matrix.  Draw a grid with all the potential features along the top and down the side. Each square in the grid represents a forced choice between the option at the top and the one at the side.  The options that garner the most votes "win."

It is crucial that ALL stakeholders have input, though, if for no other reason than to be able to say that everone got to have a say, even if they didn't get their way. 

Corrie