Open source in education – something has got to change

I was really delighted by a few things that cam out of my WebCT & Wiki rants (parts I & II).

First up there were some excellent and insightful comments (including the link to Leigh’s ‘perfect’ reducto LMS), then there was the fact that the co-creator of WebCT (who really needs a blog – one time only free hosting offer from IncSub extended!) as well as the engineer of the ‘WebCT Wiki Integration Toolkit’ left really very reasonable (considering my frothing state) comments and finally there’s posts like Rachel’s (from MMU who have got a seriously cool blog!) make me bring so many things together at once that I end up writing really long, rambling and ultimately paragraph sized sentences far too late at night, like this.

First up considering the WebCT / Wiki thing I guess as long as we’re on the page where”WebCT isn’t assimilating open source, just integrating with it :-)” then that’s not so bad. It could even be a little bit good if we were taking it that one step further where WebCT had a simple to use system for integrating with tools of your choice (please correct me if this is already here and you don’t have to be a powerlinks developer to do this). In other words, if this is WebCT moving towards offering an administrative / content delivery product which spits out multiple streams of data and allows for different levels of authentication on the OSS tools that we want to use, then that’s pretty cool. I don’t want to subvert the backend student admin / digital object management (well, only a bit with the doms :o) but I do want to subvert / make subvertable the teaching and learning components and environment which remains, in Vista or Campus, absolutely horrible.

But having said that Rachel puts forward an interesting contention and asks a very valid question. First up she argues that the OSS reality isn’t particularly efficient or effective:

“We couldn’t do everything we want to do with any of the current OSS offerings and our current staffing levels. Yes, the annual licence is expensive – but so are staffing commitments which would enable us to run Moodle with the same level of features and scalability”

Which is not something I’d necessarily agree with – both in terms of expenses and of using Moodle. Although I host multiple instances of Moodle and although I couldn’t be happier than having an OSS system like this available (as with Sakai) I have a pretty strong suspicion that they are based on flawed models. Also, as I’ll get to, I’m not sure if, to be quite frank, a University should be delighted that their T&L system takes so little work or that you couldn’t replicate that level of scalability with OSS and that if you did really have a look at these systems… I reckon you could chop half the features and walk away quite happy.

But that’s probably another post (or three).

And secondly she asks:

“what have you got to say about my institution’s site licensing of Microsoft products, when there are perfectly good OSS alternatives?”

Probably not more than has frequently been said by Harold Jarche but all the same I’ll have a go.

I contend that our universities, schools and other educational institutions are wasting enormous amounts of money and making huge mistakes using commercial software where open source software could do as good as or better a job.

I’m not arguing for a total ban on proprietary software, not possible (yet) but let’s start by getting rid of MS Office for Open Office, editing our Audio with Audacity, unzipping and more with 7-Zip, FTP-ing with Filezilla, emailing with Thunderbird (we still use paid Eudora… how funny is that :o), drawing with Inkscape, creating pdfs with PDFcreator and more. Heck, roll on over to the OSSWin project to find hundreds of ways that you could save enormous amounts of money.

And to entice teachers with using them, why not take the huge amount you’ll save, divide it in half and give that half to those who’ll take you up on it. Add that to the amount of development, support, feedback and community that that’d add to open source and, well, things would be different.

Let’s put our efforts, belief, time and commitment into products like Moodle, or WordPress MultiUser or any one of the open source online communication platforms out there. True, it might take an extra couple of people, true it might initially not be so earth shatteringly cheap that you feel you can forgo the opportunity of having someone else to blame and all those delightfully located yet content-free conferences. True it is certainly *harder*. But you’re doing a good thing for all concerned.

I *despise* the way education is turning into a cash cow for vendors. We should be spending what little money we have on teachers, genuinely valuable resources and teaching and learning. WebCT, Blackboard etc. can have a role in that but it can’t be at the same cost as it is now and it can’t be as an OS-esque application (we already have that, it’s called the internet).

We have terrible online teaching and learning tools and we’re paying through the nose for them. Something has got to change.

19 replies on “Open source in education – something has got to change”

  1. I appreciate your commentary, James. It echoes a discussion a colleague and I were having last night, but we were putting it a little more bluntly – publicly funding learning institutions should not be whoring for any corporation. There is no need, and it violates the mission of learning institutions to create and share knowledge.

    I also think that open source is poised to make great inroads, but anyone who supports it must be a strong advocate to get it being used before corporate software becomes the institutional standard. Moodle is terrific, but at schools where many teachers already use Blackboard, it becomes an uphill battle against an institutionally entrenched software package.

  2. I started to comment, but blogged it instead. In a nutshell:

    Here’s I think the underlying reality that probably infuriates James and people in similar positions. The cost to do this [finesse the open source products] is fairly small, probably miniscule compared with the cost of all these different insitutions paying hefty license fees for commercial alternatives. However, and here’s the sticking point, that cost is still way more than any individual institution would be paying for commercial choices.

  3. Although I come in late on this conversation – having just picked it up from Stephen Downes – I would like to throw in an “the emperor has no clothes” perspective. I apologize, before doing that, for not having read thoroughly all the previous discussion.
    That said: Why must the education estabishment have a tech infrastructure at all? WiFi will soon paint the planet. The tech needs are for individual mobile computers for each faculty member and student plus some machines to get knowledge content on to the internet. We have already been through billion dollar rounds of wiring the schools – mainly ending up with administrative systems. The education establishment should be helping to drive movements like WIMAX:
    In the USA alone we are spending $4+ billion annually on textbooks we don’t need anymore. Let’s shift that money to teachers, digital knowledge content and WiFi.
    I know the child who said the emperor was naked made a simple statement, but I don’t mind seeming childish. Open source is certainly much, much better than corporate dominance – but going 100% wireless and relying on the internet is even simpler.
    For over 1000 years the scribal caste in Egypt scorned phonetic characters as it maintained itself by insisting on the complex hieroglypics for which scribes trained for years – until Egypt became a lesser culture. There is a lesson there about not sustaining a tech class in education.

  4. “editing our Audio with Audacity”

    — yeah like right, a bit like saying lets do mass transport with a mini….

  5. Commenting on Judy’s comment: Perhaps I have misunderstood it, but isn’t the point of an LMS is to help to organise the learning experience? I think it was Diana Laurillard who said once (and I can’t find the exact quote, so don’t all shout at me) something to the effect that nobody ever got a qualification by being set loose in the library for three years. The idea is good, even if I have misquoted: a qualification is valued because it is provided, assessed and moderated by an organisation which is respected. The LMS or some equivalent will still be needed, even if WiFi and other technologies offer better access to it and to the wealth of materials it directs students to. We can’t rely on the internet (or a library) because there is a role for teachers (I’m not going to get into a discussion of what that role is here!) to mediate, to explain and to assess outcomes.

  6. now replying to James: ok, you may be right with my broad sweeps/swipes about budget, so if you can tell me how to migrate over 1100 course areas from a commercial LMS to Moodle, including staff support and training, for less than an annual licence fee for one of the big LMS products I promise to disagree with myself! My back of the envelope calculations lean towards a commercial product for the next couple of years. (unfortunately by then we’ll probably have over 2000 course areas to migrate).

  7. Rachel, as one who is not an academic, I claim no expertise in LMS development. My comment above was sparked by a more primary issue which I think causes great confusion. Your comment goes right to the crux of a major online learning debacle: not distinguishing between the library and the wanderer therein. What you say helps me clarify a distinction I have been battling for nearly a decade. From 1997-2001 I headed the content gathering at, where graduate students collected and organized 150,000+ knowledge links for their subjects. It was all open and free – getting 4 million hits a month by 2000. ProQuest bought it and took it offline, which is another tale of the open content squelch.
    The pressure was always on me at HomeworkCentral to build not a library that any LMS could tap into, but to turn the collection into lesson plans and curricula that were one or another type of LMS. The pressure was to interface the knowledge only when it was imbedded in a teaching or study format. It seems false to choose between the two; they both are usually needed. But the overall availability of knowledge should not be limited by its use by LMSes.
    WiFi lets the library exist openly and globally. There will be precocious learners who will wander through it and get educated. LMS approaches of different sorts will tap into the WiFi “library” in all sorts of different patterns.
    The bottom line for me with the internet has been fascination with the network nature of meaning in knowledge which can be mirrored by the network structure of the open internet. Algebra links cognitively to calculus and ecology has links into biology, chemistry, and plate tectonics. The pattern imposed by an LMS is NOT the same necessarily as that of the math or ecology itself – and NEVER a comprehensive reflection. YET, the virtual manifestation of a subject can be BOTH the same and comprehensive (at least theoretically). The LMS usually presents only a few of many possible patterns. Thus the need for the open knowledge network where knowledge will pattern itself in ways limited only by its possible meaning. That network is needed in the same way as a library has been and a good LMS will point students into that network at appropriate nodes just as learning systems have sent students to libraries with topics to research. The open content network is a lot more fun than a library because the knowledge interconnects virtually uninhibitedly in the internet AND can be connected dynamically in new patterns by the learner. WiFi lets the growing global student network interconnect just as freely into the knowledge, and that is a beautiful thing. (If you are still with me, I go on more about these ideas at
    Rachel, I don’t feel I have answered you well in such a large subject, but hope there are some useful thought in what I said.

  8. I think there are fascinating things in what you both have said, wonderful stuff and wish I had more time this morning to explore this in more depth (feels like, it’s a post coming on anyway).

    Just briefly though, and partly tongue in cheek (but also quite seriously) if anyone is looking at migrating courses now is the time to do it, you’ll be better off in the long run, pedagogically far sounder and it won’t cost you as much. Promise.

    And at the same time this discussion about the library / course is fascinating.

    Something that another blogger put me straight on 3 years ago though springs to mind.

    You can facilitate learning, encourage learning, provide environments and structures in which learning can take place and more.

    But you can’t manage it.

    Which is what most traditional LMSs try to do.

  9. James, thanks for your insights, which make great sense. I am not qualified to comment on the LMS side, but have done a lot of looking at how knowledge imbedded in network nodes can manage itself cognitively following laws of the new small world network theory. I did this little Flash Emerger to demonstrate the idea:
    I also have a set of webpages on “Connectivity” linked to the Emerger.

    There is huge internet educational value in ACCESS, like a library. There is an emerging, fascinting second great value in AGGREGATION. LMS is a species of aggregation – but I think aggregation also happens spontaneously and thereby generates patterns from which we learn. Dynamic connectivity always happens when a person starts moving around among links following patterns of his thinking. Perhaps cognitive networking is a dynamic expression of the knowledge itself.

    I agree that putting courses online now is a major step forward. My own, more limited, effort at is to provide access on a daily basis to fresh examples of superior knowledge nuggets and networks now free online.

  10. “If you can tell me how to migrate over 1100 course areas from a commercial LMS to Moodle, including staff support and training, for less than an annual licence fee for one of the big LMS products I promise to disagree with myself!”

    Without wanting to pick on Rachael in particular, I’m always fascinated by comparisons between proprietary and open source software. The pattern to look for is a complete and thorough listing of all costs associated with the open source software and yet only comparing it with the licence fee for proprietary software. Obviously you need to look at the Total Cost of Ownership for all potential solutions.

    In this particular case it would appear that if you pay for a proprietary licence fee you don’t need staff to ensure it runs well, you don’t need to train staff to use it well, nor do you need to migrate courses or staff skills (with a rather major upgrade to version 6 and its shiny new relational database technology in the offing, and a subsequent axing of the WebCT Campus *codebase*, this seems doubtful for those using WebCT).

    The one year horizon for return on investment also worries me, as does the need to abruptly shift from one product to another with no overlapping transition period but neither of these show the classic problems that face those with the sudden need to compare proprietary and OSS software solutions after years of comparing only proprietary products.

    Looking at OSS through a proprietary lens is always going to make it look odd. Rules of thumb such as “cheaper licence fees means worse at X” (‘scalability’ being my favourite thing that open source *obviously* can’t do), or “the glossier the brochure, the better the pedagogy” no longer apply, if they ever did, and should be challenged whenever they are employed in the context of Open Source software.

    I do however have sympathy with an earlier comment by Rachael on the MMU blog that “The annual licence cost is easier to find than the staffing costs for such a [open source] system.” Sadly, that’s all too often the case, whether the staffing is needed to properly support and run a proprietary or an open source system.

  11. D, I was looking at our particular case. We already have 300 staff trained, with 1100 courses between them, using a huge range of the features of the proprietary software and a few third-party options that we provide as well. The proprietary LMS/VLE which we run does not require much system administrator input and their support service is good. Replacing that AT THIS MOMENT would be expensive. As well as the increased system administration, we’d need to keep two systems going during a transitional period, and my experiences with IMS exports so far (although limited) indicate that transferring those 1100 courses would be a time-consuming process. Then we’d have to retrain all our staff.

    I’m not comparing total cost of ownership of an OSS with the licence of the VLE. I realise that we have spent resource getting to where we are, but because that’s where we are, I have to calculate the ‘out of the box’ costs of an OSS alternative to compare with the current running costs. However, as you say, a major change to the proprietary system could be a good point for change as it will involve training and system admin changes.

    The main factor for us to move to OSS would probably be a really easy course/module migration strategy. If we hadn’t already got a lot of experience with the proprietary option, our individual situation would be different.

  12. My overall impression of this discussion: You say “Open Source Software” but you mean “Freeware”. One should keep in mind that nothing in the world is “free”. There are business modells in OSS also, but they are more difficult to understand.

  13. What a great discussion! The issues being discussed are the same with all types of systems, not just LMS. In putting my corporate hat on as D said one of the biggest issues in the long term total cost of ownership, both types of solutions would come out about the same depending on how you do the math. Now I have not done the math but it is more a gut feel and you just have to look at the competion between Microsoft and Linux for the lowest TCO and depending on the report either one wins.

    The biggest factor in choosing any form of technology for any organisation is to ensure the correct fit, based around features, culture (technology and non-technology) and cost. Every “largish” organisation goes through the issues discussed when they begin to think about moving platforms and the discussions get even more heated when you are moving a core business application, like LMS for education. In the end it does not matter if you choose properitary or OSS as long as it fits a clear long term strategy for the business, the issues happen when this does not happen. In looking from the sidelines I could decide that WebCT and Blackboard have had early success within the education market as first generation software and the real battle is going to be if they can retain this position as new enterants enter with second generational style tools.

  14. One of the interesting themes I feel is missing from this discussion is well, the er, ‘learner’. Anyone remember them?

    Whilst typically we might pat ourselves on the back with the quality of our existing LMS (be it proprietary or free) we are perhaps less ‘open’ to the quality (or lack) in how that LMS assists the learner to, well, er, learn.

    Talk to many and you might just get the feeling that learners are succeeding DESPITE the limitations forced upon them by current popular LMS provided. When you’re own students are by-passing the existing LMS or creating their own work-arounds in order to gain what from their perspective is a more wholesome and useful learning system, then you have a challenge.

    Discussion of costs to change typically ignore the effectiveness of the present system. Looking at the problem solely from the academic’s perspective or solely from the finance dept perspective or solely from the open v closed perspective seems to me to be ‘incomplete’. Shouldn’t, all things considered, the most important aspect of selection be whether the existing or potential LMS actually enables the learner (remember them?) get the job done, easier and more effectively with a more positive outcome? Why not ask the students how dysfunctional or functional they find the options of Blackboard and WebCT?

  15. Hear hear Marcus!

    As it happens that’s exactly what I did last year, talk to something like 90 undergraduate students, individually about how they felt about WebCT etc.

    And interestingly enough they were pretty darn happy.

    Happy because they got their lecture notes online.

    That’s it, seriously, c’est tout. Got about 2 mentions of online communication (and they were negative) and nothing else.

    And that’s where I disagree with you a little bit, I think that the vast majority of students (certainly in Australia) have fully bought into the consumerist model of higher education. So asking them isn’t really going to help much!!!

    The problem is that we reinforce that through pedagogy, teach-to-scale (through inadequate funding) and woeful models of environments (read ‘LMSs’).

    I agree that the conversation needs to shift away from whether you’re going to use a commercial LMS or an opens source one to ‘do we really need a frickin LMS at all?’

    Or is this just me being a radical, impractical, punkish blogger who don’t know sh*t ;)

  16. Our institution was offered a WebCT Campus Edition license several years ago for $500 a year. Folks got hooked, then WHAM! Out comes the new pricing structure and lo! our institution must now pay multiple thousands of dollars per annum to keep this product mainlined.

    Drug dealer analogies aside, an LMS does provide a simple template for online teaching and learning. Remember, most university faculty have never taken a course in (effective) teaching and learning so they really need all the bloody help they can get.

    What I see from my institutional perspective is that WebCT has sunk all their money in marketing their product and not enough money in the design. They seem to fail to understand that simple is better (i.e., Moodles rapid ascendency).

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